North to Alaska: The Great Barley Wine Rush Is On
Are you suffering from the midwinter doldrums? Too much wet? Too much snow? Not yet, you say. Well, hang in there; it’ll happen, and when it does let me recommend a fix: The Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage. It is probably America’s friendliest beer festival. Next year’s extravaganza (the 10th annual) is set for Friday and Saturday, January 16-17, 2005. Right in the middle of winter!
One might ask, “Why the heck would anyone go to a place like that in the middle of winter?” I would answer, “Why not? Where’s your sense of adventure?”
And it is an adventure. Is there a better time to see Alaska, our largest and most interesting state? What is Alaska famous for? Cold, of course; so if you want to visit, it should certainly be in midwinter.
No Snow Job
Anchorage is THE city in that great state, a place where 42 percent (265,000) of all Alaskans (635,000) live. It is also home to four of Alaska’s 10 breweries and brewpubs. Why stay home in sodden Oregon, hurricane-smitten Florida, or soggy, snowy Chicago when you can visit Anchorage, nestled at the foot of the beautiful Chugach Mountains. There you can ENJOY the cold with access to nearly half of the people who live in that state. In Anchorage (350 miles from the Arctic Circle) when it snows, the streets are cleaned instantly, as are the sidewalks.
The folks I met swear that it never snows during the GABBWF. I believe them. It certainly did not snow during last year’s festival, despite the 6 degrees F (14 degrees C) temperature. Not that it hadn’t already snowed, because there was about 2 feet of it lying around, but very little of it remained on the streets or sidewalks. The biggest proof of all this is the fact that no one there drives an automobile with tire chains.
Alaska is one grand state. It crosses four time zones with 3 million lakes and a fifth of the US land mass—equal to that of Texas, California and Montana combined! We got it for a bargain price (purchased from Russia in 1867, “Seward’s Folly” cost us $7.2 million, less than 2 cents an acre). It became our 49th state on January 3, 1959.
The highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley at 20,230 feet and 200 miles distant, was visible as we drove about town. Sunrise? About 9:36 a.m., with sunset at 4 p.m. Each day about was about 4 minutes longer than the day before! And, yes, moose actually can be found wandering the outskirts of Anchorage from time to time.
Now, for the Beer
I arrived on Thursday for some pre-festival activities, after a 3.5-hour flight from Seattle. I was met by my host, Billy Opinski, who started the first festival in 1996. He is the owner of Humpy’s Ale House (named after humpback salmon), a wonderful pub with 20 Belgian ales, 44 draft taps, and one of the craziest menus south of the Arctic Circle (the halibut taco is to die for). Humpy’s is located at 610 SW 6th across from the Performing Arts Center. One of Humpy’s peripheral bars, Sub Zero, is located around the corner from the main show and has beautiful windows with a thin layer of bubbling water in them. This makes the street appear to be under falling snow at all times. They told me that on the rare occasions when it does snow, the windows make the real white stuff appear quite weird.
During my stay, I was fortunate in having gracious hosts who took me to all four of Anchorage’s breweries and brewpubs during the mornings (the festival didn’t start until 3 p.m. each day), giving me an opportunity to sample all of their brews.
The first evening, brewers and distributors met at Sub Zero. A bit later, the Northern Brewers Homebrew Club gathered at the Snow Goose Restaurant/Sleeping Lady Brewery, Alaska’s largest brewpub.
Last year, some 8,000 folks tasted 178 brews (including 22 barley wines) from 43 breweries across the world (Belgium, Germany, England, Delaware, Texas, Montana, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California and Massachusetts). For the first time, all of the festival awards went to home state barley wines, this from a judging panel that included only one Alaskan judge! The winners were:
1st – Hometown Glacier Brewhouse Big Woody BW (10.75 percent Alcohol By Volume, 90 Bittering Units) by brewer Kevin Burton
2nd – Alaskan (Juneau) Big Nugget BW (7.2 percent ABV, 46 BU)
3rd – Midnight Sun Brewing (Anchorage) Arctic Devil BW (11.5 percent ABV, 75 BU)
Honorable Mention – Sleeping Lady (Anchorage) Old Gander BW (9.6 percent ABV, 56 BU)
Entry for the two-day festival (Friday and Saturday, 3 to 10 p.m.), a fund-raiser for the American Diabetes Association, was $25 for a glass, a program, and tickets for 30 4-ounce beer samples. There’s food. Is halibut really the state dish, or was it just my imagination? There was live music, including Tom Dalldorf’s surprisingly good Rolling Boil Blues Band made up of brewer-musicians recruited wherever the publisher of Celebrator Beer News finds them. Most of the state’s brewers were there to talk to visitors. Sampling 30 different beers can be quite a project, even over two days.
I didn’t manage to try even 30 of the178 brews offered. Homer Brewing’s Oatmeal Stout was the best beer there, as far as I was concerned–dry and full bodied, it was a beer to remember. Moose’s Tooth (Anchorage) Fairweather IPA (6.6 percent ABV, 45 BU) was another to hold tightly, as was Silver Gulch (Fox) Coldfoot Pilsner (4.6 percent ABV, 22 BU) memorable and delightful to sip. The Midnight Sun Humpy’s Sockeye Red IPA brewed by them for Humpy’s pub was a friendly delight at 5.1 percent ABV and a robust 70 BU.
So many beers. So little time.
See Anchorage, Too
Don’t spend all of your time drinking beer. Alaska has no state sales tax, although some cities do. Anchorage is as far west as the Hawaiian Islands and as far north as Helsinki. January’s average high temperature is 21 degrees F (6 degrees C); the low is 3 degrees F (16 degrees C). I made certain to bring my seldom-used long johns.
Be sure to visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center, 3 miles east, near the Fort Richards Military Reservation off Glenn Highway (Alaska 1); and don’t miss the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, on 6th Avenue between “A” and “C” Streets.
I stayed at the Historic Anchorage Hotel, near the center of town (330 “E” St. at SW 4th Ave., 800-544-0988), Anchorage’s oldest. It is just a short walk from Egan Convention Center, at the corner of SW 5th and “E” Streets, where the festival is held.
The Anchorage Hotel is old, dating back to 1916, but it was rebuilt in 1936. It features a rather interesting breakfast in its Old Rumrunner Annex. One makes one’s own waffle in the hot waffle machine provided: pour a cup of the prepared and cupped batter onto the grill and turn it over, which starts the clock. Leave it there until the timer runs out (2 minutes). Open, pry the waffle loose, and, presto, there you are! There’s little hotel supervision so you can pig out if you want. Syrup and butter are provided, along with coffee and orange juice.
A little farther up “E” Street, at SW 2nd Ave., is Anchorage Grand Hotel (888-800-0640), while a block east on “C” St. between SW 3rd and 4th is Holiday Inn Downtown (907-793-5500). All are reasonably priced and close to Egan Center.
Anchorage Press’s demented beer columnist, Dr. Fermento, a.k.a. Jim Roberts, wrote, “It won’t be long before we’re kicking the San Francisco Toronado’s ass when it comes to putting on a barley wine festival.” Maybe so.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, OR, but travels the world to surf the best beers out there. It keeps him young.