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Alaska: beer in the last frontier

CATEGORIES: Beer   Travel   West Feature  

“Sorry sir, I’m afraid we only allow Bud Light on this boat.”

That was Captain Garrett, unsmiling, when he saw the size and weight of the cooler we had brought on board.

“Um, yeah, it’s all Bud Light,” I lied.

Later I learned the joke; my uncle had warned the captain of our special interest. So there were no objections to popping several Alaskan Ambers and Midnight Sun Sockeye Reds while we spent the day fi shing. After we caught our limit in halibut, plus more in cod, we uncorked a 75cl bottle of Grassroots Arctic Saison and—this really happened—watched a humpback whale breach several times, up close, diving down for long stretches only to dramatically resurface with a satisfying splash.

Then we returned to Homer Spit, with the Kenai Mountains in the backdrop (the captain and his deckhand happily accepted some of our not-Bud-Lights). There, at a dive called Salty Dawg Saloon, fellow tourists and fi sher-people were returning to—seriously—swap fi sh stories. And that was before we headed back to the cabin to fry up some halibut in beer batter.

Fried halibut cheeks, anyone? Oh, my. Try some if you have the chance. They might even taste that good if you didn’t catch them yourself, and if you didn’t wash them down with Alaskan Kicker.

I could gin up a way to describe what makes Alaskan beer different from beer in the rest of the country—like, Alaskan Smoked Porter is meant for the local taste for smoked salmon, and there are a few spruce-tip ales, and about the coolship capturing local microflora for wild beers at Anchorage Brewing—but it would be contrived. None of those things are unique to Alaska.

The truth is that Alaskan beer is a microcosm of America, and in America’s largest state, its beer is writ small.

It’s not Alaska’s beer that’s essentially different. It’s the context—dramatic mountain ranges in the backdrop; label art depicting wildlife that you might have actually seen that day; a near-total lack of pretentiousness in the rough-and-ready brewpubs, tasting rooms and dive bars; and that palpable sense of being in the most rugged, most remote state in the union. Context, even if it can’t make beer taste better, certainly can affect how we enjoy it.

If it’s been too long since your last geography lesson, recall that Alaska is by far the largest state—more than twice the size of Texas, the second-largest. Meanwhile, it’s also one of the least populous—ranked 48th among 50 states, with only about 738,000 residents. You would need 11 Alaskan populations to equal that of New York City.

So, you get the idea: big, distant, sparse. In theory, it’s not the most hospitable place for breweries and yet, according to the Brewers Association, Alaska ranks fourth nationally per capita in craft beer production, and it ranks eighth in breweries per capita.

Is it the long days and bright nights in the land of the midnight sun? Does it get a boost from the tourists like me, come to do outdoorsy things and whoop it up in dramatic surroundings? Or are Alaskans just really thirsty?

“I think it’s just recently been a thing. It hasn’t always been this way,” said Ryan Makinster, director of the Brewers Guild of Alaska. “Things in general, just craft, locavore movements … I think just generally in food, we have a movement going on.”

Makinster said there are a disproportionate number of people in Alaska with engineering and other technical degrees, plus people cycling out of the military and looking for something to do. Brewing makes an interesting career choice for them.

On the consumer side, Makinster said that Alaska has a lot of young people with technical degrees, many of whom studied in the Pacific Northwest. “When they come up here, they’re looking for that quality of life, and craft [beer] is part of it.”

But I have another theory on why Alaska drinks more than its share of beer: all that free popcorn. tweet

The first place we saw a popcorn machine was Darwin’s Theory, a famous dive in downtown Anchorage. Look it up online if you want, but everybody who goes to Darwin’s Theory talks about these three things: (1) no draft beer, only cans and bottles (2) acerbic bar staff and (3) free popcorn. So I nailed a rare sort of trifecta when I was drinking a bottle of Silver Gulch Fairbanks Lager, taking a photo of the popcorn machine and getting mocked for it by the waitresses.

The humble popcorn machine represents simplicity—it says, “Hi, we did not cook for you, but here is something salty that will make you want to drink more beer, and also it is free.” And the popper at Darwin’s was only the first of several from which we would scoop during our week in Alaska. We also saw them in the taproom of King Street Brewing Co. in Anchorage and again at Kassik’s, on the heavily wooded back roads of Nikiski, north of Kenai. We scarfed the most at a bar in Homer called the Otter Room, attached to the local Best Western.

Later, I asked Makinster to explain all the popcorn. He came up with an interesting theory: It may be a remnant of the mid-1970s, when tens of thousands of workers came to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and made the state’s cities feel like boomtowns. Bars in Anchorage and elsewhere competed for their business with generous happy hours, including free snacks for those paying for drinks.

“You’d come in and get a beer and you get something to eat, and popcorn is the cheapest version of that,” Makinster said.

“Alaska is unpretentious,” he said. “You go to a gala affair and you’ll see a couple of guys in Carhartts.”

4 Alaskan beer itineraries

Wherever you are in this vast state, you’ll find a few great beer destinations.

The population of Juneau is 32,000 and grows when the cruise ships unload in summertime. The capital is home to Alaskan Brewing, the state’s largest brewery and a pillar of American craft brewing since 1986. Its tasting room is open daily in summer and closed on Sundays during winter. The other brewery in town is Devil’s Club, aiming to open sometime in 2017. If you’re not on a cruise ship, there are fast ferries that travel up to Haines, home of Haines Brewing with its taphouse in the center of town. Along with Haines, in Skagway, find Skagway Brewing, which has a full-service brewpub and offers spruce tip ales. Southwest of Juneau on the Gulf of Alaska, Baranof Island Brewing has a tasting room nearly adjacent to Sitka National Historical Park. The new Icy Strait Brewing in Hoonah offers gorgeous views from the deck overlooking Hoonah Harbor.

Heading south from Anchorage to the Homer Spit, roadhouse institution Gwin’s Lodge keeps a selection of Alaskan beers for enjoying with its famous smoked salmon chowder. It also has cabins for those who want to stay and fish the Kenai. The town of Soldotna has two breweries: Kenai River Brewing has a large and popular tasting room, while St. Elias Brewing has superb pizzas and rotating experiments on tap. A short detour north, in the woods of Nikiski, the basic Kassik’s Brewery taproom has a large window to the brewhouse, a popcorn popper and a wall of carved taps; the Beaver Tail Blonde and Morning Wood IPA are interesting. Down in Homer, there are two breweries with simple taprooms and growler fills. The newcomer is Grace Ridge, where you’ll find zested, sourish wheat beer Halibut Cove Lemon Tart. The one still going strong after 20 years is Homer Brewing, whose dry-hopped Broken Birch Bitter was one of my favorite beers of the trip. For quality watering holes, the bar at the Best Western, Otter Room, had a range of local beers, one of those cocktail-table Ms. Pac Man machines and, again, free popcorn. Finally, near the end of Homer Spit (and therefore feeling like the dive at the edge of the world), the Salty Dawg is the place to swap fish stories over an Alaskan IPA and tack a dollar to the wall, because, well … because everyone else is doing it, I guess.

The Alaska Railroad train runs during the summer from Anchorage to Denali National Park & Preserve, with stops at Wasilla and Talkeetna. In the latter town, you’ll find Denali Brewing Co. with a full-service brewpub. Look for 49th State Brewing Co.’s brewpub in Healy, near the northeast corner of Denali National Park.

Until someone starts a brewery in Barrow—the country’s northernmost town that has long banned the sale of alcohol—the honor for northernmost U.S. brewery is Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox, north of Fairbanks. The brewery also houses a restaurant. In Fairbanks proper, HooDoo Brewing Co. is an industrial tasting room with the occasional food truck outside. They also organize a special beer train—the HooDoo Choo Choo—aboard the Alaska Railroad.


Our trip lasted a bit more than a week and ranged from Anchorage to the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. I visited 12 different breweries and tried as many different beers as I could, including those brewed in other parts of the state. These were the highlights.

Alaskan Smoked Porter is a modern classic and, arguably, a foundational beer in American craft brewing. It also happens to be really lovely: Its ample chocolate character, touch of sweetness and moderate smoke make it taste heftier than its 6.5% ABV. But if I’m honest, the Alaskan Brewing product I enjoyed most was Kicker, a fruity and dryish 4.5% session IPA that seemed to disappear faster than I could open another.

Grassroots Arctic Saison is one from Anchorage Brewing that you have a decent chance of finding outside Alaska. A collaboration with a Vermont-based beer firm, it’s floral, lemony, bitterish and dry. Brett fans may want to try anything they happen to see from Anchorage, though they might not find the one I liked best: Debbie’s Delight, a softly sour wheat beer that brewer Gabe Fletcher made for his mom. It’s less bitter than some of his other offerings, so the refreshing acidity moves to the foreground.

Midnight Sun is quietly making several excellent beers, but my favorite was the XXX Black Double IPA, an unexpectedly balanced malt bruiser redolent of molasses and strong black coffee with an ample creamy body and a naughty residual sweetness, its hop flavor more minty and herbal than fruity. I suspect bottles of it would lay down very well for years, never mind that it’s supposed to be an IPA.

Silver Gulch Fairbanks Lager is a wonderfully uncomplicated Vienna-style beer, striking an easy balance between moderate bitterness and nutty malt sweetness. Just the thing to drink with free popcorn.

St. Elias Frapple is not one that travels, as the beers at the St. Elias brewpub in Soldotna stay in-house (unless you get a growler). But if you go, this ambitiously conceived beer gets a cocktail of lambic yeast before aging on Hungarian oak, then is dosed with a load of raspberries and apples. It winds up plainly fruity and refreshing, balancing light sweetness with an oaky, balsamic acidity reminiscent of Rodenbach.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.


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