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A few words from the Exalted Ruler

January in Alaska: Part I

The front of the speaker's podium bore the legend: "Exalted Ruler." I was the speaker.

Standing behind the podium, I was unaware of the words in front, until they were pointed out to me good naturedly by a member of the audience. I was conducting a tutored tasting of ten extra-strong beers from around the world. The event was organised by the Great Northern Brewers' club, in Anchorage, Alaska. Given the amount of alcohol in the air, I had been surprised at the respectful attentiveness of these headstrong homebrewers. Now I understood.

The exalted text had something to do with the rituals of the Elks Club, in whose lodge hall the tasting was held. I am not sure there were any Elks present, apart from the stuffed one mounted at the opposite end of the room. Or was that a caribou? The Elks are not as big as they were. Part of the Elks Club building in Anchorage was once occupied by a bowling alley, and it now houses the Sleeping Lady brewery and Snow Goose pub-restaurant.

The Sleeping Lady is a mountain visible from the pub. The Snow Goose was in this instance a short story by Paul Gallico, much enjoyed by Jane Klopfer who is one of the pub's owners with her husband, Gary. She has made quilts featuring snow geese as wall-hangings in the non-smoking restaurant; Gary has collected British brewery bar-towels, and other international beeriana, to decorate the cigar-friendly pub. Much of the furniture is made from maple that once surfaced the bowling lanes.

One morning, brewer Mike Hartman took me through a dozen of his beers. In most, the emphasis was on a good, clean, malt background, with the hop character restrained but fresh.

One of the few with a hop emphasis was Urban Wilderness Pale Ale. This turned out to have been designed by home-brewer Dennis Urban. One of the most malty, and complex, was Braveheart Scottish Ale, at 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume. This had an interplay of fudge-like sweetness, black-chocolate bitterness and cookie-like maltiness. I was also impressed by Old Gander barley wine (9.6 abv), sufficiently rich and fruity to make sauce for the goose (so long as you roasted the bird first). Apricot-like fruitiness, I would say, developing notes of cinnamon stick and cigar smoke.

Snow Goose (717 W 3rd) is in downtown Anchorage, two or three blocks from The Glacier Brewhouse. This establishment, identified in a large sign as simply The Brewhouse, is in a 1940s building, constructed as a dry goods store, and used variously as a Caterpillar tractor and Cadillac dealership before its present incarnation. This handsome building is dominated inside by its bowstring trusses and a new fireplace of quartzite rock. An equally handsome brewhouse produces the beers, but this is clearly much less of a pub than a restaurant.

A three-man brew crew, headed by Shawn Wendling, took me through another dozen beers. I was very impressed by a lightly tart Oud Bruin (7.0abv), soured in a Jim Beam cask left deliberately minus bung. Even more surprising was the notion of an annual 12 Days of Bock, during which as many versions are available. I enjoyed a Ryebock (7.0abv) so spicy as to remind me of snuff. The pièce de resistance was a Barley Wine (10.0 abv) in four versions. In its basic interpretation, this seemed toffeeish and vanilla-like. A variation aged in a Jim Beam cask (sealed) was yet more vanilla-like. One from plain oak was distinctly resinous. A dry-hopped version had a touch of citrus.

Brewers of Alaska
Michael Jackson and the brewers of Alaska

One evening, The Brewhouse gave a dinner for for Alaska's brewers. A majority of the state's dozen or so breweries were represented. The guests were all working brewers: the men and women who actually make the beer. What do brewers drink when the get together? On this occasion, they drank Barley Wines. Not their own, but nine or ten samples obtained from working brewer friends in as many states across the country.

Faced with the work of their colleagues, which did the brewers like best? Well, there certainly was a lot of talk about the intense, plummy-tasting, Wee Heavy from the Vermont Pub and Brewery, in Burlington. This is made by an elaborate process in which the first runnings of one mash are boiled and allowed to undergo some caramelisation. The second runnings are used as the first water for a second mash. The first runnings of this mash are then added to the kettle.

There were grainier creations among 14 beers at Cusack's brewpub, in the bar of the Northern Lights Hotel. Brewer Jesse Theken started me gently enough, with his light but textured Seven Grain Ale (barley, oats, rye, corn, rice and spelt), but I was soon having bruising encounters with his peppery, Russian Rye (6.0 abv); his Burning Bog Scotch Ale (9.2abv), very lightly smoky, with treacle-toffee notes; an Oatmeal Stout tasting of chocolate-coated nuts; and his cedary, dry, Big Bully Barley Wine (10 abv).

A theme seemed to be emerging. In no other state have I been offered, per brewery, so many big, strong, sustaining, beers. Perhaps it's the winter weather. At the time of these tasting travels, it was frequently ten degrees below zero in Anchorage. Alaska's brewers were preparing themselves for the city's annual Beer and Barley Wine Festival, at which I was to meet the Episcopalian Archdeacon....

January in Alaska: Part II

Published Online: JAN 2, 2001
Published in Print: MAY 1, 2000
In: All About Beer

Brew Travel - Brewery Review - Beer Event Reviews - Beer Review

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