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AUG/SEP 2006 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC NW

Aurora Beerialis
By Jim "Dr. Fermento" Roberts

The best and most accessible fishing in Alaska is on the Kenai Peninsula, a couple of hours from Anchorage. Summer in Alaska is all about fishing, and thirsty anglers can bevvy up in Anchorage with growlers from Glacier BrewHouse, Midnight Sun Brewing Company, the Moose’s Tooth Brewery and the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company. With enough fortitude, folks can drive all the way to Homer and get their grog from Homer Brewing Company, 220 miles south of Anchorage. Most of the better grog shops around the state sell bottled selections from Silver Gulch Brewing Company, Alaskan Brewing Company and Midnight Sun, the three Alaskan breweries that bottle their wares, but even so, a major fishing trip often requires significant planning due to the distances between fresh fermented goods that are produced here.

That’s all changed. Now, not only is the Kenai Peninsula a destination for fishing, it’s a destination for beer as well. No one should miss the well-established Homer Brewing Company (1411 Lakeshore Drive; 907-235-3626) for one of many of their specialty ales that keep the fisherman in mind. The flagship, Broken Birch Bitter, is well-suited for quenching the thirst created by hauling monster halibut off the bottom of Kachemak Bay. Red Knot Scottish Ale is a good, albeit heavier, malty alternative for the days when inclement weather causes heavier seas. And at the other end of the spectrum, Homer’s Odyssey Oatmeal Stout is the perfect complement to Alaskan stories and lies about big fish around a late-night campfire.

New to Homer this year is the Ring of Fire Meadery (178 Bunnell Avenue; 907-235-2656), the first commercial meadery in the state. Owner and brewer Lawrence Livingston is no stranger to brewing beer. He started Anchorage’s first brewpub (Cusack’s opened in 1995) and then became founding brewer and owner at the Great Bear Brewing Company in the Matanuska Valley. These positions were followed by a stint brewing in Hawaii at Whaler’s Brewpub and then at Keoki Brewing Company. In Hawaii, magically, Livingston fell in love with mead.

He uses only pure, unpasteurized honey direct from the beekeeper in his products. During my late June visit to his cozy art gallery/meadery, I sampled five different products, all of which made my socks go up and down.

His Augustine Apple Cyser was fresh and flavorful and tasted liked like liquid apples with a slight tart kick around the edges. His Virgin Bourbon Barrel Apple Cyser uses the same base brew but is aged in 10-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon barrels from the Heaven Hills Distillery in Kentucky. Ring of Fire’s Redoubt Raspberry is a dry melomel (12%), and the Kachemak Bay Raspberry melomel (12%) uses all locally grown and harvested berries. Livingston’s intention is to produce both a sweet and a dry interpretation of each mead.

I sampled five different products, all of which made my socks go up and down.

Another fruit selection is the Tutka Bay Blueberry melomel, which is naturally more tart from the skins of the whole berries. A sweet rhubarb melomel rounded out the tasting. The flagship, Cosmic Mead, uses Alaska fireweed honey and single-source blackberry and mountain wildflower honeys from Washington state for a smooth, tasty stock selection that serves as a good lead-in to the others.

Livingston’s Private Reserve Line will ultimately feature 12 long-aged, big, oak-aged meads. An Alaska birch syrup mead, as well as a blackcurrant melomel, were perking away during my visit. It’s simply divine to sample meads, cysers and melomels on tap in this pristine setting in Homer’s Old Town district. Expansive views are right out on the front porch, and samplers are free to roam and enjoy the vista or wander inside and enjoy paintings, sculptures and glassware from local artisans.

This is a must-visit destination on the Peninsula and is a great diversion from the hustle and bustle of a busy fishing town in the summer. In addition to the Private Reserve Line, by this time next year, expect a combination of 18 meads, melomels and cysers, along with a handful of specialty batches to celebrate each season. An overnighter is definitely in order to fall in love with mead in Homer, Alaska.

Farther north, tucked in the backwoods of Nikiski is the new Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop. It’s tough to find, and a call ahead (907-776-4055) for painstaking directions is requisite. The country drive through a section of Alaska’s wilderness is worth the effort. Turn off the cell phone, put away the map and prepare for a contrast.

When I arrived for my tour, I expected something a bit more ramshackle. I walked into an establishment that demonstrated a solid commitment to Alaska’s brewing future. Never in my exploration of beer have I encountered both facility and attitude that embody a passion for doing it right the first time. You can eat off the floor at this sterile, well-thought-out and well-designed upstart.

Frank Kassik and equally enthusiastic wife Debra divide their schedules between full-time jobs and making good beer. It was a “wow” experience for me when I met with them and sampled the only two beers they had to offer. “We’re not advertising yet,” they said. “We want to make sure we have the best to offer before we’re in the market.”

Without a single dollar of advertising, word of mouth has made them a popular treasure map on the Kenai. “We just want to do it right the first time,” they said, almost passively dismissing my advice about the viciousness of getting beer to market in an increasingly competitive Alaskan brewing scene. I’d describe Kassik’s as gentle, tenacious and formidable. Time is on their side.

The subtle indiscretions in their blonde ale (which sampled more like a German pils, with extended bitterness well into the finish and a lack of subtle fruitiness) were more than made up for by the porter. I truly appreciated this mild but substantial English-influenced brew that didn’t suffer from the over-hopping I find in most first attempts at the style. I suggested that Kassik not change the recipe too much after he revealed that he was going to throttle back the chocolate and replace it with Carafa. I appreciated his drier-finishing porter, but he’s the boss, and I have all the confidence that he’s going to make it right. Get there and check it out; Kassik’s is an institution in the making.

The final stop on my whirlwind, 500-mile sojourn exploration of the Kenai Peninsula’s burgeoning brew scene was at the Kenai River Brewing Company (241 N. Aspen Lane, Suite 100; 907-262-2337) in Soldotna. Owners/brewers Doug Hogue and Wendell Dutcher are homebrewers first with sights on expanding Peninsula markets that are wide open in an increasingly thirsty state. Easier to find, they’re located just off the Kenai Spur Road, behind their first tap handle, the XXXXXXX. Their inauspicious facility is a labor of sweat equity and a longtime dream-come-true for a couple of guys who would rather make beer than toil at nine-to-five jobs with little fulfillment. Smiling faces greeted me between growler fills for people who were more excited about patronizing a local source for beer than chasing international suds.

“People come in here and want our beer just because we’re local,” said Hogue. Two beers were available: Pillars Pale Ale and Skilak Scottish. The more amber-ish Pillars tasted clean and middle-of-the-road, and the Scotch ale was well-defined and destined for greatness. An IPA was on the docket for the next brew.

The darker beers from both new breweries on the Peninsula were the best choices, in my experience, and although I predicted that, it’s not because either beer masked defects; they were just truly well made. Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop is patient and willing; Kenai River Brewing Company is edgy and excited. Both will add needed craft beer to an underserved part of the state.

I never detected any race-to-market attitude in Homer, Nikiski, or Soldotna. Slow, gentle luring is what defines beer in our state, so include a meadery and two new breweries in your itinerary when you plan to visit.

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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