Drinking on the Last Frontier: Beer cheers on the world stage — Alaska brews gain national, international honors

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
I have always been impressed by the collegiate nature of the craft-brewing world. For whatever reason, there has always been a strong sense that, “We’re all in this together,” amongst brewers. Craft brewers are famous for going out of their way to help each other out, as opposed to the cutthroat world of the big corporate brewers.
In fact, this sort of friendliness has become such an expected part of the craft-brewing scene that whenever two brewers do find themselves at loggerheads, say over a trademark dispute, to use one of the more frequent issues, it sends reverberations around the craft-brewing community. While an increase in number of such disputes is inevitable, given the explosive growth in the number of brewers in the U.S., the business of brewing craft beer still remains one of the friendliest out there.
Such a friendly attitude doesn’t mean that craft brewers are not competitive — far from it. Since almost the beginning of the craft-brewing movement in the U.S., brewers have competed to be recognized as producing the best beers. Today, two events have emerged as the most prestigious among the hundreds of beer competitions: the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.

As its name implies, the Great American Beer Festival is only open to beers brewed in this country. Each fall, over 200 beer professionals gather and are assigned to panels to conduct blind tastings of beers submitted in each of 90 different style categories. In each category, the judges award gold, silver and bronze medals. At this year’s festival, there were over 5,700 beers from more than 1,300 breweries submitted for judging. Obviously, any beer that earns a medal in such a competitive process is indeed something special.
The international counterpart to the Great American Beer Festival’s competition is the World Beer Cup. Here again, panels of beer professionals conduct blind tasting of entries to determine the gold, silver and bronze medalists in each style category. In 2014, 219 judges from 31 different countries awarded a total of 281 medals to brewers from 22 different countries. For a brewer, taking home a World Beer Cup medal allows them to rightly claim that their beer represents the best of that beer style in the world.
From the point of view of someone living in Alaska and writing about craft beer here on the Last Frontier, one of the sad facts of life is that, with a few notable exceptions, most breweries in our state simply can’t afford to enter these competitions. For a small brewing operation, the expenditure of time, beer and shipping costs required just to participate is often too great. That’s unfortunate, since whenever breweries from Alaska do manage to enter, they typically do extremely well in these competitions.
Two breweries that do regularly participate in these contests are Broken Tooth Brewing in Anchorage and Alaskan Brewing in Juneau, and both earned medals last month at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. Broken Tooth, which had previously won two gold medals and six bronze medals, picked up its seventh bronze for its Darth Delirium Belgian Barrel-aged Stout. In Alaskan Brewing’s case, the awards it has earned since its founding in 1986 are much too numerous to mention — the list runs into several pages on its website. This year its Smoked Porter won a bronze at the Great American Beer Festival, the 21st medal won by this beer, far more than any other beer in existence. With results like these, it’s obvious that breweries from Alaska punch well above their weight. Imagine how many medals would be won if more of our breweries could participate!
Here on the Kenai Peninsula we also have a brewery that has been recognized in these competitions. While to my knowledge none of our breweries has ever entered the Great American Beer Festival competition, Kassik’s Brewery has entered the World Beer Cup and has several medals to show for it. In 2008 its Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch Ale earned a bronze medal, in 2009 its Moose Point Porter earned a silver medal and in 2011 Kassik’s took home three gold medals for its Big Nutz Imperial Brown Ale, its Buffalo Head Barley Wine and its Smoked Russian Imperial Stout. A very impressive haul for one of our local breweries!
If you would like to check out one of this year’s medal winners, Alaskan Brewing is making it easy for you. On Nov. 1 it released a new package containing bottles of its 2008 and 2013 Smoked Porter, as well as special tasting glass, so you can not only sample this year’s bronze medalist but also taste the same beer with six years of cellar time on it. Since this beer is famous for aging extremely well, this is a chance not to be missed.
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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