Field Report on Alaskan Brewing Company, Plus A Saint Arnold Cask Tapping Tonight

Remember last week, when I wrote about how porters and barleywines weren't especially appealing this time of year because of the heat? Well, they suddenly become rather inviting when it's rainy and cloudy with a cool breeze and temps are in the 50s and 60s, as was the case last week in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Lady Hophead and I spent four days in the Last Frontier, where we kayaked, hiked, fished for salmon and tried quite a few beers unavailable here in the second largest state in the U.S. Some were from Alaska breweries, while others were from West Coast breweries whose products I haven't seen in Dallas.

I'll get to some of the others in the near future, but for this week, here's a look at a few products from Alaskan Brewing Company. Alaskan, brewed relatively close to Ketchikan in Juneau, is something like the Spoetzl of Alaska. Every bar and package store carried it, and it was even available on our Alaskan Airlines flight. Yet, judging from the beer drinkers I talked to, it doesn't enjoy the same regional reverence that Shiner does in the Lone Star State. Anytime I asked someone about the brewery or one of its beers, they usually shrugged it off with, "Eh, it's OK," or worse.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt, or maybe my beer judgment was impaired thanks to the excitement of the trip, but I thought the brewery as a whole was better than OK. Especially considering the price--we found 12-packs at a couple different stores for $12.99 and $13.99, not much more than the stores' macrobrew prices. After the jump, my thoughts on the Alaskan Brewing beers I tried, plus info about today's Saint Arnold Amber Ale cask tapping at Eno's.

The first Alaskan beer we tried was the brewery's altbier, Alaskan Amber, which was available at the Seattle airport and was also the most common Alaskan beer at the restaurants and bars we hit up in Ketchikan. A clear amber with a thin head, it was a solid if not especially memorable brew. It's thin bodied and very malty with a bit of sweetness and just a hint of piney hops. Not bad, but by the time we finished a pitcher at the Arctic Bar Saturday night I had no desire to ever have another.

Alaskan White seemed to be the next most common variety, and was available even in down-to-earth joints like the Potlatch. It was a step up from macrobrewed witbiers like Blue Moon, but couldn't compare to genuine Belgian witbiers. The familiar orange peel and coriander notes were present, along with an odd sort of waxy flavor reminiscent of ChapStick. Not bad, but also not worth seeking out. Lady Hophead preferred it to the Amber, while I'd go for Amber given a choice between the two.

Alaskan IPA was a very dry, bitter IPA with very pronounced hops mostly on the piney side but with some citrus notes. The very crisp finish made it a nice complement to the smoked salmon we were constantly snacking on. The hop profile is definitely typical of West Coast IPAs, but it was not an especially impressive one, especially compared with other West Coast IPAs we tried later in the trip. A bit mellower was the Alaskan Pale, a pale ale with earthier, more subdued citrus hops. This was a very drinkable brew, which we consumed like water on our fishing trip--easy to do at its 5.2 percent ABV, compared to the IPA's 6.2.

But our favorite of Alaskan's 12-oz. beers was the Alaskan Summer Kölsch-style ale. It had a slight pilsner-like grassy funkiness to it, and was very refreshing with a bracing hop finish. Crisp and clean, it would be a great summer beer even in Texas.

We also picked up two of the brewery's tonier offerings in 22-oz. bottles. The Alaskan Smoked Porter is a rauschbier, with malts smoked in Alaskan alder wood. At first, the smoke flavoring was very pronounced, almost overwhelming the comparatively subtle dark-chocolate and coffee malt notes. But after a few sips, I think I started getting used to the smoke flavor and began to appreciate it more. Overall, it was a very good beer that went well with grilled salmon and a vegetable stir-fry. Incredibly, it didn't occur to me to try pairing it with the ever-present smoked salmon until after the beer was gone. Oh well, next time. According to Alaskan's web page on the beer, the smoke notes mellow out as the beer ages, which I think would benefit the taste greatly.

But the favorite Alaskan beer for both Lady Hophead and me was the Alaskan 2009 Barley Wine Ale. It poured a clear ruby-mahogany color with a small head. The nose was reminiscent of a Belgian quadrupel, with a pruney, raisiny dark-fruit scent. That was present in the taste, along with a slight herbal, medicinal tang and a nice, almost refreshing bitter finish. It also had a nice toffee and caramel flavor, but it wasn't nearly as sweet as expected. The 10.4 percent ABV was not disguised, but it gave a nice warming sensation rather than a harsh heat. Some barleywines are so syrupy, sickly sweet that you only want a sip or two, but we had no problem finishing this bottle and wishing we had more.


Tonight is First Thursday in the Bishop Arts District, which includes a "Wine Walk." But if you're more interested in beer, head to Eno's Pizza Tavern for a rare cask tapping of Saint Arnold's Amber Ale starting at 6 p.m. Buy a pint and you get to keep the cask. Full disclosure: My wife (a.k.a. Lady Hophead) just got a job at Eno's, though you'll have to say hello to her another time, as she will not be working tonight.

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