AUG/SEP 2006 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC
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
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
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 email@example.com
for specific information or traveling tips.