While all the beer world keeps on talking about hops, the Alaskan craft brewers continue showcasing beer’s true backbone: malt. Follow Jacob Grier, who made up for an expedition through the remote state that might become a neverland for lovers of dark, rich brews.
Sitting outside the brewpub at Kassik’s in Nikiski, Alaska, alongside a group of drink writers making our way through a couple tasting trays of beer, our experience was initially the kind one might enjoy at any number of breweries across the United States. There were solid renditions of classic styles with cheeky names, like their Morning Wood English IPA. Head brewer Frank Kassik stood by, genial but not particularly talkative, and I thought we’d soon be moving on to our next brewery stop. But it turned out that those ten beers were just the warm up. Soon his wife, Debara, appeared bearing the big guns: Bomber bottles of Statny Statny stout brewed with licorice and molasses, Big Nutz imperial brown ale, smoked Russian imperial stout aged in oak barrels, and Buffalo Head barleywine.
Suddenly this tasting was getting a lot more interesting, shifting into the darker, richer, maltier ales that I’d anticipated most on this trip north. As the outdoor chill set in and the abv of the beers got higher, the only thing that could have made this tasting more uniquely Alaskan would have been encountering a moose — which we did, about five minutes drive from the brewery.
Malt is the magic word
Over the course of a week I visited 18 breweries around Alaska and sampled the wares of many others, trying many memorable beers along the way, but none represent the state’s brewing scene in microcosm so well as that stop at Kassik’s. Sure, you can find good pale ales, lagers, IPAs, porters, and stouts just about anywhere. In today’s rich brewing culture, that’s hardly unique. So after a week of intensive beer tasting, what makes Alaska stand out? My one word answer is: malt.
Economically, Alaska seems like an odd place to focus on the bulkiest ingredient that goes into beer. All that malted barley has to be shipped to the remote state, driving up expenses. Given the cost of transit and the cold temperatures, one might expect brewers to focus on lagers, or perhaps ales made with lightweight hops. On the other hand, the long, cold winter nights in Alaska make it an ideal place to crack open a warming malt bomb.
Whatever the reason, maltdriven beers now thrive there. Brewing died out in Alaska post-Prohibition, and the first attempt at revival was the failed, statesubsidized Germanstyle brewery Prinz Brau, which lasted just three years in the 1970s. It was the Juneaubased Chinook Alaskan Brewery, now known simply as Alaskan Brewing Co., that brought craft brewing to the state in 1986. Their emphasis was on malt from the beginning, first in their signature Amber, but more notably in their Smoked Porter, which has taken home more than twenty medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Brewer Geoff Larson created the beer as a throwback to the kinds of beers one may have found in the preProhibition days of Alaskan brewing.
The taste of wood and smoke…
“You’re at the end of the supply chain here in Alaska,” he said in a 2012 interview. “Malt houses were inevitably making some of the more powerful beers porters and stouts. One particular brewery really talked about their porters. So in 1900 there were a lot of dark beers being made in Alaska. Here we are: We’re in Alaska, there are dark beers, there are malting facilities, and the only hard wood here is alder. This was a frontier town; everybody was using wood for cooking and heat. If you walked down the streets of Juneau in 1907, what you smelled was smoke. In a town where smoke is everywhere, it’s probably in the beer. It wasn’t out of place.”
The gentle smokiness of Alaska’s porter serves as an easy entree into their even richer beers, such as their barley wine, which recalls the classic J. W. Lee’s from England with flavors of sweet malt and fruity raisin. And at a recent tasting of Alaskan beers conducted with friends in Oregon, a 2011 bottling of their Baltic Porter was a nearly unanimous favorite, a bittersweet symphony of vanilla, oak, and molasses, with a touch of savoriness.
Smoked malts are also a highlight at Anchorage’s Midnight Sun, one of the few other Alaskan breweries whose beers enjoy fairly wide distribution. Their limited release Bar Fly, a smoked imperial stout, mimics the experience of drinking an Old Fashioned in a smoky bar. Even more impressive is Secondhand Smoke, a beer brewed from Bar Fly’s second runnings that nonetheless weighs in at 8.4%. From these one might dive into Modern Romance, a rich stout brewed with chocolate and cinnamon, or Arctic Devil, a burlier take on barley wine that boasts flavors of molasses, dates, and a notable hop bitterness.
Many of these beers won’t be coming for you
While beers from Alaskan and Midnight Sun are available in other states, some of the most interesting beers in Alaska are unlikely to stray far from the source. For some, that’s a simple matter of the cost of shipping. For others licensed as as brewpubs, state law caps the total production they’re allowed to sell each year. That’s one reason Broken Tooth’s annual release of Darth Delirium, a Belgian stout brewed with chocolate and aged for a year, is hard to come by. But with its coffee aromas, velvety mouthfeel, and roasty bitterness, it’s worth seeking out in person on a visit to their bars in Anchorage.
Hoodoo Brewing, all the way up in Fairbanks, is free from such legal caps, but it still feels like a small brewpub and easily qualifies as one of the nation’s most remote breweries. It’s also one of the best I’ve visited in years. Primarily serving the local community, rotating taps showcase a varied selection of beers: kölsch, weisse, maibock, IPA, UK IPA, and stout on our visit. They’ve just started canning, and among their rare bottle offerings is Tusk, a barley wine that spends a year ageing in wheat whiskey barrels. It’s rich, sweet, and lively, more coppery in color than the state’s darker barley wines, layering notes of bright tangerine peel atop the typical notes of the English style. Only 1.000 bottles à 750 ml came out of the 2016 release.
Back in Anchorage, King State Brewing extends an appealing line of standards with house beer blends mixed on the spot to get the most out of a small tap list. But here again it’s worth cracking into the bottles, which include the rich Nobility barley wine, Portage weizenbock, and Irish Gael export stout, all of them aged in oak before bottling.
Let’s break more boundaries
Of course, big, malty beers aren’t the only thing going in Alaska. Some other highlights would include adventurous beers like chiliaccented blonde El Guapo at Odd Man Rush in Eagle River; Seward Brewing, which though only open in the warmer months of the year, boasts the best views and food one could ask for at a brewery, along with very good beers; Belgianinspired ales (and a great nonalcoholic root beer) at Resolution in Anchorage; the impressive range of beers at Denali Brewing, including their wonderfully aromatic Twister Creek IPA; and what has to be one of the best sour ageing programs on the continent at Anchorage Brewing, with its stunning hall of wooden foudres.
That all of these different beers have taken root in Alaska is testament to how flat the brewing world of craft beer has become. Successful styles and techniques can be rapidly adopted elsewhere; witness the spread of kettlesoured ales or New Englandstyle IPAs. This is great news for beer drinkers. It means there is more great beer available in more places. But it also means that each place where craft beer takes hold becomes a little bit more like every other. Much like the speakeasy cocktail bar or the third wave coffee shop, the craft brewery can take on an air of sameness, even when operating at a level of excellence.
The popular trends in beer today tend to focus on hops (more hops, experimental hops, fresh hops) or yeast (farmhouse ales, sour ales, barrel aged beers redolent with brettanomyces). I enjoy these as much as anyone, but I’m increasingly becoming a partisan for malt. In wellstocked beer shops, the old school malty English ales are often relegated to dusty, neglected shelves. When American brewers make beers in such styles, they often seem compelled to throw in extra hops, as if making a sweet toffee barleywine would be somehow embarrassing. In the current climate, malt is rarely seen as sexy.
Perhaps that’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to find so many fantastic maltdriven beers in Alaska, whether in the form of barley wines and imperial stouts or in beers that use smoked malts to great effect. These brews swim against the current of today’s beer trends, and their concentration here seems uniquely regional at a time when regional uniqueness is often fleeting. Anchorage even hosts an annual barleywine festival, which sounds both incredibly appealing and fearfully hangover inducing. The abundance of these beers in Alaska is worthy of note. And if one happens to cross paths with a moose in the midst of one’s exploration, so much the better.
Bildquelle: Photo via Flickr / Ian D. Keating