Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hop to it — Local brewers pour with pride at Great Alaska Beer, Barley Wine Festival

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Hardy travelers from the central Kenai Peninsula braved blowing rain, 100 mph winds and some of the iciest road conditions of the winter last weekend in a quest to deliver precious cargo to Anchorage.


And no, they hadn’t had any before starting out to bolster their courage in facing the Ice Capades that were the Seward Highway and Anchorage streets and sidewalks. The lure of the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival was incentive enough for local brewers to hit the road and slide on in to Anchorage.

Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop, from Nikiski, and Soldotna’s Kenai River Brewing Co. and St. Elias Brewing brought their wares to the festival Friday and Saturday for the hundreds upon hundreds of thirsty hopheads to sample. Along with Homer Brewing Co. and Ring of Fire Meadery, from Homer, the Kenai Peninsula is laying claim to a growing stake of territory in Alaska’s brewing scene.

“The local beers hold up really well,” said Steve Ford, of Soldotna, who’s attended the festival on and off since 1994, and whose interest in the fine art, science and culture of brewing has grown even more consistently since then.

Ten years ago, the Alaska beer fest represented a rare opportunity for central peninsula attendants to sample diverse, high-quality, Alaskan-made brews, as well as versions from the Lower 48 and beyond. Nowadays, they can also mix in a taste of home.

“That was my first stop when I came in, I hit the local guys first. Then I’ll try the other brewers,” Ford said. “I’ve gotten into this thing lately to buy local. It makes a lot of sense — there’s good prices, it’s fresh, there’s no shipping and it’s environmentally friendly to buy local. And they’re always mixing it up, so it’s always worth stopping by.”

The Alaska brewers’ booths took up an entire two rows of the festival in the Egan Center, and did well in the judging, with Anchorage’s Glacier BrewHouse’s Big Woody Barley Wine taking third place and Sleeping Lady Brewing’s Old Gander Barley Wine taking second in the overall judging, and first among Alaska barley wines.

“There’s plenty of good options in Alaska beers out there. I can’t say enough about the Alaska brewers. We rock,” said Frank Kassik, of Kassik’s Kenai River Brew Stop.

Kassik and his wife, Debbie, brought 70 gallons of brew to the festival, including their Beaver Tail Blonde, Moose Point Porter, Morning Wood IPA, Dolly Varden Nut Brown, Snow Angel Barley Wine and Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch, which won them a third prize in the prestigious World Beer Cup awards last year. They also brought Smoked Russian Imperial Stout, which was poured during Saturday’s 2 p.m. connoisseur’s session.

“It’s never the same, and everybody brings something special they’re making for this session,” Ford said.

He said the smoked beers, like Kassik’s, were an interesting addition to the festival this year. And he’s a self-proclaimed hophead, so Kenai River Brewing’s series of single-hop beers has grabbed his interest over the years.

“They take one type of hops and brew from that, so you get to know that one flavor. That’s been really educational,” Ford said.

Brewery partners Wendell Dutcher and Doug Hogue, along with Joe Gilman and their mascot, Inebriatta, were manning the Kenai River taps Saturday afternoon. Dutcher said they brought 80 to 100 gallons of brew and were getting a good response to it.

“People say there’s a lot of character and flavor to our beers,” he said.

Kenai River was pouring their Honeymoon Hefeweizen, Arctic XPA, Sunken Island IPA, Skilak Scottish, Naptown Nut Brown and Swiftwater Stout for the festival, along with the single-hops.
There’s no telling what next year’s festival may bring. Part of the appeal for the brewers is a chance to sample each other’s efforts, Dutcher said.

“You get some ideas. You always have some recipes in the back of your mind if you have the time to start brewing them,” he said.

Next door at St. Elias, Zach Henry said he was making the most of the opportunity to drink in some new ideas.

“I take a break every now and again and try some beers I’ve always heard of and never tried, which is cool. I think that’s where every brewer’s inspiration for new beers comes from, you try somebody else’s beers and say, ‘Wow, I want to brew something like that and put my own stamp on it,’” he said.

Henry’s stamp at the festival included St. Elias’ Belgian Blonde, Irish Stout, Farmers Friend and Williwaw IPA.

“We picked a broad spectrum, from light all the way up to our dark, so there’s a little of every color up here, kind of cross section of our beers,” Henry said.

Being the new kids on the block, open as of this summer, St. Elias doesn’t distribute outside of Soldotna. Along with requests for samples came a common question for Henry, Jessie and Isaac Kolesar: “Where are you guys from?”

The point of attending the festival was to get exposure to a larger craft beer-drinking audience, and that was being accomplished.

“Because we don’t distribute, we’re trying to get people to come down and try us out,” Henry said. “… A lot of people came by and said their friends told them to try our beers. It’s a word of mouth kind of thing, which is cool.”

This being St. Elias’ first beer fest, they were learning some of the lessons Kassik’s and Kenai River already have figured out in their three festivals.

“We’re the total rookies up here this year, we’re learning so much we need to do next year,” Henry said.

Lesson No. 1: bring bigger banners. Lesson two, don’t let all the effort required to pack up, set up and keep up with the crowds — especially toward the end of the evening sessions — keep you from having a good time.

“We usually go kicking and screaming when we’re coming up, but when we get here we have a blast,” Frank Kassik said.

That being said, brewers don’t want to keep up with demand so well that they’re the only ones left meeting it.

“You don’t want to be the last tap (flowing at the end of the night),” Dutcher said. “You’ll see this crowd of people move in and everybody goes there. You don’t want to be that guy.”

Commercial brewing on the central peninsula has been a learning experience in general since taking off three years ago — for the brewers and for drinkers, said Jim Roberts, aka “Dr. Fermento,” the longtime beer review columnist for the Anchorage Press newspaper.

Unlike in Anchorage, where people are primed and accepting of microbrews, because there’s already so many of them, central peninsula brewers are having to create customers along with beers.

“On the peninsula they’re having to convert palates one beer at a time,” Roberts said.
They’re doing it through quality.

“Overall, I’m really, really happy to see what they’re doing down there,” Roberts said.

“I really like Kassik’s. A lot of brewers are trying to be the biggest, the boldest the bad-assest, the most bodacious, throw any adjective in there you want. But Kassik’s said, ‘We’re in the business of making good, solid, strong-tasting beers,’” he said.

Kenai River Brewing got praise for their single-hop beers, among their other efforts.

“They’re doing a great job. I’m seeing their beer on an increasing prolific basis up here. They’re going a good job focusing on a lot of IPA,” Roberts said.

And St. Elias is a welcome addition to the group.

“St. Elias is a badly needed venue on the central peninsula — the first brew pub,” Roberts said. “The beers are maturing, and by that I don’t mean getting older, but they’re doing a good job. It takes awhile to work the kinks out of brewing and they’re doing it.

“And they all get along. The alcohol industry by its nature is fiercely competitive, but you’ll find that Alaska brewers don’t fall into that category. … What you see here is on the bigger picture is it’s like a family reunion for all brewers in Alaska.”

The central peninsula brewers are a welcome addition to the family, he said.

“These brewers don’t need Anchorage. They’re doing us a favor bringing their beers here, and we’re happy to have them,” he said.

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