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Arctic devil of a job

January in Alaska: Part II

Anyone who has ever taken part in a blindfold judging knows not guess the identity of a beer. Not out loud, anyway. There is an unbearable temptation to show how clever you are, but some Murphyesque law insists that if you try do this, you will be stupidly wrong.

Judging barley wines at the Great American beer Festival one year, I found two I loved. I became convinced that one was Anchor Old Foghorn and the other Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. After the results were declared, I obtained the list of entries, with their code numbers. It turned out I had the names right but the beers the wrong way round.

How could I be so wrong about two beers that I have known so well since they were born? Easily. I did something similar at this year's Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival, in Anchorage.

Sixteen Barley Wines entered the judging, though four five more were available at the festival. In all, there were about 175 beers of various styles, from about 50 breweries in the U.S. and Europe.

The other judges agreed it was the best entrant, and awarded it First Prize. I was sure it was Old Foghorn. When I was called upon to open the envelope and present the prize, it emerged as Bigfoot.

In the first round of the judging, I noted that a certain Barley Wine had a wonderful aroma; a very good malt background; and lots of hop in its dry flavour and finish. This beer was one of six that the judges passed through to final round. This time, the beers were given different codes, so that judges could not favor their first-round choices. I wrote in my notebook: "Superb hop aroma and flavor. Very long" against what turned out later to have be the same beer. The other judges agreed it was the best entrant, and awarded it First Prize. I was sure it was Old Foghorn. When I was called upon to open the envelope and present the prize, it emerged as Bigfoot.

The Second Prize went to Old Knucklehead, from BridgePort, of Portland, Oregon. This beer had not come to my table in the first round, but I had tasted it in the final. I was not surprised when I later learned its identity, though I had not tried to guess. Tasted blindfold, it seemed very malty. I did find some hop balance, but three of my fellow judges were less convinced. A fourth sided with me, and we won the argument that it should get a medal.

The Third Prize went to Horn of the Beer, from Anderson Valley. I have been friendly with the owner of this brewery for years, but was not especially taken with this beer. It had an interesting complex of spicy flavours but I felt they did not hang together very well.

Two prizes for California? Well, it is the state with the most breweries, but this last prize was hotly contested between its eventual winner and an unlucky fourth beer, from Alaska. Not knowing the identities of the beers during the judging, we were not even tempted to make a political decision. In this battle, I was on the losing side.

My choice of Third Prize would have been Arctic Devil, from the Midnight Sun brewery, in Anchorage, Alaska. This pioneering micro was founded by Mark Staples, a former computer programmer, who became, in his own words, "obsessed with beer".

Arctic Devil is an extraordinarily creamy barley wine, aged for six months in a red wine barrel and its unusual flavours were deemed excessively rich and lacking in hop balance by some of the judges. Not a typical barley wine, but I gave it points for individuality.

I had not correctly identified this beer, even though I had tasted it earlier in the week at the brewery.. The 13 brews I tasted there were largely sampled by candlelight, as there was a power outage. Don't expect any revealing comments regarding the color of these malty, firm-bodied, beers.

I liked the toasty Full Curl Scotch Ale. Did the name refer to the Scottish game of curling (like bowling on ice)? No, it described the horns of a local sheep. What about a soft but dryish Dopplebock, called Double Shovel? That name suggested the antlers of a caribou, explained owner Mark Staples. I understood beer-names like Sockeye Red, Kodiak Brown and Mammoth Stout, and admired the graphics of the labels. Brewer Kevin Burton offered to show me what the real animals look like - the brewery shares its industrial lot with a taxidermist - but I had a date with a Moose's Tooth.

The technique of freezing the brew, then removing the ice to concentrate the alcohol, was applied to an IPA.

This turned out to be a micro-brewery, in a former ice-cream dairy - with, in separate premises, its own pub and pizza restaurant. No animal names, but Kurt Vonnegut's cult novel "Cat's Cradle" inspired a beer. The book, you will remember, was about the destruction of the world by ice. The beer was a variation on the Eisbock style. The technique of freezing the brew, then removing the ice to concentrate the alcohol, was applied to an IPA. The brewery had planned to allow this product to freeze out of doors, but the weather plummeted to an almost Vonnegutian 44: too cold to make ice beer. Instead, they used the bright-beer tank in the brewery. The Ice IPA, at a hefty 8-10 per cent alcohol by volume, seemed remarkably light-bodied at first mouthful, then very spicy, with a briar-like bitterness, and astonishingly long.

Vonnegut, the son of a brewer, is a lover of micro-beers, and I hoped he might materialise from the steam of the kettle. He did not, but one member of the brewery's crew is called Dylan Thomas, providing a personification of its literary tone. I was told that the next project was to restore a former theater and movie house as a pub. Beret-wearing owner Matt Jones looks an arty type, though he admits to having studied law.

Among 15 beers I enjoyed at Moose's Tooth were a creamy, licorice-like Doppelbock; the grainy, slightly smoky, Solstice Winter Warmer; and two versions, of a Barley Wine, one with a gravity of 1099 and a figgy, malt emphasis, the other a mere 1088 and remarkably hoppy..

No more animals, but a bald eagle in the Alaskan sky as I headed for the Borealis micro, again in an industrial lot, in the warehouse district near the waterfront. There I encountered a mere seven beers, including: the Matanuska Thunder Bock, with a peppery, dry, finish; a meaty, fruity, Barley Wine; and the strong (6.5 per cent alcohol by volume), resiny, coffeeish, Extreme Stout. Owner Jarret Klein studied chemistry at Harvard, and won a grant to brew there. This extraordinarily enlightened bequest was in memory of a student named Lou Platt, apparently someone who loved life and who died tragically young.

In the hillside suburb of Eagle River, a mock-Victorian building houses a restaurant offering big portions, notably of steak, at competitive prices, to a family clientele - and brewing its own beer, under the name Regal Eagle. The owner seemed rather more interested in his restaurant, even though this was for Alaska a pioneering brewpub, established in 1994.

Brewer Ken Stevenson was clearly putting a lot of work into his beers: the malt-accented Copper River Amber; an appropriately hop-tasting IPA named after the nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base; and oily, soothing, splendidly-named Mogadon Imperial Stout.

Slightly further north, the small town of Wasilla is the official starting point for the Iditarod dogsled race. There I met Laurence Livingston, a microbiologist who has worked on environmental studies in Alaska. He is now one of the principals of the Great Bear brewpub, and making beautifully-rounded, very tasty, beers. The Alaskan brown lily is celebrated in a beer with a delicious bitter-chocolate flavour, helped along by the house of Ghiradelli. This brew is called Chocolate Lily Porter. Belgian Rochefort yeast is used in a winey, medicinal, Tripel. In this land of barley wines, TNT is an explosive entrant, bursting with malt and hop.

With experiences like that, who needs the Northern Lights?

January in Alaska: Part I

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

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