By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
When beer writers like myself talk about a region’s beer culture, they are referring to the totality of the relationship between the people of a particular locale and beer. Not just how many beers are brewed there or how many bars have them on tap, but how craft beer is viewed and valued by folks.
In the past 11 years that I have lived on the Kenai Peninsula, I’ve watched our beer culture grow from almost nonexistent to one of the best in the state. Let’s take a look back at how we got from then to now.
In 2004, the only craft brewery on the peninsula was the Homer Brewing Co. While well established, it did not distribute its beers outside of its local area. This made getting growlers filled during a visit to Homer a ritual for beer lovers from anywhere else on the peninsula. Most local bars carried Alaskan Brewing Co.’s beers, and a few might occasionally have a beer from Midnight Sun or Silver Gulch on tap, but that was about it.
All that began to change in May 2006, with the opening of Kassik’s Brewery and Kenai River Brewing Co. Suddenly, fresh, handcrafted beer was no longer an 80-mile drive away — it was right here. People’s interest in and experience with craft beer began to grow. The process accelerated again with the opening of St. Elias Brewing Co. in May 2008.
I will humbly claim a small bit of the credit for some of this growth on behalf of my annual beer course at Kenai Peninsula College (started January 2007) and this monthly beer column (first written November 2009). Craft beers, both from local breweries and around the state, are now fixtures in our bars and on our liquor store shelves. Even Seward finally got some craft beer love with the opening of the Seward Brewing Co. in 2012.
In addition to all the advances enumerated above, perhaps the biggest single indicator that the craft beer culture of the central peninsula has come of age is the growth of our beer festivals. With the establishment of the Frozen River Fest in February this year, we now have two annual beer festivals in Soldotna. The biggest and oldest of them — the fifth annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival — is happening this weekend.
In 2011, some members of the Soldotna Rotary Club had a wild idea. Recognizing the growth of the local beer culture, they decided to try to put on a summer beer festival in Soldotna as a fundraiser for charity. They managed to line up some breweries, secure a location at a vacant car dealership on the Kenai Spur Highway and find volunteers to help out.
The morning of the festival was rainy, raising fears amongst those of us frantically setting up that the whole festival might be a bust. Instead, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and so did the people. The festival was such a success and so well-organized that the city of Soldotna offered the use of the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in 2012, and that’s been the festival’s home ever since.
Most importantly, the festival has acquired a great reputation among the brewers across Alaska. Last year, breweries from as far afield as Healy and Fairbanks were in attendance. This year, Baranof Island Brewing Co. is coming all the way from Sitka to take part.
This year’s festival will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $30, available at Kassik’s, Kenai River and St. Elias brewing, as well as online at www.kenaibeerfest.com. This buys you admission, a commemorative glass and tickets for eight 4-ounce beer samples. You can buy additional sample tickets for $3 per ticket.
Besides the numerous beers and wines on offer will be several food trucks, so you won’t need to go hungry while enjoying yourself. And what’s the point of having a festival without music? There will be live performances, each about an hour, by (in order) Good Time Travelers, Braided River, Gary Sloan and Trajectory, closing with Todd Grebe and Cold Country.
Attendees will get to vote on their choice for favorite beer and favorite brewery. Last year, 49th State Brewing of Healy took home the People’s Choice Award for Best Beer with its 12 Belgian Quadruple, while Kenai River Brewing Co. again took home the People’s Choice for Best Brewery.
As good as all this sounds, the best part of the entire festival is that every penny it makes goes to support worthy local causes. Last year’s festival made over $17,000, which Rotary used to support various charities right here on the peninsula.
Tickets sell quickly, so get yours now and I’ll see you at the festival.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell has been an avid craft beer drinker and homebrewer since 1988. Upon retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2004, Howell moved to Alaska, where he blogs about the Alaskan craft brewing scene at alaskanbeer.blogspot.com. In 2007 he created a beer appreciation course titled “The Art and History of Brewing,” which he teaches annually at Kenai Peninsula College. He is the founder of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society and serves as a media consultant to the Brewers Guild of Alaska.