By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
Here we are at the start of a new year, and if you are a craft beer lover in Alaska, that can only mean one thing: It’s time to start thinking about Alaska Beer Week and the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival.
Alaska has plenty of beer festivals that take place around the state at different times of the year. There’s one in Haines in May, another in Fairbanks in July, and we now have one here on the Kenai Peninsula in August. But the granddaddy of them all takes place each year in Anchorage across a weekend in January.
This year’s Great Alaskan Beer and Barley Wine Festival is the 17th annual and will take place Friday and Saturday, Jan. 20 and 21. This beer event has gotten so big that it’s spread beyond the original two days to encompass beer events taking place from Friday, Jan. 13, through Sunday, Jan. 24, which is now known as Alaska Beer Week.
During Alaska Beer Week, breweries from all over the state converge in Anchorage. There are beer dinners, tasting sessions, chances to meet the brewers, a huge home-brew club meeting — you name it. There are so many events that there is now a special website, akbeerweek.com, dedicated to just keeping track of them all.
The festival itself takes place at the Egan Convention Center and consists of three sessions. The first is Jan. 20 from 6 to 10 p.m., the second is from 2 to 5 p.m. Jan. 21, and the last is that evening from 6 to 10. Tickets are $35 for the evening sessions and $45 for the Saturday afternoon session. This gets you a commemorative tasting glass, a program and 30 tasting tickets. All sessions routinely sell out, so buying tickets in advance is definitely a good idea.
The Jan. 21 afternoon session is also called the Connoisseurs’ Session. It costs $10 extra, but is well worth it, in my opinion. First, fewer folks are admitted, so the crowds are smaller. Second, the brewers each offer a special beer only during this session. Finally, it’s when the winners of the various beer competitions are announced.
For me, one of the best things about the festival is that it gives me a chance to experience beers from around Alaska. We live in such a big and rugged state that it’s easier (usually MUCH easier) for me to get a beer from halfway around the world (think Belgium or Britain) than it is from someplace only a little more than 200 miles away, like Kodiak. Each January just about every brewer in the state makes the trek — and for some it is a very serious trek, sometimes in absolutely terrible weather — to bring their beers to Anchorage. They all assemble in one place, letting me try beers made in places as disparate as Fairbanks, Kodiak and Skagway, with no more effort than walking 10 feet from one booth to another.
And make no mistake, Alaska brewers are making top-notch beer. At last year’s festival, I was surprised again and again by absolutely fabulous beers that I had never even heard of, much less had a chance to try, and I consider myself fairly well plugged in to the Alaska brewing scene. I’m greatly looking forward to experiencing more “hidden gems” this year.
If you do decide to attend the festival, take some advice from an experienced attendee — drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. I like to drink a glass of water after each glass of beer. This keeps me hydrated and flushes my palate so I’m ready for a new taste. Eat before you go; you don’t want to be doing this on an empty stomach. And remember, the goal should be to taste the beer, not get hammered. I love beer, but I have never used all 30 of my tickets. If your goal in going to this or any other beer festival is to “drink your money’s worth,” do everyone a favor and spend your $35 on vodka. You’ll get it done quicker and without ruining the experience for the rest of us.
Finally, in the shameless personal plug department, I will be teaching my annual class on the art and history of brewing during the spring semester at Kenai Peninsula College. The classes will be held from 5:30 to 6:45 every Tuesday evening, starting Jan. 24 and ending on April 24. We taste beers in class, tour all the local breweries and generally have a fine time learning to increase our appreciation of good beer. It is a one-credit course, with the cost of the beer to be tasted included. If you have any questions, call 262-0300 for more information.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.