All About Beer Magazine - Volume 24, Issue 6
January 1, 2004 By

It was the middle of January, and our Michigan subdivision had turned into a polar ice cap. My neighbor couldn’t fathom why an otherwise sane person was headed for the Far North.

I was going for the beer—actually, some of the world’s most complex and powerful brews at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage. The festival, which debuted nine years ago, has become the world’s premier winter brew event, drawing beer celebrities from as far away as Vermont, Ontario, and the British Isles.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with barley wine. The word was coined in Britain more than a century ago to describe a brewery’s strongest offering. Barley wines were brewed for special occasions, such as coronations, and seasonally for Christmas celebrations at home. While there’s no precise definition of barley wine, experts agree that it should be copper to dark brown in color, have at least 8.5 percent alcohol by volume, and be neither syrupy nor bitter.

High excise taxes all but wiped out British barley wine, but in recent decades, the beverage experienced an unexpected revival on this side of the Atlantic. When America’s craft brewing industry got up and running, brew masters concentrated on classic British styles. Before long, they were trying their hand at barley wine. Anchor Brewing Co. brought out the first, Old Foghorn, in 1975. The style soon acquired a following; and other brewers, especially in the American West, offered their own versions. Many of these were—and still are—sold as holiday and winter seasonals.

Big, Bold and Beautiful

But how did Anchorage, a city 8,000 miles from Britain, become the world’s barley wine capital? Local brewers insist that their state was a barley wine festival just waiting to happen. According to Anchorage brewster and beer writer Dawnell Smith, Alaskans “like things big, bold and beautiful.”

Barley wine fits perfectly in that mold. Mark Staples, the founder of Midnight Sun Brewing Co., adds, “Alaskans are a rare breed. They are very independent. And that is why the breweries really push the envelope on beer styles.”

Alaska’s homebrewing tradition also plays a role. The state is said to rank first in homebrewers per capita. Jarret Klein, for years the head man at Borealis Brewery, explains: “Winters get long, slow and boring. It’s dark outside. It’s damn cold. That’s when we start to play with our beers.” When Alaskan homebrewers went commercial in the 1990s, they found an enthusiastic audience. As Dawnell Smith explains, “We tend to like all things Alaskan and will support anything with that hardcore Alaskan style.”It took two Anchorage men to add the final pieces of the puzzle. Inspired by a beer festival in California, event promoter Steve Shepherd organized one of his own when he got home. It was such a success that he staged another, bigger event the following January. The timing was perfect. As Mark Staples put it, “Winter in Alaska adds a lot to the festival. What better beer style to go with cold, dark winter days?”

Meanwhile, Bill Opinsky, a tireless promoter of local craft beer, was hosting an annual barley wine festival and com-petition at his downtown beer bar, Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse. Finding common cause in Alaska and its beer, Opinsky and Shepherd joined forces in 2000.

A First-Class Experience

From the time I learned of this unusual festival, I knew I had to go. So when the doors opened at 5 o’clock on Friday, I was ready. Darkness had already fallen, and I was chatting with the parka-clad beer fans waiting to get in. Although I’d packed for conditions straight out of a Jack London novel, the weather was mild and dry, with temperatures in the mid-30s. Anchorage winters, it turns out, are no colder than those in much of the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Once inside, I grabbed a seat and mapped out a tasting strategy; big beers need to be handled with care. The festival’s organizers helped by putting together a superb program that in-troduced the breweries and described what they’d brought to the party. It listed more than 175 beers from 50 Alaskan and Pacific Northwest breweries: strong ales, German-style doppelbocks, and, of course, barley wines—more than 20 to choose from.

The logical starting point was the Alaskan beer that can’t be found in the stores back home. Much of the crowd had the same idea; they gravitated to the booths where native beer was poured. Who could blame them? Most of the state’s brewers, even the tiniest, had a barley wine on offer. Some brewed two or three versions, each with its own personality.

The festival-goers included aficiona-dos who earnestly scribbled notes and spoke in hushed tones. But the crowd included people of all ages and from all walks of life: the after-work crowd, couples with small children, groups of friends enjoying a night out. Many clustered around the stage to enjoy the entertainment, which included a band led by Tom Dalldorf, the editor of Celebrator Beer News.

As the beer flowed, Charlie Papazian, America’s most famous homebrewer, and his colleagues were downstairs judging the nation’s only sanctioned barley wine competition. After three hours of tasting, debating, and tasting some more, they emerged to proclaim the winners. Top honors went to two local breweries, a verdict that pleased the crowd. Again, I marveled at how beer judges manage to keep their wits about them.

Like many beer festivals around the country, this was a first-class operation. Local restaurants sold pub grub to compliment the beer. For kids and designated drivers, there was plenty of fresh cola and root beer. Brewers put out snacks to help clear the palate between samples. And the volunteers, the heart and soul of any festival, kept things running smoothly.

When last call came at 10 o’clock, I stuffed my unused drink tickets in my pocket; had my program autographed by Papazian, who’d graciously stayed around to greet his fans; and savored the warm feeling inside me. Great winter beer induces that feeling, but my Alaskan hosts had a lot to do with it as well.

Other Classy Venues

While in Anchorage, I also managed a pub crawl in the city’s compact downtown. Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse (610 West Sixth Avenue; 907-276-BEER) offers a rotating selection of more than 40 draft beers from Alaska and the Northwest. It’s crowded, but comfortable as a pair of old blue jeans, with local entertainers enhancing the friendly mood. From Humpy’s, it’s a short walk to Sleeping Lady Brewery (717 West Third Avenue; 907-277-7727, above the Snow Goose Restaurant). It has a rustic North Woods atmosphere accented by dart boards and other British touches; and the beer lineup features classic British styles. During the summer, the rooftop sun deck offers a commanding view of Cook Inlet and Mount Susitna, also known as “Sleeping Lady.”

Also nearby is Glacier Brewhouse (737 West Fifth Avenue; 907-274-BREW), a casually elegant restaurant that has been featured on the Food Network. The beer selection is both wide and adventurous, and includes seasonals such as cherry trippelbock and cask-aged Big Woody Barley Wine. If the beer doesn’t stir up an appetite, the aromas from the wood-burning fireplace will.

Author’s note: The next Great Alaskan Beer & Barley Wine Festival will take place January 16-17, 2004, at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage. For further information, call Aurora Productions at 907-562-9911.