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FEB/MAR 2005 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC NW

Dr. Fermento
By James Roberts

January and February are the winter beer months for Alaska, and we’re graced not only with seasonal beers from “outside” (from the lower 48 states) but also with a great array of locally fermented finery that warms from the inside out.

Glacier BrewHouse kicked things off with its annual 12 Days of Barley Wine Celebration between December 10 and 23. It’s noteworthy that Glacier may be the biggest barley wine–producing brewpub around. At any given time, Glacier has up to 18 barley wines happily perking away in the cold storage location under the restaurant. The barley wines aren’t run-of-the-mill, either. Glacier’s aptly named Wall o’ Wood boasts upwards of 20 oak casks from all over the world, many of which condition barley wines on rotating schedules.

The 2002 Russian Imperial Stout aged in Ukrainian oak for one year took a medal at this year’s Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer. The 2002 Big Woody barley wine aged in a Jim Beam barrel took a silver at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in 2002. The 2003 Big Woody Double Barrel barley wine, which was aged consecutively in a Jim Beam and a Napa Valley American oak wine barrel for one year each, garnered a gold medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival.

During the 12 Days of Barley Wine, Glacier served a total of 23 different barley wines produced from 10 different base beers. Cumulatively, these 23 beers averaged 10.2% alcohol, and locally there’s an unspoken badge of honor for anyone who “endures” all 12 days of sampling a minimum of two and sometimes four different barley wines at a sitting. I did it once. The barley wines were easy enough to drink, but the logistics of finding downtown parking (yes, even in Anchorage) was the most daunting part of the experience. The beer was so good and I got so used to the process that I even showed up out of force of habit on the 13th day, sniffing around for leftovers, and again on the 14th day, just because I could.

Each day, one of three cask barley wines was in the mix and included oak- and steel-aged versions of specialty barley wines. The winning beers were interspersed throughout the calendar, and a couple of really special beers sprang up to surprise even the most discriminating guests. A local horn ensemble called Tuba Libation, which actually gathers only for this event, played in the brewery on the night that Brewer Kevin Burton released his Cherry XXXmas Trippel. This 10.5% fruit bomb consumed 250 pounds of cherries in an eight-barrel batch of beer. The beer was constructed as a lager, but when the cherries were added, fresh ale yeast was tossed in on top for added complexity. It was sweet in the middle and dry on the edges and didn’t stick around long.

Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s perennial favorite, CoHoHo Imperial IPA, has been gracing local taps since mid-November. This is the big brother to the Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse designer beer, Sockeye Red IPA. CoHoHo is a big, bold Christmas-y beer with a santa-fish adorning the label. The beer pours lively and fresh and rocks up a prodigious head that can almost be blown off the top of the glass. The nose is citrus and floral, with a big initial hop wallop at first taste. Still, despite some over-the-top hopping, the beer is very well balanced, with the malt elements pushing through nicely and the 8% alcohol waiting in the wings but detectable.

In December, Midnight Sun Brewing Company released a limited-edition oak-aged La Maitresse du Moine, a Belgian-style dark strong ale. The usual La Maitresse is tasty enough, but the oak added a whole new dimension to this dark red/brown brew that wobbles knees at 9% alcohol. The beer is very smooth to begin with, and hints of chocolate, dark fruit and even cherries round out a very full beer. The oak imparts the expected vanilla/almond tones to the beer but doesn’t compete with the base of it and actually seems to soften the beer’s almost espresso-like finish. This beer won’t be bottled, but the regular version is available here in Alaska and at select locations throughout the lower 48 states.

Reindeers really do fly in Alaska, as evidenced in the January 21 release of Midnight Sun’s Flying Reindeer Rauchbock. Smoke beers are really popular in Alaska, and although Flying Reindeer has been around for a number of years, this year it was made with hand-smoked pale malt over alder rather than from sacks of rauchmalt from Germany. This German-style dark strong lager is a bit boozier this year at 9% alcohol, and at barley wine strength, it should be good for those big-beer collectors like me. The nose is vinous and rich, with hints of smoke and alcohol pushing through. It’s not as over-the-top smoky as Alaskan Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter, and some find it much more drinkable as a result. Where Alaskan Smoked Porter is robust and aggressive, Flying Reindeer is, well, downright playful.

Alaskan Brewing Company’s seasonal Winter Ale (6.4% alcohol) was released in December. The trademark spruce tips were throttled back this year, which enhanced the beer’s already delicate balance. This beer reminds the drinker of a walk in the woods on a winter day. It’s earthy, refreshing and invigorating, and the hint of spruce in the background gives it a nice, spicy edge and brings it all together.

Alaskan’s Big Nugget Barley Wine (10.4% alcohol) was slow in coming this year but presented itself well. The original Big Nugget was cold-conditioned in a mine shaft outside of Juneau, the home of Alaskan Brewing. With the production rate on this beer, it's doubtful that this is still a practice, but it imparts a nice mental cartoon to go along with the beer’s heady, English-style flavor, throttled-back hops and big alcohol hit right up front and through to the finish of the beer.

The Moose’s Tooth’s annual winter offering is Williwaw Winter Warmer, which waffles between a brown ale and a porter and has a combined malt and hop profile that suggests spices and even a spruce character, although neither was used in the beer’s production. The recipe has been successful enough that the brewery hasn’t tweaked it much in the last couple of years, so it remains steadfast and dependable. As a bonus, five-gallon kegs of the brewery’s eight front-line beers are now available at the Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria (the midtown pub that’s separate from the brewery) for take-home convenience.

The typical paradigms of cold and dark and snow don’t keep Alaskans indoors in the winter, but good beer by a roaring fire is a better incentive to kick back, put the feet up and enjoy good libations with good friends. Up here, we hardly have reason to stock up for emergencies, but having good beer on hand ensures that couch dwellers and visitors alike have much to drink and much to talk about.

James Roberts is the weekly beer columnist for the Anchorage Press and is known by his alter ego, “Dr. Fermento.” He can be reached via email for specific information or traveling tips.

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