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It's up, up and away to drink smoked porter out on the ice

I recently found myself in the middle of an icefield about 15 miles from the town of Juneau, Alaska. A helicopter had deposited me there, for a picnic with a couple of local brewers.

We had landed on soft snow on top of Two Glacier Lake a mile wide expanse of solid ice encircled by mountain peaks reaching four and six thousand feet. Between two of the peaks, converging glaciers formed a frozen, 1000-foot high waterfall so thick that it appeared bright turquoise against the white of the snow.

At the top the ice was shaped like pointed teeth. Every now and then, a tooth, loosened by melting would fall the thousand feet, sending chips of smashed pulverized, ice in a plume of hail, and causing a noise the local Tlingit Indians call "white thunder".

Beyond the immediate peaks. the mountains stretched for 200 miles

In the baggage compartment of the five-seater helicopter, we had a folding picnic table and chairs, a boiled Alaska King Crab, a side of smoked Chinook salmon, a large packet of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a loaf of sourdough bread and an assortment of beers, including a rare smoked porter.

I know of only one smoked porter anywhere in the world. and I am very fond of it. Indeed. I am prepared to go a long way to indulge it.

The week in question was proving to be arduous but rewarding. Beginning with a writing deadline, then a trip to Burton, and from there a return trip to the Guild of British Beer Writers awards dinner in London.

Round midnight, I got home to find a message concerning a trip to Alaska, about which there had been some uncertainty The trip was on. I would have to get up at about 6:30 a.m.

When I arrived in Anchorage it was early evening my time but mid-morning locally. A journey to Alaska stretches even the most resilient body-clock because it lies beyond any Continental American time zone, and is more than two thousand miles wide.

Worse still, I had to hang around in Anchorage until mid-afternoon, for a half hour local flight to Cordova, followed by a similar hop to Yakutat. Finally, there was to be a further jump to Juneau, the capital (pop. 25,000) which is also the home of Alaska's only brewery.

Then, on this last leg, the pilot informed us that bad weather in Juneau might force us to over-fly.

I had been travelling for about 18 hours. My body clock was saying 3 a.m. and I had not touched a decent beer for about 28 hours.

Now, almost above Juneau, where lay that magnificent smoked porter, the pilot was threatening to fly clean out of Alaska, across the border into Canada, then out again, and land about 1,000 miles away in Seattle.

He made one pass over Juneau, and then another. After a third, he decided to attempt a landing. We got down. This was just as well; Juneau can be reached only by air or sea. It has no road links with other cities; at the edge of town, the roads end.

By the time my body clock was trying to register 6 a.m. I was finally settling down to a dinner of Alaskan halibut, and looking forward to a helicopter trip at sunrise.

My breakfast partners were Geoff and Marcy Larson, proprietors of the brewery, a splendid enterprise that made its first beer three years ago.

The Alaskan Brewing Company may be a very successful micro, but it does not run to a helicopter; that was hired for the morning. Why they wanted to take me for breakfast on the icefield is still not entirely clear to me - but it was fun, and did demonstrate the sustaining, warming, powers of a hearty porter.

The malt for the porter had been smoked over alder - one of the principal local woods along with Sitka spruce. The brewery, in a pine-clad industrial building sits right opposite a similar structure that houses a fish smokery.

Together, the brewery. a couple of fish smokeries and a coffee-roasting company occupy a small industrial estate in a neighborhood called Lemon Creek. an inlet in the barrier of snow-covered mountains that towers behind Juneau.

The malt was smoked across the street. in an oven that normally turns the same wood to the cooking and flavoring of salmon. The smoked porter was conceived by Geoff and Marcy as a local specialty for Christmas and produced to a gravity of 1055 OG from four malts -crystal, Munich, chocolate and black all smoked.

Two hops were used: Chinook and Williamette. A top-fermenting yeast was employed. at ale temperatures.

The Alaskan Smoked Porter is almost black, with ruby highlights. It has a massive head formation and leaves a dense lace-work.

In its bouquet and palate, it is smokey enough to satisfy the natives of the German malting town of Bamberg, but full of complexity, with a mellow woodiness, a faint hint of fruit, a dash of chocolate, a slightly chewy maltiness, and an oily finish that sticks to the ribs in the cold of Alaska.

It is both distinctive and delicious.

The brewery also makes a notably soft-bodied, fruity, Pale Ale; a remarkably smooth and malty Altbier - its principal product, under the name Alaskan Amber - and a variety of seasonal brews for different times of the year.

I have greatly enjoyed a tawny Autumn Ale, full of hop aroma, but have yet to taste the summer wheat beer.

These beers have their origins in a dream of frontier life. Geoff Larson grew up in North Dakota, and Marcy in Florida, but they shared a love for the outdoors.

They moved to Alaska intending to spend their time kayaking. camping and mountain-climbing. Somewhere in the mix of Alaskan resourcefulness came home-brewing.

Geoff had been a chemical engineer for a gold mine near Juneau, and Marcy was a bookkeeper at a ski resort. Eventually they decided they could better use their skills working together making something they both enjoy.

They are manifestly fine brewers, going to great trouble, especially in their various regimes of fermentation and maturation, to enhance the distinctiveness character and complexity of the styles they produce.

To start their brewery, they raised half a million dollars from almost a hundred shareholders. In their first year, they made 1,500 barrels; this year, their fourth, they will top 4,000; they hope to reach 8,000 - which would make the business comfortable - in five or six years.

Geoff and Marcy, who are in their early 30s, are putting in some pretty long hours. Brewing is round the clock with ten permanent workers and half a dozen part-time.

Life has not been without its hiccups. At first, they called their beer Chinook, after a wind (and a species of salmon) that is associated with Alaska.

This caused some confusion: there is the hop variety of the same name (which they use, but not exclusively); a home-brew shop called Chinook; and a winery in Washington State.

Now, Geoff and Marcy are emphasizing the word "Alaskan".

It may all seem rather remote. but I did meet a Briton who was most concerned about Alaskan Amber Beer. I met him in Juneau at the Red Dog saloon (where they still have a gun checked, but never reclaimed. by Wyatt Earp).

My drinking buddy was an oil engineer with BP, at Prudhoe Bay, about 1,500 miles farther north. His concern was that Alaskan Amber is hard to sample there. BP simply do not permit their staff at Prudhoe Bay to drink - on or off duty.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: FEB 1, 1990
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review - Brew Travel - Beer Styles

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