Since I graduated from college, I’ve made it a goal of mine to travel outside of the
great state of Illinois yearly. This year, I decided to visit Alaska: a land of breathtaking scenery and a surprisingly strong brewing culture. While brewery tours are often designed for those who haven’t made their own beer before, I always enjoy seeing professional shops, and learning about the latest experiments in the industry. So, I decided to book Big Swig’s Hops on the Rail experience and visit a few random brew pubs throughout Anchorage.
Hops on the Rail
The day started with a lovely train ride up to Talkeetna, Alaska: one of the common stopping points for travellers headed to Denali. I was excited to go because this would put me the second closest to the Arctic Circle that I’ve ever been. (I’ve crossed the Arctic Isotherm, but haven’t made it further north than 65°). From there, Bryan, our wonderful guide, drove us south back towards Anchorage. Along the way we made it to four different breweries:
Denali Brewing is one of the largest and most diversified commercial breweries in Alaska. They’re started dabbling into cider, mead, and spirits. Surprisingly, they focus on locally sourced ingredients whenever they can- especially honey, which is astonishing. We got a quick walkthrough and an explanation of the brewing process, as would become a common theme through the day; however, it’s nothing too greatly dissimilar from the craft brewery closest to wherever you hang your hat. Sampling was open to our choice, so here’s what I picked out:
Agave Gold – This was a very clean, straightforward golden ale (as you may have assumed). If you’ve ever cooked with agave, you might remember how subtle and light its flavor profile is: which was a nice addition. The beer clocked in above 5% without developing too strong of an alcohol note.
OneTree Birch Beer – Much like Agave Gold, this beer takes its name from an unusual syrup addition, in this case, birch syrup. Birch sap, much like maple, can be collected and condensed into a syrup at a ratio of nearly 40:1. The unusual sweetness worked really well with the light grain profile, and definitely pushed the alcohol content to the outer edges of a session beer.
Blues and Wheat – No, this is not another Blue Moon clone. While it is a witbier, it takes the first part of its name from a smattering of local blueberries. They add a nice flavor, but I’d prefer to see the quantities ramped up.
After a beautiful, scenic drive down to Palmer, Alaska, we stopped off at the much smaller, yet quite sizable Arkose. Stephen, the brewmaster, is very much in the vein of Dariusz: brewing should be focused on the four prime ingredients in precise quantities for reproducible results. The shop featured a lot of the same equipment as Denali Brewing, but in lesser supply. They focused on making a few beers very well, rather than a wide variety of styles. Stephen also gave us a sound piece of drinking advice: when visiting a brewery and deciding upon your first beer, pick the lightest beer with the least amount of hops. If it’s a brewery worth their weight, they’ll have the basics done right.
To that end, I ordered my first sample:
Shine Citra Blonde – Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about simple beer done right. It’s clean, effective, and delicious. With that in mind, I decided to be more adventurous – as I wanted to be anyway.
Caramel Apple Saison – A fantastic blend of caramel malt layered on top of an already good apple ale made for a very pleasant drink. While I probably would have gone to unorthodox extremes to get such a flavor, a plain, straightforward approach made a very nice beer indeed.
Bleeding Heart Brewery
Just a stone’s throw away from Arkose, Bleeding Heart Brewery was our next stop. Situated in a barn on a farm, Stefan and Zack have a very unusual setup that matched their grassroot origins. This was my type of brewery: weird done well. With unusual flavors and names, it was my favorite stop of the entire trip.
Here’s what they gave us to sample:
Kold Shoulder – A delightful kristallweizen that was the most tame of the beers presented. With their proximity to Arkose, it may stand as their benchmark beer to visitors- and with good cause.
Valley Trash – This is a (drumroll, please) dirty blonde with a surprisingly high ABV and amount of body. I’d describe it as a lawnmower beer for alcoholics- a title worthy of high praise.
Bleeding Heart Beet IPA – Now we’re talking. As the first IPA of the trip, I was excited for something bright in flavor. While the beet juice may seem like an unusual ingredient, it provides a beautiful ruby color and a nice earthy undertone. While distinctly beer, it had many of the complexities one would associate with coffee.
Grounds For Divorce – Speaking of coffee, it is a popular brewing ingredient these days. The crisp fall air paired well with a deep, flavorful porter – astyle I find to be wildly underappreciated. It was one of the most balanced beers of the day and a very smooth drink.
Odd Man Rush
Now in Eagle River, we hit the last stop of our tour: Odd Man Rush. Before we entered the doors, our flights were already poured and waiting. Having gotten a full set of backstage passes to the prior breweries, our time here was spent simply with beer:
Mile Hi Hefeweizen – Like many Hefeweizens, this beer was seasoned with coriander seed; which is slightly unfortunate given my genetic disposition. The wheat flavors were delicious, but a fault in my DNA kept me from enjoying the addition.
Bear Paw Shandy – A very unusual sight in late fall/winter, especially in Alaska. I was genuinely surprised to see a shandy, but my disbelief was rewarded. It’s a very clean drink and a surprising delight in the cold air.
Coach Mac’s Kilt Scottish Ale – A variety that’s somewhat of a gap for me. Typically I make and drink adjacent styles, but subcategories exist for a reason: to celebrate the rich diversity of flavors beer can possess, much like this one.
10-Ply Hazy IPA – A textbook example of the most popular style in the brewing world. Every brewery has one, and this one holds its own in a very crowded field.
49th State Brewing
Back in Anchorage, I began to crave some late night food- and beer. With a brewery less than a block away from where I was dropped off at, I knew where I was headed next: 49th State Brewing. A gastropub with a fair amount of hustle and bustle, I met one of the most interesting one-two punches in my days behind the glass.
I was treated to their lovely Smoked Marzen, which blended my favorite parts of scotch and beer into a delightfully complex drink. There is a distinct bite of smoke that rolls into a crisp, refreshing taste of wheat before the two ultimately merged. This was paired with a favorite snack of Chicago bars: popcorn; however, this popcorn had been candied with a glaze from a reduction of the smoked marzen and roasted jalapeño. It was an amazing duo, and one of the most inventive ways I’ve seen beer used in the kitchen to date.
All in all, Alaska was a wonderful trek and I’m quite glad that I found the brewery tour. That being said, there’s no place like home, and I look forward to researching and writing a guide to my home of Chicago someday soon.