By Jenny Neyman
At an outdoor beer festival, the challenge is usually keeping the beer appropriately chilled. That was not a problem at Saturday’s Frozen River Fest at Soldotna Creek Park. The challenge was keeping the beverages from freezing.
“By far it’s the coldest I’ve ever been at,” said Shawn Standley, from Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna, one of the 12 Alaska brewers and wineries represented at the festival, which was organized by the city of Soldotna and benefited the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Association and Kenai Watershed Forum.
“We try to bring things to festivals that you can’t find in a store normally. So today we have a German-style dark lager called a Schwartz Beer. And we also have a Belgian Dark Strong aged in cabernet barrels. These are beers that you don’t typically find out in market, or you might have to come to Talkeetna to get,” Standley said. “The Belgian, I think, has been pretty popular today. I’ve been busy, I’ve been pouring all day. People are drinking and having fun.”
Standley and some of his fellow brewers were set up in a tent, ostensibly for warmth, but a malfunctioning heater left him braving the single-digit temperatures along with the festival crowd.
“It broke, so this tent is heat-free. We’re the tough ones,” he said.
Still, Standley isn’t unfamiliar with the crisp charms of an Alaska winter afternoon.
“This is like a normal day in Talkeetna, no big deal,” he said.
The key is to dress in layers — “About eight,” he said — and maybe hop a bit to keep circulation going. The unfamiliar part was serving beer outside in conditions that usually warrant coffee or hot chocolate. But Standley said that not participating in Frozen River Fest would have been even more unthinkable.
“Well, the community of brewers here in the state are pretty tightknit. So when anybody tries to do something, especially something new that really benefits the community, we all jump in together and help each other out. So there really was no question about whether or not we would come or not,” he said.
Attendance likewise seemed no question to the 700 or so people who came to the festival. Pat King, of Kenai, was one of them.
“It’s pretty cool that so many people showed up. Just the chance to see the community and visit with everyone,” King said. “I’ve got multiple layers, probably four or five. Just bundle up and come out and enjoy the company.”
The festival combined the brew sampling with live music, food vendors, an empty keg toss competition and activities for kids, including archery, snow bowling, kick sleds, ice skating and dog sled rides.
Fire pits made by The Big Ass Fish Company, one of which was raffled off as a fundraiser, dotted the area in front of the stage, and proved to be a popular attraction, according to festival organizer Bill Howell.
“As cold as it was everybody wanted to be next to the fire bowls,” he said.
Winter weather had been a concern leading up to the festival, Howell said, but more the lack of it, until temperatures dipped and wind kicked up at the end of last week.
“We did finally get some snow, we were worried about that in December, whether we would be doing Frozen River Fest when nothing’s frozen,” he said. “But the weather cooperated and then kind of overdid it a little. We would have been just as happy if it had been 20 degrees and no wind, instead of 9 degrees and 20 knots or whatever it was out there.”
Organizers had been planning for months to meet whatever contingencies might develop, knowing that an outdoor festival in February could be a challenge. But it’s a quiet time of year for both brewers and the city.
“The initial discussion started with the idea of, ‘Hey, we have this resource in the area of these breweries. What should we do with that to kind of leverage that into something that would encourage people to come to the area, and have some additional economic activity?’” Howell said. “So from all those perspectives we were like, ‘OK, we’re Alaskans, let’s do something crazy. We’re going to have an outdoors festival in February.’ (When) it’s beautiful summertime it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ll do something crazy in February.’ It gets to be February and we’re all like, ‘Were we crazy, why did we want to do this?’”
Howell said that everything went well, there were no reports of problems, the festival more than broke even, and people seemed to have a good, if chilly, time.
“We’re really glad that people came out to the fest, in spite of the weather, and were good, tough Alaskans and said, ‘Yeah, sure, we’re crazy, we’ll go out and listen to music and stand around fire bowls on a Saturday in February,’” Howell said.
Given the success of Frozen River Fest, Howell said that organizers are planning to do it again next year.
“Perfect crazy thing to do in February,” he said.