Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Beer trekking in Alaska

With a population of just 735 thousand, spread over an area of almost as many square miles, Alaska is both very large and very sparsely populated. One wouldn't expect this to be much of a state for good beer, unless you happened to know that Alaskan Brewing Company was the 67th craft brewery to be founded in the United States back in 1986 and that new breweries and good beer bars are popping up all over the state. And since I've always wanted to "go north to Alaska" I decided to finally do so as part of a longer trip to the US Pacific North West the summer of 2014.

View from the Mount Roberts Tramway in Juneau

To be the capital city of Alaska, Juneau is remarkably provincial and peripheral in the far southern corner of the state, some 800 miles from the greater metropolitan area Anchorage, where the majority of Alaskans live and work. But despite many discussions over the years Juneau seems destined to keep the state capitol, with its public offices, which is the main reason about 32,000 people still actually live here. Since Juneau is also home to the oldest brewery in Alaska, I decided to make this city my first stop as I flew in from Seattle.

Juneau actually has a decent public transportation system, in the form of several bus lines, taking passengers between Douglas and downtown, in the south, up to the airport and Mendenhall valley, some 13 miles to the north. The key to taking buses between the north and south is The Nuggett Mall, located along Glacier Hwy, which is the terminal point both for the northern and southern lines and thus where you have to change bus lines. I stayed at a hotel close to the airport so I relied on buses to get to downtown. I had printed out the bus schedules before going, which turned out very fortunate as the wi-fi at my hotel (and around most of Juneau) was down after an earthquake struck the area early the day I arrived. This earthquake also knocked out credit card payment terminals so I was forced to use cash several places that first night. Ye have been warned.

After doing the normal tourist activities, such as visiting the State Capitol Building (one of only ten in the US not to have a dome), walking by the dismantled St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which is currently being "anchored" to keep it from slipping downhill in case of an earthquake, and taking the breathtaking Mount Roberts Tramway to enjoy some spectacular views of the city and of Douglas Island across Gastineau Channel, I started my beer exploration with a stop at what I thought was the highly rated Hangar on the Wharf but turned out to be a small neighboring pub, The Flight Deck.

View of the bar at The Flight Deck in Juneau

The Flight Deck
When I entered from the waterfront, where the sea planes take off and land, I thought I had found The Hangar on the Wharf, the highest rated beer place in Juneau. So I was slightly puzzled and a bit disappointed to find only 9 taps, not the 20-something listed on RateBeer. Still, the beer selection was excellent, with four from the local Alaskan Brewing Company and one from Midnight Sun. The service was fast and flawless and I really enjoyed the quiet and cozy atmosphere, sitting in the bar and looking at the sea planes and cruise ships in Juneau harbor.

When I was about to leave I expressed my surprise that they only had 9 beers on tap, to which the kind waitress informed me that I must have mistaken them, The Flight Deck, for the Hangar. Slightly embarassed, I asked her for directions and she pointed next door.

The Hangar on the Wharf
The Hangar on the Wharf is located right on the Juneau waterfront and is actually a restaurant, a very popular one too, with a surprisingly good selection of draft beer. I counted 30 taps when I sat down at the bar, many of them offering good US or Alaskan craft beer.

Unlike The Flight Deck, The Hangar was more or less full of people and thus very noisy. Apparently this is the norm rather than the exception, so you will have to be able to stand children screaming and lots of loud talking and laughter if you want to have a few beers here. I could only stand this noise for an hour, then I left to save my hearing.

Despite the great beer selection and interesting food menu (I never ordered from it though) at The Hangar, I actually enjoyed the visit to The Flight Deck more. But then again I'm a barfly.

The tiny shop and taproom at Alaskan Brewing in Juneau

Alaskan Brewing Company
From downtown Juneau I caught a bus back towards Nuggett Mall but got off at the stop before Lemon Creek. I walked up Anka Street, taking right onto Shaune Dr and immediately saw several large storage tanks in the distance, so I knew I was heading the right way. When I approached a blue and brown painted wooden building, with the large tanks in the back, I saw the sign that confirmed I had arrived at my main goal in Juneau: Alaskan Brewing Company.

Alaskan Brewing is one of the oldest craft breweries still in business in the US. It was founded as early as 1986 by Marcy and Geoff Larson, who still own and run the company. The brewery has introduced a number of well known beers over the years, I can still remember discovering Alaskan Amber during a visit to Seattle back in the late 1990s. And their Alaskan Smoked Porter, which has been around for more than twenty years, is an early and very good example of this style of beer and one of my all-time favorite smoked porters.

When you enter the building you arrive in a small room that functions as the brewery shop and taproom. It really is surprisingly small, with people looking to buy t-shirts or beer glasses standing shoulder to shoulder with people tasting one of the ten beers Alaskan have on tap at the small bar. The great thing is that you get six tasters for free, so I immediately went to work sampling several (to me) novelties, such as the Freeride APA, Hopothermia Double IPA and the aformentioned Smoked Porter, of which I bought several bottles to bring with me home.

View from the outdoor deck at Snow Goose in Anchorage

Getting from Juneau to Anchorage is possible by car, but I wouldn't recommend the 21 hour, 840 mile long drive, which would take you through the largely desolate Yukon territory of Canada. The only sane way is to take a plane, which gets you to Anchorage in 1 hour and 40 minutes. So I did that after my brief but nice stay in Juneau.

Anchorage is located in south central Alaska at the mouth of the Knik Arm, one of two narrow branches of the Cook Inlet which empties out in the Gulf of Alaska. Unlike the interior and northern parts of Alaska, the climate in Anchorage is surprisingly temperate all year around and the metropolitan area accounts for more than 50% of the state's population with roughly 250 thousand living in the urban city center.

I knew before arriving that Anchorage had the biggest and fastest growing beer scene in Alaska, so I was anxious to explore its many pubs and breweries, some of them located a bit outside downtown. Fortunately, I had a local driver who took me to the more remote places - thank you, Jeffrey!

I started my exploration on foot, since many of the best pubs and breweries are located in the northwest section of downtown, from 6th to 3rd Avenue.

Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse
Sporting more than 50 beers on tap, Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse on 610 W 6th Ave must be the best stocked beer bar in Alaska, with a breathtaking selection of Alaskan craft beer. Combine this with a very decent kitchen and some of the best and fastest service I've had anywhere in America (even with a full bar, surrounding him at 270 degrees, the bartender would spot my empty glass, virtually within seconds of me setting it down, again and again), this should be the obvious top spot for good beer in Anchorage.

However, there are some caveats. 

One is the noise level, created by a combination of poor acoustics and people talking loudly to be heard over the din of TV screens showing sports. This would have gone well at a sports bar, but an alehouse shouldn't resort to TV screens to keep people entertained - we come here for beer and food and for talking with similar minded people. 

The other thing that that pulled down the overall impression, which I guess is more of a problem for beer geeks than the casual drinker, is the lack of beer flights or beer tasters. I asked the bartender but he said they only sold beer by the pint. At most I could get a small taste of a beer if I considered ordering it but not a series of small glasses of different beers. When a place offers 50+ beers on tap, there's no way a guest can get through most of them in one, or even several nights, if you have to drink a pint of each! So my suggestion to the owners of Humpy's is to start offering flights of beer in small 5 oz tasting glasses ... and please remove those TV screens.

Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse in Anchorage 

Located in the same building, but around the corner in F Street, and with the same owner as Humpy's, Sub Zero may look like a modern, soulless drinks bar; the huge windows along the sidewalk lets in lots of light, making the red painted room very bright, the tables and chairs are simple, functional and the shelves behind the bar are stacked with whisky, brandy and other hard liquors. But appearance can be deceiving.

The reason I visited Sub Zero was to meet some locals who had recommended this bistro because of the many rare beers you'll find here. And the service at Sub Zero proved excellent, as soon as the bartender realized we were there for beer he ventured into their cellar to bring out several well aged barley wines, imperial stouts and sour ales.

In addition to a decent selection of six draft beers, which included the tasty New Belgium Le Terroir 2014 - a wonderful sour beer with an elegant brettanomyces character, Sub Zero offered more than a 100 types of beer on bottle, including a number of really hard to get beers that wasn't even listed on the menu. Among the most interesting bottles I shared was the amazing Ol' Cattywhompus, an English style barley wine from White Birch Brewing, and the equally impressive Anchorage Calabaza Boreal, a delicious and rich saison brewed in collaboration with Jolly Pumpkin from Dexter, Michigan.

Another good thing about Sub Zero is that it had a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, unlike the bustling and noisy atmosphere at Humpy’s, which makes it a great spot for beer tasting while in Anchorage.

All in all I came away with a great impression of Sub Zero and though Humpy's offer a lot more beer types, especially on tap, I would recommend visiting Sub Zero first, just to sample their exquisite beer selection.

The bar at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage

Sitting at the bar of Glacier Brewhouse, enjoying a local draft beer while taking in the view of the actual brew house, visible behind large glass windows at the end of the bar, isn’t the worst thing one can do in Anchorage. Located a block north of Sub Zero and Humpy's, at 737 W 5th Ave, Glacier Brewhouse is a very popular brewpub and restaurant in the heart of downtown. 

The place seems to be particularly popular with families, many bringing their children or retired parents for lunch or dinner. On my first visit the place was packed and every second table served a family, while others were occupied by couples on a date or groups of friends. The beer geeks were far between, which gave the place a very nice atmosphere in my view.

Glacier Brewhouse only serve their own beer, naturally, which meant 8 draft beers and one on cask when I visited at the end of July. The beers ranged from the decent Amber and Blonde ale to the very tasty Imperial Blonde and Maker’s Mark Stout. The food, I had a herb crusted halibut, was delicious, so I can see why the locals flock here for lunch and dinner. And, unlike Humpy's, they also do flights of beer, which is a great thing for us beer tourists.

Snow Goose / Sleeping Lady
Two blocks north of Glacier Brewhouse, on 717 W 3rd Ave at the very edge of downtown Anchorage, you'll find the Snow Goose Restaurant which is a remarkable place. When entering the building the first thing that greets the eye is the fermentation tanks, visible through large windows, of the house brewery - Sleeping Lady Brewing Company. As I'll refer to later, this brew house also supports another brewery, located in the basement, but more on that shortly.

In addition to the brewery and a smaller seating area on the ground floor, most of the restaurant is located on the second floor. Here you'll find the bar, with about a dozen beers on tap - all of them brewed at Sleeping Lady, and a large seating area. In the summer season you can also sit at one of the tables on the outdoor decks, of which there are two - both accessible from the second floor - one on the second floor and one on the third floor, on the top roof of the building.

Snow Goose quickly became my favorite hang out in downtown, mainly because of the great views from the outdoor decks and the excellent food they served, which included a delicious reindeer burger and fresh cod. Their Sleeping Lady house beers were all decent and usually good pairing with their food, I really enjoyed the Portage Porter with the reindeer burger, or just working well as thirst quenchers in the warm weather, such as the refreshing Gold Rush Golden Ale and Urban Wilderness Pale Ale.

Another plus with Snow Goose is that the bar offers bottles from Anchorage Brewing Company, the brewery I alluded to earlier, which is currently located in the cellar of the building.

Reindeer burger and Snow Goose Urban Wilderness Pale Ale 

Anchorage Brewing Company
Since its foundation in early 2011 (and for a few months more), Anchorage Brewing Company has been located in the cellar of the building housing the Snow Goose restaurant and Sleeping Lady brewery. This was done on purpose by its founder, Gabe Fletcher, since he didn't have the financial means to buy his own brewhouse at the time.

Fletcher started his brewing career at Midnight Sun Brewing Company in Anchorage in 1998, becoming the head brewer one and a half years later - a position he held for 13 years, until he left to found Anchorage Brewing Co. His aim was to perfect barrel aging of beers in the same vein Ron Jeffries has done at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan. No matter what beer style, IPA, Porter, Saison or Wit, Fletcher will age it in large wooden foudres until he deems the beer right for bottling.

Whenever Sleeping Lady has spare capacity, Gabe Fletcher will brew his own beer there and transfer it down one floor, into a large wooden foudre where he ages it for months or even years before he bottles the beer.

During my late July visit, I got a quick tour in the cellar while Gabe Fletcher and his brewer, Jeremiah Boon, who had also worked under Fletcher at Midnight Sun, was cleaning up after filling another foudre. It was then I learned that a plot of land had been bought on the outskirts of the city where a brewery would be built in the fall. It would have a lot more space for more oak barrels and a state of the art brew house. According to recent Facebook updates, the roof was put on the building in mid September which means they can soon start to install the brew house, fermentation tanks and move all the old and new foudres from the cellar at Snow Goose to the new brewery.

I expect great things from Anchorage Brewing Company in the coming years, hopefully Fletcher will also open a taproom at his new brewery.

When you've had your fill of downtown Anchorage I suggest heading a couple of miles south, walking is not that far, to 530 E Benson Blvd #3, right next to the Wallmart Supercenter, for a visit to the ultimate beer pub in Anchorage.

Cafe Amsterdam
Cafe Amsterdam can be a bit tricky to find if like me you approach it on foot from downtown Anchorage, as the entrance is tucked away around the corner of a shopping mall and not visible from E Benson Blvd. But it's really worth seeking out so don't give up.

The current owners, Shauna and Ken Pajak, bought the pub in May 1999 with the aim of creating a great beer pub that also served good food. Both had plenty of experience, Ken as a brewer at the first brewpub in Alaska, the Regal Eagle Brewing, and Shauna having served as bar manager for quality beer bars such as the Fancy Moose and Sophie's Saloon. Fifteen years later I found Cafe Amsterdam to be up there with some of the best beers bars in the nation, not far behind Brouwer's Cafe in Seattle, with an excellent draft beer menu, and equally exciting bottle beer menu.

The cafe is split in two, with a large room for lunch and dinner guests and a smaller containing the bar and a limited limited number of tables and chairs. The cafe sports a quiet atmosphere, with no loud music or TV screens flashing sport results, exactly how a good café should be. And unlike the nearby Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, as well as many of the pubs and restaurants in downtown, Cafe Amsterdam never felt packed at night, making it more pleasant to visit for a beer or three.

With a total of 16 taps, Cafe Amsterdam offered a good selection of Alaskan craft beer from breweries such as Kenai River, Midnight Sun and Alaskan, but they also offered some rare treats from out of state - most notably the delicious Black Butte XXIII from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. On bottle I enjoyed several rare German beers that I haven't even found in Germany, such as the Berliner Weisse from Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig (which I visited in 2012 without finding this beer!) and the Curator doppelbock from Klosterbrauerei Ettal.

Combining the excellent selection of draft and bottled beer with a good atmosphere, tasty food and the knowledgeable Shauna in the bar, I personally think this place is the best one in Anchorage to have a good beer experience. And it gave me a chance to take a deep breath before diving into the next place ...

Cafe Amsterdam is the ultimate beer pub in Anchorage

Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria
Located two blocks from Cafe Amsterdam on the west side of Seward Hwy, just were Seward Hwy and Old Seward Hwy splits, Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria must be one of the most popular restaurants in Vancouver. I tried to visit on the night of my arrival, but there was no space in the bar and when I asked a waitress she suggested 30-45 minutes of waiting for a table. The next day I returned just as it opened at 11 am, 15 minutes later half of the chairs in the bar had been taken and an hour later most seats in the restaurant!

As the name suggests Mooses Tooth is a pizzeria, and a great one too, I only tried one pizza but it was really top class. From what I understood, the place used to be a brewpub but now the brewing is done at another and bigger location in Anchorage, known as Broken Tooth Brewing. And those are the only beers they sell at Mooses Tooth, up to 16 different Broken Tooth beers. Fortunately, you could ask for flights of beer which made it possible for me to taste my way through most of their beers in one sitting.

Among the more noteworthy beers from Broken Tooth I wrote down the Fairweather IPA, a 6.1% india pale ale with a good malt body to balance the fresh, piny hop character. Another was the Beam Me Up Scottish, a tasty scottish ale aged for 6 months on whisky barrels to give it a mild peated character.

Though I really enjoyed the pizza and several of the beers, Mooses Tooth was too noisy and too crowded for my liking, this could never be a place where I stop by for a beer after work or to meet a friend. For that I would take Cafe Amsterdam any day. Still, Mooses Tooth is worth a visit, just make sure to be there at 11 am. Sharp.

While Gabe Fletcher's Anchorage Brewing Company remains my favorite Alaskan brewery, there are two other competent and, to varying degrees, innovative breweries within the Anchorage city limits. Both are located some 6-7 miles south of downtown. Fortunately, my local friend drove me there to visit both.

The Loft at Midnight Sun Brewing Co in Anchorage

Midnight Sun Brewing Company
Founded in 1995, by homebrewers Mark Staples and Barb Miller, Midnight Sun Brewing Company is located in the Abbott Loop area of Anchorage, about 6 miles south of downtown, so you really need a car to visit. The brewery sports a great taproom and restaurant, called The Loft, which is open 7 days a week and located directly above the brewery.

When I visited, the taproom offered an impressive line-up of draft beers. From the tasty Cache Bière de Garde and Panty Peeler Abbey Tripel to the Brewtaility Baltic Porter, Hop Dog Double Wheat IPA and the delicious Big Fish 2014 - Aestivator, which is an 8.6% doppelbock that won Humpy's Big Fish Homebrew Competition this year.

On bottle they offered many of their big classics, such as Barfly 2014 Vintage, Arctic Devil Barley Wine 2013 Vintage and Bore Tide Wheat Wine. Needless to say I had to bring a few bottles of these amazing beers with me home.

Midnight Sun offers free brewery tours but only on Thursdays at 6 pm, so I never got the chance to see the brewery but The Loft was a nice place to visit in itself and highly recommended if you're in Anchorage and have access to a car.

King Street Brewing Company
Located at 7924 King Street, in a warehouse district less than two miles west of Midnight Sun, King Street Brewing Company was founded by Shane Kingry and Dana Walukiewicz and opened up in late 2011.

At the front of the brewery you'll find a small taproom and brewery shop, even smaller than the one at Alaskan Brewing, with a modern feel and hard steel garden furniture that didn't invite to a long stay. It's open six days a week, only closed on Sundays.

The tap list was pretty ordinary, at least compared to their closest neighbor, Midnight Sun, with an Amber Ale, Hefeweizen and Pilsner to name just three. I found the bottle selection more interesting and was positively surprised by the very elegant Irish Gael, a barrel aged imperial stout with mild peat notes, and the delicious English-style barley wine called Nobility.

Overall I couldn't get away from a factory outlet feel, so while King Street offers some good bottled beer it's not a place I would list as a must to visit in Anchorage. But if you're paying a visit to Midnight Sun and have some time to kill, you might as well stop at King Street on your way back to downtown.

Just as I was about to finish this blog post I learned that Jeremiah Boon had left Anchorage Brewing Co for a position as brewer at King Street, so that bodes well for more exciting beers from this brewery in the future.

On the Alaska Railroad GoldStar Dome Service to Fairbanks

Fairbanks is located in the interior of Alaska, about 360 miles north of Anchorage. I was tempted to fly but when I learned about the scenic train ride through Denali National Park, near the foothills of Mount McKinley, I decided to go for that mode of locomotion. Making the most of it I booked myself a seat on the Alaska Railroad GoldStar Dome Service, which provided me with great views as long as the weather remained clear (about halfway into the 12 hour long train journey).

I wanted to visit Fairbanks not so much for the beer scene, I wasn't even sure there was one, as to visit the world renowned Museum of the North, on the campus of the University of Alaska. This museum is so interesting that I could have written a separate post just about its collection of pre-historic animals, such as mammoths and other extinct species, many surprisingly well conserved due to the layer of permafrost they were found in.

While Juneau and Anchorage had been selected specifically for having good local beer scenes, with pubs and breweries of high standard, I was more unsure about what I would find in Fairbanks. Especially as the only places listed on RateBeer were bottle shops and two to me unknown breweries.

After settling in I started walking around downtown, which is fairly small, to look for bars or restaurants with some craft beer on tap. This hunt proved fruitless, I found only one place with a resemblance of craft beer on tap: Big Daddy's BBQ & Banquet.

Located on 107 Wickersham St, Big Daddy's looks more like a standard American sports bar than either a pub or a restaurant, but the place did have 18 beer taps of which 12 were craft beer and a number of these of Alaskan origin - including three from Alaskan Brewing Company, two from Silver Gulch, two from Glacier Brewing and one from Denali Brewing. The food was decent (but stay away from the dry chicken, it was awful) and the service reasonably fast, but as mentioned above it did feel like a sports bar, thanks to the many TV screens around the room and the rowdy music, so it's not a place I would usually spend much time in. Except for in Fairbanks where choices are very limited.

If you have a car or can get a good deal with a cab, there are two other places that focus more on beer. One of them is Silver Gulch Brewing, located about 11 miles north east of Fairbanks. Because of my limited time and lack of wheels, I never made it out to Silver Gulch. Instead I focused on a fairly new addition to the Fairbanks beer scene: HooDoo Brewing.

Paul Johnson doing a tour at HooDoo Brewing

HooDoo Brewing Company
Bobby Wilken is a Fairbanks native who received his brewing education at the Siebel Institute in Munich, Germany, and in Chicago. After finishing his education he worked for almost three years as a brewer and control technician at Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, but Wilken always dreamed of returning to Fairbanks to start up his own brewery there. HooDoo Brewing, which opened its doors to the public on Halloween 2012, is this dream come to life.

HooDoo Brewing is located in the Railway district, about two miles north west of downtown Fairbanks, though I probably walked twice that distance because I missed a turnoff as it didn't carry the expected street name (Fox Ave).

From the outside, the building at 1951 Fox Ave looks very unassuming - like many other gray painted buildings in this warehouse and industrial section of the town. But in front of it you'll find a small gravel covered biergarten with several large wooden cable reel drums, turned on their sides, used as tables. There are no chairs so this is a standing only beer garden and probably only in use during the brief summer season. Inside you'll find a large taproom from where you can look in at the brewery and the shiny storage tanks behind the bar.

In their taproom, HooDoo Brewing offered four beers on draft; an English and an American IPA, both a bit unremarkable, a decent Scottish Export Ale and a Belgian Tripel that I really enjoyed. The latter was by far the best beer I had in Fairbanks.

On Saturdays they also do a free brewery tour at 4 pm, which is worth checking out if you're in town. For my tour I had co-founder Paul Johnson as tour guide. He could tell us that HooDoo Brewing has no intention of growing big, the goal is to remain a locally rooted brewery and making only so much beer as the local market demands. From what I could gather there were two reasons for this. The first is that you don't need a costly distribution agreement if you only sell your beer locally, and Paul Johnson should now this as he used to work for a distribution company. The other reason is that by selling most of their beer directly at the taproom, HooDoo Brewing can be certain that customers always get top quality, not aged or in other ways ruined beer.

According to Paul Johnson, HooDoo Brewing has a fairly small 15 BBL brew house on which they brew two batches to fill up one of their four 500 gallon stainless steel fermentation tanks. In 2013 they produced about 30,000 gallon, so we're talking a fairly small output by US standards, but still sufficient to supply the market in Fairbanks. After almost two years in the business they still sell most of their beer directly to customers at their taproom, which I think is pretty amazing.

Thus, to taste the HooDoo beers you really have to go to Fairbanks and visit the taproom.

HooDoo Brewing Belgian Tripel
- my favorite beer in Fairbanks 

For more photos from Alaska check these Flickr sets from Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

1 comment:

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