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Aurora Beerialis
By Jim "Dr. Fermento" Roberts

It’s an active summer for beer in Alaska, but then, it always is. The Moose’s Tooth Brewing Company, which services the Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, Bear Tooth Theatre Pub and Bear Tooth Grill, is now selling five-gallon kegs at the midtown pizzeria. They aren’t quite ready to offer the pre-filled kegs at the other dining locations, nor do they offer growlers at this point. These could be down the road for them, assuming they could keep up with demand for the upwards of 18 beers they make and have on tap in varying combinations at the three entities.

In fact, all of our local brewers are griping about being overworked. The usually lively Kevin Burton at Glacier BrewHouse had that resigned sound to his voice when I talked to him recently. Glacier has a hard time keeping up with demand even in the off (non-tourist) months, but Burton’s schedule was doubly impacted when his assistant brewer, Nate Ryske, pulled up stakes and went to work for the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company as an assistant brewer for Jesse Theken. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as Glacier recently installed new tanks to keep up with demand and increased output dramatically. As an emergency measure, Packaging Director Drew Weber was moved up into the assistant brewer position and has been working out nicely ever since. He’s got a real passion for the art of brewing and takes his new duties seriously.

There’s no doubt that Goose brewer Theken needs the help, especially since a long-awaited canning line is now operational and six-packs of at least one beer, Urban Wilderness, an English pale ale, are now for sale in cans in most local liquor stores and at the brewpub. The Goose started toying with putting this multiple award-winning beer in cans about a year ago, but the expansive facility that used to house the Elks and was purchased by brewery owner Gary Klopfer wasn’t ready yet, or at least building inspectors didn’t think so. The brewery was also plagued with some consistency problems, and the operation was held back until everything could be ironed out and the Goose could guarantee a great pour out of every can.

The stuff’s spendy up here; it’s retailing for about $8.99 a six-pack in liquor stores, but you have to factor in elevated shipping costs to Alaska, which drive prices up all the way around. I’ve bought a number of six-packs of it, however, and find that it holds its robust character quite nicely in cans that are free from the ravages of light and airspace. It almost tasted fresher than a standard pub draught of the stuff at the bar. And the ease of portability and durability of the cans are welcome for Alaskans who like to pack their brew into remote places and for visitors who like to take some of the heady stuff home to their beer-loving friends and relatives. Personally, I’d like to see this stuff replace Amstel Light and MacTarnahan’s, which are served on many flights that ferry me back and forth to beer destinations in the lower 48 states.

Like other breweries, Midnight Sun has to cater to an increasingly sophisticated local palate that demands bigger and bolder beers.

Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse instituted a new program in May. Each month, a different brewery is featured, and Humpy’s uses its extensive beer fingers to obtain as many of that brewery’s more eclectic brews as possible to have on tap for an in-depth (albeit mostly out-of-state) exploration of a particular ale-maker’s goods. The program was kicked off by featuring Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company. Elysian founder/brewer Dick Cantwell has visited Alaska a number of times (he’s particularly fond of our annual Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival) and has been generous with sending his beer up north for us to enjoy. June found Rogue Ales from Ashland, Ore., featured with a number of its beers, including its Chocolate Stout, Juniper Pale Ale (infused with whole juniper berries and formerly known as Yellow Snow), a dry-hopped version of Saint Rogue Red, Chipotle Ale (spiced with smoked jalapeno peppers and formerly known as Mexicali Rogue), Brutal Bitter and Über Pils, a German-style pilsner.

In July, Humpy’s featured its mascot brewery, Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Midnight Sun originally produced the hop bomb Sockeye Red (70+ IBUs) as a designer beer for Humpy’s. Sockeye enjoyed an immediate strong following and went on to take a gold medal at the 2000 Alpha King Challenge in Denver. Publican Billy Opinsky wanted a stronger winter version for the holidays, and the hop atom bomb CoHoHo, a wonderfully balanced imperial IPA, soon followed.

Midnight Sun recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and released M, its 1,000th batch of beer, although the beer was actually brewed in 2004. M is the melding of a Belgian ale and a barley wine, and the knee-knocking, oak-conditioned, back-blended 12% brew was bottled only for a one-time release. I bought a case to lay down as an investment and continue to buy single bottles in local liquor stores, although the 22-ounce bottles pack a lot of punch and beg for sharing with friends around the campfire.

Longtime Midnight Sun fans were disappointed to see the elimination of Fireweed Honey and Wolf Spirit Pale Ale from the brewery’s regular lineup, but like other breweries, Midnight Sun had to adjust its production and marketing mix to cater to an increasingly sophisticated local palate that continues to demand bigger and bolder beers. New unitanks this year helped the brewery keep up with demand.

North of Anchorage, Great Bear Brewing Company in Wasilla enjoys continued success with its ever-diversified lineup of brewpub specialties. Established in 1999, the brewery produces somewhat strong beers overall, and the biggest problem is driving the 30 miles one way from Anchorage to sample them all. Actually, getting there with a raging thirst is no problem, but coming back after sampling the likes of Big Su Strong Ale (8.0% abv) or Arskigger Scotch Ale (13.0% abv) becomes somewhat problematic. The bigger beers can always be tempered with the more benign Great Bear Gold (4.2% abv), Black Beary Ale (4.2% abv) or the darker Pioneer Peak Porter (4.3% abv) or Skwentna Stout (5.5% abv), among others.

If you visit this year, don’t leave out Café Amsterdam’s new Belgian-style brown café. Ken Pajak (formerly the brewer at Eagle River’s Regal Eagle Brewpub) and wife Shauna own the café and adjoining restaurant, and Ken’s invariably behind the bar serving an incredible lineup of the bigger local brews and a formidable collection of bottled Belgian ales, with a few on tap. Ken is the master of the artful pour, and virtually every beer is served in region- or beer-specific glassware. The café provides a quiet diversion from the hustle and bustle of the bigger beer venues in town, and Ken’s quick wit, extensive beer knowledge and hearty laugh will warm your soul.

James Roberts is the weekly beer columnist for the Anchorage Press and is known by his alter ego, “Dr. Fermento.” E-mail him at james.roberts@gci.net for specific information or traveling tips.


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