Cheers to best fest — Beer festival bubbles with continued growth

Drinking on the Last Frontier, by Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Gene Diamond from Specialty Imports in Anchorage discusses the beer choices available to Leah Swan and Josh Allison, both of Soldotna.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Gene Diamond from Specialty Imports in Anchorage discusses the beer choices available to Leah Swan and Josh Allison, both of Soldotna.

“Third time’s the charm” may be an old adage, but it was certainly proved true Saturday, when the Soldotna Rotary Club sponsored its third annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival in the parking lot of the Soldotna Sports Center. From 5 to 10 p.m., a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 sampled beers and enjoyed food from local vendors while listening to live music from three different music groups. Best of all, the proceeds from the event went to benefit local community projects supported by Soldotna Rotary.

After several days of rain, Saturday dawned overcast, prompting worry on the part of Matt Pyhala, one of the principals behind organizing the festival. With some 600 tickets already presold, he was worried that inclement weather might put a damper on attendance at the event.

“We were standing by with lots of umbrellas, just in case,” Pyhala said.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi. Colorful chalk art beckons the way to the festival area at the Soldotna Sports Center.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi. Colorful chalk art beckons the way to the festival area at the Soldotna Sports Center.

Fortunately, it seems the weather gods approve of drinking good beer — by the time the festival started, the clouds had parted, leaving behind blue skies and sunshine for the duration of the event.

Of course it’s not surprising that Pyhala and his fellow Rotarians were well-prepared for rain, shine or any eventuality in between. As mentioned above, this was the third such event they have hosted, and their experience and organizational skills were immediately evident, especially to the visiting brewers, who attend similar events all across the state.

“This is always a well-run event and lots of fun to attend,” said Shane Kingry, of King Street Brewing Co. in Anchorage.

Local brewer Doug Hogue, of Kenai River Brewing Co., echoed that sentiment.

“This festival is wonderfully organized. I know I can come in and get set up with no problems, and be ready to start pouring beer in no time,” he said.

The excellent reputation of the Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival has spread far beyond the local brewers and those in Anchorage. This year there were breweries in attendance from as far away as Juneau, Alaskan Brewing Co., and Talkeetna’s Denali Brewing Co. Other breweries, some even farther away, like HooDoo Brewing in Fairbanks, had planned to attend but were unable to spare enough beer after a busy summer tourist season.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi. Servers discuss their wares with Kenai Beer Festival  attendees.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi. Servers discuss their wares with Kenai Beer Festival attendees.

The breweries present included Alaskan, Broken Tooth, Denali, Glacier BrewHouse, Homer, Kassik’s, Kenai River, King Street, Midnight Sun, Sleeping Lady and St. Elias, along with the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society that was offering free samples of their various home brews. Besides the breweries themselves, all four beer distributors — K&L, Odom, Specialty Imports and Open Wine — were present, offering samples of the various imported and domestic beers they bring into our state. Last but not least, Bear Creek Winery from Homer was also in attendance.

The $30 fee for admission covered a commemorative tasting glass and 10 drink tickets, each redeemable for a 4-ounce sample. Additional drink tickets were on sale for those hardy souls for whom 10 samples just weren’t enough. Designated drivers (who received no drink tickets) were admitted for only $18. Just to be safe, Alaska Cab was offering free rides home to anyone who might have overindulged, but the emphasis was definitely on having a fun time in a community atmosphere and enjoying the quality of the beers on offer, not the quantity.

Besides all outstanding liquids available, there were plenty of good solids, as well. Several local food vendors were on hand to offer the festival-goers some good eats, ranging from BBQ and pizza to sausages to sandwiches. The vendors present were Custom Seafood Processors, Pizza Boys, Charlotte’s, Corn Roasters, Davis and Sons Pit Barbecue, Hot Dogs a la Carte, Becky’s Day 2 Day Gourmet and Black Jaxx Barbecue. There was even a food truck, the Apothecary Jar, which had trekked from Homer for the event.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi.

Photo courtesy of Joe Kashi. Yellow Cabin performs for the crowd of more than 1,000 attendees.

In addition to enjoying the great food and numerous beers, attendees were treated to some excellent live music, as well. The opening act on the festival stage was Yellow Cabin, followed by John Craigie. Then Melissa Mitchell rocked the festival until closing time at 10 p.m. The dance floor in front of the stage was busy as folks stepped out to the excellent tunes.

Overall, the attitude of attendees was very laid back and cordial, with an eclectic mix of all ages (over 21, of course). Some folks were obviously hardcore craft beer lovers,

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Kassik's brewer Drew Walker accepts the People's Choice Award for best beer from Matt Pyhala with Soldotna Rotary.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Kassik’s brewer Drew Walker accepts the People’s Choice Award for best beer from Matt Pyhala with Soldotna Rotary.

comparing notes with each other and exchanging tips regarding what beer to sample next, while others were clearly just folks out for the evening, more interested in enjoying the music and dancing than in chasing the next great IPA. Regardless, there seemed to be something for everyone.

As is typical for festivals like this one, patrons were asked to vote for People’s Choice Awards, one for best beer on offer and one for best overall brewery present. Not surprisingly, the votes went to two local favorites. Kassik’s Brewery earned the best beer honors for their Blueberry Vanilla Cream Ale, while Kenai River Brewing took home the trophy for the best overall brewery.

At last year’s event Soldotna Rotary was able to raise more than $14,000, every penny of which went to support projects here in our community. This year Rotary expects to clear even more. What better way to support worthy local causes than by enjoying yourself, drinking tasty beer, eating good food and listening to great live music?

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Matt Pyhala, with Soldotna Rotary, presents a People’s Choice Award to Joe Gilman and Doug Hogue from Kenai River Brewing Co.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Matt Pyhala, with Soldotna Rotary, presents a People’s Choice Award to Joe Gilman and Doug Hogue from Kenai River Brewing Co.

So here’s a tip of the hat to Soldotna Rotary, the attending brewers and distributors, the many sponsors and everyone else whose generosity and volunteerism made this outstanding event possible.

See you at next year’s festival, and may it be even bigger and better!

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. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.

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