Drinking on the Last Frontier: Alaska hops to it — Brewers nurturing a growing local trend

Photos courtesy of Elaine Howell. Lasse Holmes, Doug Hogue, William Miller and Zach Henry drinking a toast prior to brewing with Alaska grown hops on March 20.

Photos courtesy of Elaine Howell. From left, Lasse Holmes, Doug Hogue, William Miller and Zach Henry drink a toast prior to brewing with Alaska-grown hops on March 20 at Kenai River Brewing Co. in Soldotna.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

One of the biggest trends in the food world today is locally sourced ingredients. More and more great chefs are latching onto the idea of serving dishes made from fresh, seasonal ingredients produced as close as possible to their restaurants.

Farmers markets are booming across the country, and more and more individuals are beginning to explore obtaining or growing some (or even most) of their food close to home. Such produce is generally much fresher, tastier and nutritious than the weeks-old stuff you might find at a grocery store.

Brewers across the country have also joined this trend, either growing their own ingredients or trying to partner with small, local farmers to supply them. Small maltsters have begun springing up around the country — these operations take the barley produced by local farmers and turn it into malt to be used by local breweries. Breweries are partnering with family owned hop farms or even starting their own farms to produce at least some of the hops needed for brewing.

An early adopter of this idea was Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, California. For several years it has produced its Estate Ale, brewed with organic wet hops and barley grown at the brewery. All indications are that this trend will continue to gather momentum, as shoppers become more and more conscious of how and with what ingredients the products they consume are produced.

For brewers in Alaska, locally sourcing ingredients represents a real challenge. While this state is blessed with an abundance of ultrapure water, neither brewing barley nor hops have ever been produced successfully on a commercial scale.

There was a serious attempt by the state to promote large-scale barley production near Delta Junction in the late 1970s, but it ended in a costly failure. Additionally, the type of barley being grown was of low quality, as it was intended for animal feed, not malting.

Hop bines will grow in Alaska, but conventional wisdom has been that the extra-long summer days in these northern latitudes will prevent them from flowering, and it is the hop flowers or cones that are used by brewers. However, things may be changing.

On the barley front, the Alaska Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been working to develop a strain of barley which will grow well in our northern climate and produce grain of high-enough quality to be malted for use in fermentation.

The effort is being supported by the five distillers here in Alaska, which are also extremely interested in sourcing locally grown malt to use in the production of their spirits.

While we are still a long way from having Alaska malt available for brewers and distillers, developing a suitable barley strain is the crucial first step.

Lasse Holmes, of Homer, one of the founders of Homer Brewing Co., has been experimenting with growing hops in Alaska, which are now being used for brewing beer on the Kenai Peninsula.

Lasse Holmes, of Homer, one of the founders of Homer Brewing Co., has been experimenting with growing hops in Alaska, which are now being used for brewing beer on the Kenai Peninsula.

On the hop front, a crucial breakthrough was made this year by Homer resident Lasse Holmes. Holmes is a longtime homebrewer and was one of the founders of Homer Brewing Co. in 1996. He has been experimenting with growing hops inside high tunnels belonging to a couple of his friends, and these experiments have at last been met with success.

In 2014, Holmes produced over 90 pounds of fresh hops from these tunnels, and says he could have harvested even more if he had had sufficient manpower to pick them quickly before they spoiled. After drying his hops in a makeshift oast house in his attic, Holmes contacted local brewers Doug Hogue of Kenai River Brewing Co. and Zach Henry of St. Elias Brewing Co. to offer them the chance to brew the first commercial beers to ever be produced with hops grown in Alaska. Naturally, they both jumped at the chance.

On March 20, Holmes, Hogue, Henry and Holmes’ friend William Miller met at Kenai River Brewing to brew the first of two commercial beers, an English-style Extra Special Bitter, or ESB. On March 22, they reconvened at St. Elias Brewing to brew the second beer, a lager. Each batch was sized at 4.5 barrels. The hops produced were from four different varieties — Chinook, Cascade, Centennial and Willamette. Both brew days went well, so in a few weeks the public should be able to visit these breweries to taste beers produced with real, Alaska-grown, whole-leaf hops.

Speaking of new beers, St. Elias Brewing will release another batch of H&H Winter Warmer on April 4. This is another collaboration brew between myself and Henry. It was actually brewed back in December and has been conditioning ever since.

Stylistically, it’s a Burton Ale, which is a kind of beer which was once immensely popular in Britain, but which more or less died out shortly after World War II. If you’re looking for something unique, stop by and give it a try.

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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