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FEB/MAR 2005 | FEATURE | EXCURSION/TRAVEL

Elysian Finds Gold in Alaska – Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival
By Lisa Morrison

At exactly 12:17 a.m. on January 15, I fell head-over-heels in love — with Anchorage, Alaska.

Oh, I've been smitten for a while — since my first visit to the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival a year ago. How can you not like a place with such breathtaking natural (albeit cold) beauty, friendly denizens and an escalating passion for craft beer?

But it was while dancing to the beat of The Whipsaws at that great tap house Humpy's that I suddenly realized I adored this fair city, its people, the music and all the great beers and breweries. (OK, it probably helped that I had been tasting barley wines for several hours, too.)

I am sure I'm not the only one who has had such an epiphany. It seems a lot of the non-locals who have been attending the fest keep coming back, despite the long trip from the lower 48.

A lot of that has to do with the festival, of course, which also is a fund-raiser for the American Diabetes Association. The two-day festival this year featured over three dozen breweries pouring more than 100 different beers and barley wines.

It also is a competition for the best barley wine at the show. This year, the competition was so tight that four breweries were lauded. Honorable mention went to Alaskan Brewing Company's Big Nugget Barley Wine. Kona Brewing, from Alaska's sister in statehood (Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state in August 1959, after Alaska became the 49th state in January of the same year), got third place with Old Blowhole. Second place went to Midnight Sun Brewing Company for its Arctic Devil. And Seattle-based Elysian grabbed the gold with Cyclops Barley Wine. Midnight Sun also got the coveted award for Best Alaskan Barley Wine.

But any visitor will tell you that the event is much bigger than the festival, which ran January 14–15 this year. The festivities really began Wednesday night at a nifty little downtown bar called SubZero, where Manneken-Brussel Imports put on a scrumptious beer dinner. The guests of honor at the dinner (and throughout the entire half-week of festivities) were Bas and Hildegard van Ostaden, owners of the Belgian-based Brouwerij de Leyerth, which produces the Urthel line of beers.

The next day's events included tours of Anchorage breweries (Moose's Tooth, Midnight Sun, Sleeping Lady and Glacier BrewHouse). In the evening, the local homebrew club, Great Northern Brewers, met at Sleeping Lady (aka the Snow Goose brewpub), where brewing expert and honored guest Randy Mosher talked to the group about extreme brewing — using numerous different herbs, spices, sugars and fruit to flavor beers.

Additionally, Hildegard van Ostaden, who is the brewer at Urthel, charmed the group with her story of how she started studying beer as a 15-year-old in Belgium, spending all her allowance money at beer bars, running through the beer menus and taking copious notes so that by the time she went to the university, she knew she wanted to study brewing. (Not exactly an opportunity would-be brewers in the United States get to enjoy, thanks to the fact that our legal drinking age of 21 is the oldest in the world.)

After more sightseeing and a wonderful lunch (complete with beer samples) at Glacier on Friday, the barley wine competition (organized and run by the GNBC) and the festival kicked off. Attendees were treated to tunes by some wonderful local bands, featuring everything from ska to rock — with the Great Northern version of the Rolling Boil Blues Band (dubbed Frozen Boil) playing Saturday afternoon." Cocoa Pete" Slosberg brought along his line of fine chocolates to help imbibers discover chocolate-and-beer heaven.

Another highlight on Friday included a chartered bus trip across town to the newly remodeled and expanded Café Amsterdam (a haven of Belgian and other European beers) for an after-fest snack (quite the spread) and more fine brews, courtesy of Alaskan Brewing.

Clearly, when you attend the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival, there's also much more to enjoy. Mark your calendar for next year's fest, January 13–14, 2006. Don't forget your long johns — and plan to fall in love.

Portland-based Beer Goddess Lisa Morrison is already saving her pennies for next year's trip to Anchorage, Alaska.

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