Alaska: The Last Frontier…of Beer

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Alaska: The Last Frontier…of Beer

There’s one phrase you’ll see again and again in Alaska, from tourist shops to visitor’s centers to a Discovery Channel series and even occasionally from entities that, you know, actually serve locals: “Alaska, the last frontier.”

There’s truth to this. Alaska is a massive state with infamous seasonal weather, meaning there are large swaths of land unsullied by us. And a number of towns are nearly as remote, inaccessible by roads or seemingly inaccessible at all during certain parts of the year. This geography has created a relatively sparse and spread out population, a situation leading to at least one very practical outcome.

No matter where you go in the state, there is a local brewery to sample.

The reasons for this are probably plenty. The geographic sprawl means distribution can get tough, so breweries have popped up in even small communities in order to meet the ever-growing demand for better beer. But Alaskans also just seem to love beer—the state was seventh overall for breweries per 100,000 people in 2013 and third for gallons produced per of-age person (and even more breweries are being plotted).

So unless you live there and have time to travel, trying everything Alaska has to offer may quite literally be impossible. The good thing is this mass of microbrewers (with a handful of big craft outlets) means no matter where you go, from Juneau and Anchorage to smaller locales like Talkeetna and Palmer, you can find more than just “some local beer”—it’s usually a beer worth writing home about.

For instance, land at Ted Stevens International in Anchorage, and the first local you ask for a restaurant recommendation is likely to send you to a brewpub like Moose’s Tooth. Initially when folks casually referenced a preference for “Amber,” Moose’s Tooth’s variation (Northern Lights Amber) seemed to fit based on its quality. It’s surprisingly hoppy for an amber, but crisp, light, and easily the most popular pitcher order in the house. The experience made it hard to pass on other recommended brewpubs throughout the state, like 49th State in Denali or Seward Brewing Company in Seward.

You’ll see Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s colorful cans beyond the borders of Alaska (they ship their beer into Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California and New York City), but the best place to enjoy one? While taking in the Alaskan Baseball League’s pièce de résistance—its Fourth of July double-header between the Anchorage Glacier Pilots and the Anchorage Bucs. This subway series features an even better off-the-field battle as Midnight sponsors the Glacier Pilots (meaning Oosik Amber Ale on tap, an enjoyable creamy interpretation with some biscuit-y flavor) and Alaskan Brewing sponsors the Bucs. With $5 beers, everybody wins.

I spent a week drinking my way through Alaska, literally trying a new beer or more per day, and it simply wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of what the state’s craft scene has to offer. The following five brewers can act as an initial scouting report, but the best chance for understanding what’s happening in the 49th state involves a plane ticket and plenty of first-hand research.

Alaskan Brewing Co.
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The details: If you’ve had an Alaskan beer, chances are its been from these guys. (They make the “Amber” mentioned everywhere.) Around since the mid-1980s, Alaskan is the granddaddy of the state’s craft brewing scene. It’s the largest (among the 15 largest in the entire US), distributes the most (to 16 states in the lower 48) and boasts one of the best resumes from the Great American Beer Festival (its Smoked Porter alone has nearly 20 medals).

Availability: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Phoenix, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado and Montana

Try (if you can find it): Smoked Porter is an obvious choice, but Alaskan Amber may be the most common go-to for locals. Despite the name, it’s actually an Alt-style brew, meaning it’s fermented slower and (fittingly) at colder temperatures than other ales. This makes for a smooth and balanced beer—the caramel notes don’t leave after an initial flavor rush, they keep you engaged through each and all sips.

King St. Brewing
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The details: Coming up on its third birthday this fall, King St. is the brainchild of two long-time homebrewers. They’re an extremely community-oriented operation (they made some notable Special Olympics donations right when starting off and continue to hold events at the brewery regularly), and King St. only started canning so those beyond Anchorage could grab and go last summer. They like to have folks come and visit, and their cans have a coupon for a pour on top to encourage it.

Availability: Alaska-only

Try (if you can find it): King St. IPA comes in 360-degree widemouth 16 oz. cans for a reason. If you’re a hophead, this is an IPA to travel for. It entices you with a citrusy aroma, but none of the fruit (grapefruit, tangerine, lemon and likely many more blending well) overpowers the beer. And for an IPA, it finishes quite cleanly without weighing you down (meaning you can fawn over that gigantic pop top again).

Denali Brewing Co.
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The details: Talkeetna is Ithaca if you’re familiar with the Northeast, perhaps Eugene if you call the Northwest home. This independent-minded, artistic town boasts Denali National Park as its nearby neighbor and finally got its local brewer in 2009. Since then, Denali Brewing has gained accolades (like once being named the official beer of the Alaskan State Fair) as they continue to grow in size (now one of Talkeetna’s largest employers, Denali even opened a second tasting room in May).

Availability: Alaska-only

Try (if you can find it): Denali has a number of Alaska-inspired flavors including a Birch IPA and Purple Haze (made here with blueberries unlike the more known raspberry variety from Abita). Denali’s Single Engine Red is a red ale named for the local air taxi tradition, and it’s a bit calmer (as to be quite sessionable during hiking) than such a tiny plane ride might be.

Homer Brewing Company
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The details: Another veteran of the Alaskan brewing scene (open since 1996), Homer Brewing is the perfect example of a locally-focused Alaskan microbrewer. They only distribute within the city, and you’ll need to fill your growler if you want to take it beyond nearby taprooms. But the brewery’s lineup is versatile and can be found everywhere from local dives to the best seafood joints on The Spit (there’s a reason the beer menu at Captain Pattie’s is limited).

Availability: Alaska-only (and truly in Homer, with limited locations beyond it)

Try (if you can find it): Homer’s Red Knot Scottish is a self-proclaimed “user friendly” version of this ale type. It’s the brewery’s most popular offering, an infinitely drinkable dry beer that refreshes and goes down softly.

Kassick’s Brewery
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The details: Kassick’s evolved from a Christmas gift—a wife buying a homebrewing kit for her husband. Now their son is the head brewer—It’s a Kassick’s family affair. You can find their 22oz-ers pretty consistently throughout Southern Alaska, and that’s despite Safeway reportedly being averse to carrying them due to some of the names (say, Morning Wood IPA and Big Nutz Imperial Brown for example).

Availability: Alaska and Washington

Try (if you can find it): Morning Wood IPA was the only solace after this summer’s USMNT loss (on tap at a local watering hole for both American and Belgian supporters in Seward). But the 22oz Caribou Kilt (Wee Heavy Scotch Ale) was a favorite no matter the emotion. It’s got a dark fruit, caramel aroma with a taste that stays true to its scent, but overall this is a much lighter drink for a stout (despite 8.0 ABV).