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Beaumont's Journal
Drinking Alaska
I love to travel, and I indulge in this luxury whenever possible, but even for me the start of 2002 promised to be a bit hairy. After celebrating New Year's Eve in the south of France, I was to spend a few days in Paris, drop by my Toronto home for a change of socks, spend a long weekend in Vancouver and head north to Anchorage, via Seattle. In the end, it all translated into about 11,500 miles logged on my various frequent flier plans.

At best, I figured I was in for a serious case of culture shock. At worst, my final flight would drop a hollow shell of a man (moi) at Toronto's Pearson Airport.

The reasons behind this lengthy voyage were all sound and unassailable. My wife, Christine, and I were visiting Provence to spend some time with my aunt; we went to Paris because, well, it's Paris; Vancouver meant a chance to celebrate a deferred Christmas with my West Coast family; we passed through the Seattle airport because it is the only way to get from Vancouver to Anchorage; and Christine and I visited Anchorage because I had been invited as a special guest for the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.

As it turned out, the only negative effect I was suffering by the time we were to leave for Anchorage was a very stiff neck and upper back, a result of rough play with my nephews. The massage bar at the Seattle airport fixed up most of that, though, and I was confident that the barley wines would take care of the rest. Bring on Alaska!

Although breweries from Anchor to Full Sail and Guinness to Chimay were present, I concentrated my two days of tasting efforts almost exclusively on Alaskan beers.

Since it was January, I will confess to having been a little nervous about the degree of winter I was about to experience. Despite — or perhaps due to — my having been raised in Montreal, where winter is a six-month way of life, I'm not a fan of snow, ice, cold and all the other climatic joys of wintertime. I needn't have worried, though, as the snowfall and temperature in Anchorage virtually equaled what Toronto was experiencing. In other words, not much and around freezing.

Our first stop after dumping our bags at the hotel was Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse, certainly one of America's finest and most unsung beer bars. Proprietor Billy Opinsky was to be our very generous host for the week, and he started us off with a few choice Alaskan brews and a plate of impossibly tender chunks of lightly fried halibut. With fine ale and remarkable seafood, the tone was set for our stay.

Over the course of the next few days, Billy took us to all four of Anchorage's brewpubs — not a bad number for a rather compact city of a quarter of a million people. Highlights included the crisp “small pale ale” character of the Klondike Golden Ale and the massive, wonderfully balanced 10.4% alcohol Darth Delirium Stout at Moose's Tooth; the highly original Rye Bock, a dry, lightly spicy 5.75% alcohol dark lager with a definite rye character, and the suitably named — being both very big and aged in Jim Beam barrels — Big Woody Beam Barleywine 2001 of the Glacier Brewing Company; Cusack's sweet, chocolatey 7.5% alcohol Divine Dubbel and the rich, plummy, anise-accented Belgian Strong Abbey-Style 10; and the round, toffee-ish Braveheart Scottish Ale and complex (dried fruit, spice, chocolate, caramel) Old Chef's Reserve at the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company.

We also stopped at the Midnight Sun Brewing Company, a local brewery that had first caught my attention a year earlier at the Toronado Barleywine Festival with an excellent Arctic Devil Barley Wine. This trip, the brewery continued its high-alcohol success with a spicy tripel that showed pear notes in the nose and light fruit and beautiful balance in the body, along with a mild to moderately smoky Rauchbock with soft licorice and raisin notes at 8% abv. For session drinkers, Midnight Sun scores big with the tasty and profoundly quaffable Sockeye Red, a brassy-coloured IPA with a big leafy aroma and serious though not unbalanced bitterness.

All this was before the beer festival. As the saying goes, I had not yet begun to taste.

Although breweries from Anchor to Full Sail and Guinness to Chimay were present at the festival, I concentrated my two days of tasting efforts almost exclusively on Alaskan beers, and still left several local booths unvisited. (Particular apologies to Silver Gulch Brewing of Fairbanks, a brewery helmed by a former southern Ontario brewer. I tried, but time just ran out on me.) Suffice it to say that Alaskans are not lacking for good beer.

From the Juneau-area Haines Brewing, I enjoyed a roasty, lightly herbal Lookout Stout, which I found to be more porter-ish in character, along with a caramelly IPA. Haines’s neighbours at the Alaskan Brewing Company impressed as usual with a fine range of ales, including a surprisingly peaty-smoky Big Nugget Barley Wine.

Over in Eagle River, Alaska's oldest brewpub, the Regal Eagle, caught my attention with a mocha-ish Oil Rig Oatmeal Stout, accented with notes of black plum and espresso, and a pleasant, hazy-gold Snowy Creek Lager, billed as a Munich helles and fitting nicely in style. Nevertheless, I found a little more exciting the Classic Pilsner from the local Borealis Brewery, a perfumey lager with a crisp overall character and nice floral notes in the body. Borealis also furnished an enjoyable IPA with a citrusy body and very dry finish, as well as a pleasing two-year-old Borealis Barleywine with notes of sweet chocolate, raisin and caramel.

In between all this beer, we had the opportunity to dine in numerous Anchorage establishments, and seldom were we disappointed. When the sushi is so fresh that it almost flops around on the plate, as was the case at the Kumagoro Restaurant, you don't complain. And neither do you object when your Moluska Benedict, a delicious play on eggs benny featuring tender lox and red onion, is accompanied by a beer list weighted more or less evenly between the bright lights of the local scene and the classics of Belgium, as was the case at Cafe Amsterdam.

And I didn't whine, not once. Not even during the full day of flying that carried Christine and me home, more than 11,000 miles later.




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