Category Archives: beer

Fermenting a social scene — Secret brewing society heavy on the society

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Homebrewing can be as much about social interaction as chemical interactions, especially in small towns.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Homebrewing can be as much about social interaction as chemical interactions, especially in small towns.

Author’s note: Except for the swimming part, the following is true, but some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, plus several other people who are nearly innocent.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

About 70 years ago — when today’s cities of the central Kenai Peninsula were no more than villages or scattered clusters of buildings along a new and sometimes barely drivable Sterling Highway — goods and services could be scarce. Winter mail had only recently been arriving by dog team. Fresh fruits were rare, and expensive. And a nice, cold beer might be found only many bumpy, uncomfortable miles away.

So it’s no wonder that those who enjoyed a sudsy adult beverage now and then began making their own and sharing their product with friends.

In Bush Alaska today, where a liquor store may charge more than $40 for a case of Budweiser and nearly $20 for a six-pack of IPA, it’s also no wonder that residents have taken to producing their own.

In retrospect, then, it should have been no great surprise to discover a thriving beer-making culture in place when I moved to Southwest Alaska.

The bigger surprise came in learning of the quasi-covert nature of this solo, yet highly social endeavor.

I first heard about the Dillingham International Swim Club a few days after I’d moved to town.

“Swim club?” I asked. “Dillingham has a pool?”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Jim, one of my pre-Dillingham contacts and a former college classmate of my brother. He smiled and leaned forward. “That’s the whole point. It’s code. It’s the official name of our homebrewing group.”

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Cool festival is hot ticket —  Frozen River Festival kicks off Saturday

Photo by Lee Kuepper/courtesy of Frozen River

Photo by Lee Kuepper/courtesy of Frozen River

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

The 2016 Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival took place Jan. 22 and 23. For the second year in a row, a brewery from here on the Kenai Peninsula took first place in the Barley Wine Competition at the festival.

The panel of judges tasted barley wines from more than 30 breweries from across Alaska and Outside before awarding the gold medal to Kassik’s Brewery’s Buffalo Head Barley Wine. Two barley wines from Outside tied for second place, Old Gnarleywine Barley Wine from Lagunitas Brewing of Petaluma, California, and Old Birdbrain 2012 from Black Raven Brewing of Redmond, Washington. This is a real statement on the excellence of craft brewing here on the peninsula, coming as it does on the heels of St. Elias Brewing’s taking the gold last year with its Moose Juice Barley Wine. Congratulations to Kassik’s Brewery on taking home the prize.

But that was January. Now it’s February, which means it’s time to start getting ready for this year’s Frozen River Fest! The festival will take place from 3 to 6 p.m. Feb. 20 at Soldotna Creek Park. Yes, we are crazy enough to do it again and hold a festival outdoors in February. There will be live music and food vendors, plus activities for the entire family. But this column is about beer, so let’s focus on that part of the festival. The following producers will be in attendance: Arkose Brewery, Palmer; Baranof Island Brewing Co., Sitka; Bear Creek Winery, Homer; Broken Tooth Brewing, Anchorage;; Celestial Meads, Anchorage; Denali Brewing Co., Talkeetna; Homer Brewing Co., Homer; Kassik’s Brewery, Nikiski; Kenai River Brewing Co., Soldotna; King Street Brewing, Anchorage; Midnight Sun Brewing Co., Anchorage; Specialty Imports, Anchorage; and St. Elias Brewing Co., Soldotna

In addition, our two Soldotna breweries, St. Elias Brewing Company and Kenai River Brewing, have created another special beer in honor of the Frozen River Fest. They have each brewed a Wee Heavy Scotch Ale. This style of beer was created as Scotland’s answer to the barley wines of England and has its roots in the strong ales of the 1700s and 1800s. The term “wee heavy” means “small strong” and traces to the beer that made the term famous, Fowler’s Wee Heavy, a 12 Guinea Ale. They have strong malty sweetness, with little or no hop bitterness, and occasional roasted or smoked notes from caramelization during the boiling process. Strength typically falls between 6.5 percent and 10 percent alcohol by volume.

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Brewing news — Snow Goose migrates to new owners, Bearpaw River stomps on the scene

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. The Snow Goose and Sleeping Lady Brewery in Anchorage has been purchased by the company that owns 49th State Brewing in Healy.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. The Snow Goose and Sleeping Lady Brewery in Anchorage has been purchased by the company that owns 49th State Brewing in Healy.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

It’s now 2016, but since my last column there have been a couple of big changes in the world of Alaska craft beer. Things are starting to get pretty dynamic, with breweries opening and changing hands. So let’s take a look at these recent developments.

In late December, local beer lovers were startled by the news that Denali Visions 3000, the corporation that owns up-and-coming 49th State Brewing, the seasonal brewpub in Healy near Denali National Park, had purchased the longtime Anchorage brewpub combination Snow Goose Pub/Sleeping Lady Brewery.

Opened in 1996, Snow Goose/Sleeping Lady was from the original wave of brewpub openings in Alaska. Besides several other now-defunct operations, Glacier BrewHouse and the Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria (now Broken Tooth Brewing) date from the same time frame. Owner Gary Klopfer and his wife, Jane, made extensive renovations to the location over the last two decades, including the addition of a popular deck with views overlooking Knik Arm and Mount Susitna. In an interview, Klopfer said he’d considered selling for several years. He has one daughter who he’d hoped might take over, but she works in publishing in New York City and isn’t interested in running the business. He will retain a small ownership stake in the new venture.

The Snow Goose closed Dec. 26. The new owners plan an extensive, three-year renovation of the 28,000-square-foot facility and hope to restart regular food service in the spring or early summer 2016. Some of the more popular beers from Sleeping Lady’s portfolio may continue to be produced, but will be sold under the 49th State Brewing label.

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Sharing holiday cheers

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

We’ve survived Thanksgiving, and December is here, so now it’s time to get serious about our Christmas shopping. Once again this year, I’d like to try to help you out with some gift ideas for the craft beer lover on your list. You can always fall back on just giving them beer or brewery apparel, but here are some other ideas to consider.

  • To start with, growler technology continues to improve. I’ve written in the past about stainless, double-walled growlers, but how about a growler that you can pressurize and turn into a minikeg? The DrinkTanks insulated growler with pressurized Keg Cap dispenser gives you the convenience of a party tap for sharing beer with friends without dragging around that full-sized keg. The blow-off valve keeps you safe from over-pressurizing, and the CO2 port protects your precious beer from harmful oxidation. The growler alone will run you about $70, with the Keg Cap dispenser going for another $45, so it’s not a cheap gift, but the beer lover in your life will thank you. You can order it at www.drinktanks.com.
  • If the beer lover you’re shopping for is like me and already hip deep in growlers, how about something in the personal hygiene realm? Beer and hop-infused products are all the rage this year. Beards are omnipresent in the craft beer world, so why not give Lesher’s Beerd Balm? With seven different hop varieties available, a beard can smell like everything from old-school Saaz to new-school Citra (www.beerdedbeard.com). You can find soaps made from beer at Home Brewed Soaps, including Porter, Coffee Stout and IPA scents (www.homebrewedsoaps.com). Another option is a set of hop-infused beard oil and beer soap from the Craftsman Soap Company (www.craftsmansoap.com). Whichever company you choose, beer and/or hop-infused products are a great gift option.
  • I’ve never been a big advocate of gifting glassware. Most beer drinkers are usually very well-stocked in that department. However, there is a very nice, 16-ounce, stainless steel pint available from Hydroflask for $22. It’s stainless on the interior surface and has a powder-coated exterior that’s easy to grip. It’s also double-walled, so the beer stays at the proper temperature and the pint doesn’t sweat on warm days. It feels comfortable in your hand and has something called an Enhanced Lip to better fit your mouth. It’s a great choice for camping or boating, allowing you to pour your beer out of a can into something equally sturdy. You can choose from a variety of colors at www.hydroflask.com.

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Where there’s smoke, there’s buyers — Tradition of smoked beers finding renewed popularity

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

For most of us who live in Alaska, the flavor of smoke is quite familiar, given the amount of smoked foods available for us to enjoy. In the past, when almost every kind of food would have been cooked over wood, the flavor of smoke would have been even more ubiquitous. This is also true of beer, since its main ingredient — malted barley — would have been dried over wood fires. Smoke flavor in historical beers typically wasn’t mentioned, not because it was absent, but because it was omnipresent. It was only mentioned when it became so excessive as to detract from the taste of the finished product.

All this began to change three centuries ago, as new smokeless fuels became available. First coke and then more recently steam, natural gas and electricity made possible the production of unsmoked malt. Beers with smoke flavors hung around longer in some backwaters, like gold rush-era Alaska, but by the early 20th century, smoked beers were essentially extinct, with one notable exception.

In the town of Bamberg, in the Franconia region of Germany, smoked beers (rauchbier in German) have continued to be produced to the present day, most famously by the Schlenkerla Brewery. It produces three smoked styles, an urbock, a märzen and a weizen, all from malt that has been dried over beechwood fires. Its smoked märzen is considered by many to be the gold standard of smoked beers and represents a direct link to the taste of beers from centuries ago.

While Bamberg may be the home of these wonderfully anachronistic beers, Alaska can rightly claim the honors for inspiring the modern American smoked beer.

In 1988, Alaskan Brewing Co. (then known as Chinook Alaskan Brewing) had been in business for all of two years. Just across the street from the brewery was Taku Smokeries, owned by Sandro Lane, a business that smoked salmon using local alder wood. Alaskan owner/founder Geoff Larson recounted what those days were like in a March 2012 interview for All About Beer magazine: Continue reading

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Expansion a’brewin’ — New craft breweries opening all over Alaska

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Construction progresses at the new home of Kenai River Brewing Co. in Soldotna.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Construction progresses at the new home of Kenai River Brewing Co. in Soldotna.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

There has been a lot of excitement in the beer scene in Alaska over the last month. New breweries have been popping up and opening around the state like mushrooms after a good rain. I thought I’d use this month’s column to let you know about the breweries that have opened and the ones that are likely to be opening soon.

Icy Straits Brewing opened Aug. 15 in Hoonah in Southeast. In such an isolated location, it’s a small operation, with owners Todd Thingvall and Dan Kane hoping to produce 500 barrels a year, distributed strictly locally. The brewery and taproom are in a renovated, 100-year-old house built on pilings over the water.

The Gakona Brewing and Supply Co. received its final license from the state Sept. 15, and is currently fermenting its first two beers. Owner Ed Miner has been working for years to get approval to operate his half-barrel nanobrewery, and now he will finally be able to produce craft beers in Gakona. Initially, his brews will only be available at the Trapper’s Den Tavern in the historic Gakona Lodge. The tavern is open year-round, so if you are passing through Gakona, stop and have a beer. The first two offerings will be Berry Wheat Ale, made with raspberries, blueberries and black berries, and Killer Rabbit IPA.

Most recently, Odd Man Rush Brewing opened at 10930 Mausel St. in Eagle River on Sept. 25. Brian Swanson and his business partners, Reid McDonald and Ross Johnson, grew up playing hockey in Eagle River, so they decided to open a hockey-themed craft brewery. The brewery boasts the original scoreboard from the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center, the Eagle River sports complex that was recently remodeled, and its walls are made out of reclaimed wood from the Mac and old hockey sticks. There’s even the front end of a Zamboni and a sign from the historic Regal Eagle Brewing, the first brewpub in Alaska that operated out of the North Slope Restaurant in Eagle River from 1995 to 2003.

That’s three new craft breweries open for business in the last six weeks, bringing the total in the state to 27.

That number does not look to be accurate for long. Two breweries in the Mat-Su area are working hard to open soon — Bearpaw River Brewing in Wasilla and Bleeding Heart Brewery in Palmer. In Anchorage, Quake Brewing is looking to open on Tudor Road, while Cynosure Brewing on Potter Drive just took delivery of its brewhouse. Girdwood Brewing is coming to its namesake town, and Baleen Brewing will bring local beer back to Ketchikan. There are likely others out there on the drawing board that I just haven’t heard about yet. As I said, breweries and brewpubs are springing up like mushrooms all across our great state.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula, I’m not aware of any new breweries opening, but that doesn’t mean that exciting things aren’t happening. All you have to do is drive behind the new Walgreens in Soldotna to see what I mean. The foundation and floor are going in for the new home of Kenai River Brewing Co. The building is going to house an expanded brewery and a much larger taproom. With an opening scheduled for May, we should all be able to be enjoying beers from Kenai River on the covered patio next summer.

It truly is an exciting time for craft brewing in Alaska.

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Historic hullabrew — ‘Mythic’ old beer style sees revival

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. An East India Porter is dark in color with perhaps some garnet highlights. The style was nearly lost to history, but will be available at St. Elias later this year.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. An East India Porter is dark in color with perhaps some garnet highlights. The style was nearly lost to history, but will be available at St. Elias later this year.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

I’ve been a history buff for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved learning about the deeds of those who came before us and I agree with the quote from the movie “Gladiator,” “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Since I began researching and writing about beer, I have learned how important brewing has been in the long-running saga of human civilization. Look at almost any historical event in the last 5,000 years and you’ll probably find that beer or wine or both played a part in it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to much of what passes for beer history these days, another quote comes to mind, this one from Henry Ford, “History is more or less bunk.”

Books have been written debunking popular historical beer myths, yet you continue to see the same wrong history repeated again and again. I don’t know whether this is due to laziness or ignorance on the part of writers, but neither cause reflects well on them.

One of the most often repeated of these beer myths deals with the origin of India Pale Ale. The gist of the story is that the dark brown porters, brewed in London from the early days of the 18th Century, couldn’t survive the four- to six-month sea voyage from Britain to its newly acquired imperial gains in India.

So a new beer style had to be created, a pale ale rather than a dark porter, brewed with more alcohol and more hops to act as preservatives. The new style was an immense hit in India and was named India Pale Ale. The end.

A great tale, with only one flaw — it’s not true.

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