Drinking on the Last Frontier: Hop to it — Breweries emerge from winter hibernation

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Seward Brewing Co. is reopen for business with new owners.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Seward Brewing Co. is reopen for business with new owners.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Spring is here at last, and breweries across the state are awakening from their winter slumbers and ramping up production in anticipation of the hordes of tourists that will soon be descending upon our fair state. The 49th State Brewing Company, located near the entrance to Denali National Park in Healy, reopened for business April 25, while the Seward Brewing Company will reopen May 8, under new ownership.

During their winter shutdown, 49th State Brewing conducted a major expansion program. This expansion included a new, 15-barrel brewhouse and significantly increased fermentation tank space to attempt to meet the growing demand for its beers at the several venues around Denali National Park where they are on offer. The expansion should allow it to triple last year’s production of 500 barrels.

Just as it did in 2012, prior to its shutdown last fall, the brewery produced several beers and left them to condition in its tanks with the brewery thermostat set to just above freezing over the long, cold winter. The styles chosen were all ones that would benefit from a long, cold maturation process. The beers are collectively known as the Hibernation Series and will be released over the course of the summer.

The Seward Brewing Company opened its doors two years ago, in the summer of 2012, on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Washington Street. Originally a mercantile store with offices upstairs, the structure dates from the 1940s and boasts magnificent views of Resurrection Bay and the surrounding mountains. Its most recent incarnation, prior to being renovated as a brewpub, was an Elks Lodge. The owner at that time, Gene Minden, operated the brewpub for two summer seasons, closing each fall and reopening in the spring, before selling it to new owners this winter.

These new owners are the husband and wife, chef and general manager team of Erik Slater and Hillary Bean. Erik has spent the last 10 years as the executive chef at the Seward Windsong Lodge, while Hillary was the bar manager at Ray’s Waterfront for the past 10 seasons. As you’d expect, the couple plans some changes, but the emphasis will be on small, shared plates, pub favorites and — of course — the beer brewed in house.

As an example of the sort of dishes they plan to offer, consider their homemade pretzels and pretzel buns. Slater has been honing the recipe all winter long and plans to incorporate spent brewing grain into them, as well. Look for them to be basted in garlic butter and served with both a homemade cheese sauce and mustard made using their own stout.

New menu choices will include Korean-style chicken wings, plus unusual salads, such as one made from salted watermelon, cucumber noodles, goat cheese and arugula with a chili/lime vinaigrette dressing. Local seafood will be prominently featured, including a salmon sandwich basted and grilled in shoyu soy sauce with a celery root purée. Fresh salmon poke will also be served. Meat lovers will not be forgotten either, with lamb and burgers on the menu.

With all the emphasis on great food, it would be easy to forget about the beers that Seward Brewing Company will be producing, but that would be a mistake. Initially, the brewing expertise will be supplied by Theo Graber, who has worked at both Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau and at Alaska Distillery in Wasilla. Former brewer/owner Gene Minden will also stay on to help Erik familiarize himself with the equipment, recipes and the brewing process.

Two of the beers created by Minden, his red ale and stout, will continue to be offered. Additionally, Erik plans to offer two new beers. The first will be a very hoppy India Pale Ale, while the second will be a saison or farmhouse style brew, named Liquid Sunshine.

Good food, good beer, and a fantastic view, what more could you ask for in a brewpub? Be sure to stop in to the Seward Brewing Company this summer.

On May 17, the second annual Culmination Beer Festival will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. This is far and away the best and most interesting beer festival held in Alaska, with the beers on offer being hand-picked by Gabe Fletcher, the owner of Anchorage Brewing Company. Most of them are not even distributed in Alaska on a regular basis, so this is your only chance to taste them without traveling Outside.

The event is catered and there will be a live band, as well. Admission is limited to 300 people, and tickets are $100. Reservations have been going fast, but there were still a few left at the time of writing. So if you are interested, visit the Culmination website to reserve yours now. I’ll see you there.

Until next month, cheers.

Bill Howell is a homebrewer, 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 authored “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska,” available via Amazon.

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