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/// BEAUMONT'S JOURNAL
 
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2002 » BACK TO BEAUMONT'S JOURNAL INDEX
 
Beaumont's Journal
A Tale of Two Breweries
It's a long way between Juneau, Alaska, and New Glarus, Wis. According to my trusty Rand McNally, the distance between them looks to be about 2,250 miles as the crow flies, but psychologically they may be even further apart. At least, that's the way I felt after visiting both towns within the span of a few weeks this past July and August.

Still packing more than a bit of frontier spirit, the Alaskan capital stands as a testament to the beauty of the north, surrounded by mountains and glaciers and rivers packed with salmon — and impossible to enter or leave by car or train. New Glarus, on the other hand, is a tiny town nicknamed "America's Little Switzerland" but blessed with about as much topographic diversity as a field in central Saskatchewan, and it’s accessible only by car or bus.

Each place has its particular charms, though, and what the little town of New Glarus lacks in natural wonderment it more than makes up for in homespun appeal. On the Alaskan front, Juneau fends off becoming just another stop on the northern cruise ship routes with its respect for and profound appreciation of the wilderness around it. And each destination scores big points for the open and honest generosity of its residents.

Oh yes, one other thing. Did I mention that both places have terrific breweries?

Each brewery has since Day One developed strong bonds with its hometown, and each has in return been rewarded with fierce loyalty from its neighbours.

The Alaskan Brewing Company and New Glarus Brewing Company may be worlds apart in locale and brand portfolio, but I found that they share as many similarities as differences. For example, Alaskan is the baby of one couple, Geoff and Marcy Larson, while New Glarus is the cherished offspring of Dan and Deb Carey. Each brewery has since Day One developed strong bonds with its hometown, and each has in return been rewarded with fierce loyalty from its neighbours. Like many other small breweries, Alaskan and New Glarus treat their staff almost like family, which in Alaskan's case means going so far as to use longtime brewery employees in their advertising. (New Glarus doesn't do much advertising. With only 10,000 barrels of annual production, as opposed to Alaskan's 80,000, they don't really have to.)

Most important to aficionados of great beer, each brewery has crafted a significant part of its reputation on the back of one rather unconventional brew, Alaskan Smoked Porter and New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red, respectively.

The Smoked Porter is quite simply one of the most remarkable smoked beers I have ever tasted. It’s arguably slightly better balanced than the famed Schlenkerla Rauchbier (which, I should note, I also hold in very high esteem). The Smoked Porter combines a rich, non-oily smokiness with soft though notable fruitiness and a creamy texture, all culminating in a dryish, roasty finish. This beer also ages well, contrary to what I once surmised in All About Beer magazine. The Larsons poured some vintage 1997 Smoked Porter on vanilla ice cream and topped it all with raspberries, and in so doing created one of the best beer-and-ice-cream dishes I've ever come across.

As much as the Larsons must enjoy the acclaim the seasonal Smoked Porter receives, I suspect that such a singular focus must also irk them just a little, since it tends to draw attention away from their other deserving brands. The flagship Alaskan Amber, for example, is not a beer that receives the recognition it should for its balanced bitter-sweet-earthy character and smooth fruitiness. Styled after the northern German altbier, it holds perhaps too much fruit for that style but is easily as drinkable and enjoyable. Likewise, the Alaskan Oatmeal Stout, while not showing enormous amounts of oatmeal character, delivers a delightfully rounded, mocha-accented flavour with hints of licorice, coffee and burnt brown sugar, ending in a dry, bitter chocolate and roast finish. Add into the mix the British-style Alaskan ESB, with its full, moderately roasty maltiness and dryish, faintly nutty finish, and you have a trio of brews that should make any beer drinker perfectly content.

If I'm right in my suspicions about the Larsons and their mixed feelings about the Smoked Porter, I suspect that the Careys of New Glarus might well sympathize. The Wisconsin Belgian Red, a very big cherry beer with tons of flavour and character, is the ale that has earned New Glarus a considerable amount of the brewery's distinction. Rich in aroma and deep red in colour, it presents all the flavour aspects of the fruit skin, stone and juice while never ignoring the fact that it is, indeed, a beer. Few if any American fruit beers present their flavouring fruit as well.

But there is more to New Glarus Brewing than its fruit beers. (Dan Carey also brews a Raspberry Tart and, occasionally, an Apple Ale, both of which come very close to emulating the excellence of the Belgian Red.) The innocently named New Glarus Hometown Blonde is one example: a highly impressive pilsner in the Czech style, with fragrant straw notes in the perfumey nose; a full, bitter and floral body; and a very crisp, dry and satisfying finish. Another under-recognized New Glarus treat is the Hop Hearty IPA, a superbly balanced, well-hopped ale with a flavour that progresses seamlessly from a floral front to a fruity middle and a bitter finish. Equally deserving of mention are the medium-bodied and mildly sweet Coffee Stout (unfiltered and only sporadically available, "whenever we have space," the brewery literature says), the Zwickel lager and the softly spicy Solstice Wheat.

Perhaps the most noteworthy common ground that the Careys and Larsons share, though, is a passion for their business and a love of good beer. This really should come as a surprise to no one, since the creation of beer this good would be pretty much impossible without it.

 

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