Anchorage’s goofy winter festival — the Fur Rendezvous, or Rondy — celebrated 82 years in February. The fest wasn’t very beer-centric until the event organizers got younger and came in with an intense love of craft beer. I’ve reveled in the 10-day event for the last 38 years, and early days found me brown-bagging beer on the sidelines at the festival’s various outdoor events.
In 2008, Midnight Sun Brewing Company created the first official Rondy Brew. Starting in 2011, Anchorage Brewing Company began producing the brew, and that year it made a standard saison (if there is such a thing at Anchorage Brewing Company). In 2012, a white IPA became the official Rondy Brew. The next year, another saison was released, this time with lemongrass. In 2014, owner and brewer Gabe Fletcher made another saison. In 2015, an IPA was brewed, and 2016 saw yet another saison, this time with hibiscus. All of the beers were a great hit, but this year’s is my all-time favorite.
Fletcher describes the 2017 Rondy Brew as “a straight-up IPA,” but it’s far from it. Fletcher dosed the beer with 100 percent Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand. The hops are rare and expensive.
Whenever anyone from outside of Alaska hits me up with, “Hey, I’m only here in town for a couple of hours. Where can I get the best feel for Alaska beer?” I send them to Midnight Sun.
Although I’ve had them before, my most intimate exposure to these sensational hops was as an additive to the Celebrator’s very own 25th anniversary beer, which we brewed at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Beer Camp in December of 2012. We formulated and brewed a double pale ale that weighed in at 9.3% abv, and a key ingredient was the Nelson Sauvin hops. I remember being smitten by the rich aromatic quality and lovely, almost tropical flavor. I won’t divulge the exact recipe (it’s a Celebrator secret), but we featured the hops through kettle additions and in the late boil for flavor, and we dry-hopped with these sexy green cones for aroma.
Fletcher has a different twist on IPAs. “It’s a new thing these days. I don’t use any hops in the boil; they all go in at the end of the boil and with dry-hopping,” he says. “I get as much flavor and aroma but less bitterness, making the beers more juicy and fruity without the aggressive bitterness.”
Indeed, the beer is perfectly balanced rather than intensely bitter. The Nelson Sauvin hops really shine. I’ve been describing this beer as “hops wrung out in a glass with a stick of juicy fruit as a stirrer.” It’s simply one of the best IPAs I’ve ever had.
Fletcher’s ambitious brewery expansion will add another 3,000-square-foot building, a rooftop garden, an outside orchard, a dedicated coolship room and a canning line, but these plans haven’t gotten in the way of making arrangements for this year’s Culmination Festival, slated for July 29 in Anchorage. Details are scant at this point, but if you want to hit one of the most incredible beer festivals around, add this gig to your calendar.
Fletcher’s brewing prowess and fame have him well connected with brewers from all over the world. Every year, he’s able to procure the best of the best for the festival from these national and international breweries. Monitor TheCulminationFestival.com and jump on tickets when the gig’s announced; it literally sells out in hours.
Some of my earliest craft brewing roots extend back to watching Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse emerge and redefine the sleepy downtown Anchorage 23 years ago. I was working in a building that had a restaurant and bar on the ground floor, and after work I’d frequent the joint, because even in the emergent craft brewing days, if something was new, the bar had it on tap.
I wasn’t a barfly, but the barkeeps all knew me, and one day a bartender named Jim Maurer pulled me aside and confided in me: “We’re opening a real alehouse in the corridor — it’s going to be right across the street from the Center for the Performing Arts,” he whispered.
I thought this was odd. Who in their right mind would open a lively alehouse in the dark, lonely downtown area? I found myself riding my bicycle up there after work in the evenings in the summer to check out the place and even help with the remodel. It didn’t take me long to get to know Cyndi Ramirez, Humpy’s first employee. Maurer was a managing partner, and Ramirez came along to keep things at a brisk pace.
I started writing a weekly beer column for the Anchorage Press 19 years ago, and Ramirez was certainly liberal with praise and scorn as she monitored every column I wrote. I’ve been part of the Humpy’s family since day one, and Ramirez has been a big part of it.
At year 15, Ramirez took a break. “I left Humpy’s in ’07. It was the 15-year mark for me, and I think I got a little itchy, maybe had a midlife crisis; I don’t know. I needed a little bit of an adventure. I wanted to try something different and see how it fit,” she says.
Ramirez returned in January, but to a different Humpy’s. When she left, Humpy’s consisted of the main restaurant and bar and a satellite bar called SubZero that was connected to Humpy’s but also touched a side street. At the time she left, she was doing marketing for Humpy’s, and she will be doing much the same now.
Call it job enlargement or job enrichment, but Ramirez left a restaurant and bar and came back to an empire. Humpy’s now has a location in Hawaii. The Anchorage location of Humpy’s took over a building across the street and built a complex called Williwaw, which contains a restaurant, a coffee shop and a speakeasy upstairs. Humpy’s has plans for a brewery too, although this is down the road a bit, both in time and location.
Midnight Sun Brewing Company continues to burst at the seams with projects and an ever-expanding beer lineup. The brewery got so crammed a couple of years ago that it had to secure warehouse space about a block away on the same street. The brewers didn’t waste time capitalizing on the extra space, which now houses bulk grain, can blanks, cooperage, a huge cold-storage area and a dedicated oak room called “Oakland.” And for those of you more familiar with the Midnight Sun mantra, wildness and naming conventions, Oakland is right behind the Tickle Room, if that tells you anything.
With more space, the brewery has more room to play. Lagers aren’t uncommon at Midnight Sun, but ales definitely rule the tap line in the upstairs Loft, where beer and food are served. “We’re working on a new pilsner,” says co-owner Barb Miller. “We’ve done some test batches, and we’ll be releasing it this summer. We plan to have it in cans by this fall,” she says of a beer the brewery’s been tweaking for the core lineup.
In addition to a lager in the lineup, Midnight Sun is embarking on another of what seems to be an unending string of specialty series of beers. For 10 years, the brewery did an annual beer series, starting with the Seven Deadly Sins series, followed by the Planet Beers series and many others.
“We’re starting a new sour beer series called the Wild Alaska Adventure series,” says Miller. I love the concept. In fact, whenever anyone from outside of Alaska hits me up with, “Hey, I’m only here in town for a couple of hours. Where can I get the best feel for Alaska beer?” I send them to Midnight Sun. All of Alaska’s breweries make fabulous beer, but I think it’s the ’tude, the tune and the wildness at Midnight Sun that best expose an outside craft beer lover to our vibrant, often whacky lifestyle up here.
Expect to see the sours come out in 22-ounce bomber bottles instead of a draft or a can format. “The thing about the sour ones,” says Miller, “is that we don’t use the main bottler. These are hand-filled and bottle-conditioned, so it’s definitely a more labor-intensive process.” Midnight Sun turns 22 in May.
Spring is a good time to visit Alaska. Just don’t expect it to be here when you arrive. Either that or bring a snow shovel and a raging thirst.