James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

As I look back on 2020 and what caught my attention in terms of craft beer, although I’m not writing anything new, COVID’s screwed things up enormously. Personally, COVID’s re-defined how I drink beer these days (mostly at home) and what I drink (mostly local beer). The first redefinition sucks, and the second isn’t a big stretch for me at all, but watching our increasingly at-risk smaller breweries continue to struggle is very painful.

At the same time, I don’t think COVID’s reduced my thirst for, or my consumption of craft beer. If anything, I’m drinking more of it. I also seem to appreciate good beer more for some reason. Has it become a rock to cling to in a storm tossed ocean?

Another byproduct of COVID is the pushing of more beer into retail packaging than across our shuttered bars. This didn’t come without pain and expense to struggling breweries with constantly evolving business models to survive, but an unexpected positive byproduct for me is more beer available in cans.

I’m a rock-solid canned beer guy, and my love for the medium hasn’t decreased any since local examples started showing up here years ago. Canned beer is right for me and its right for Alaska.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be back in the bars; I hope that eventual post-COVID normalcy finds me sitting in a cheery, noisy, crowded boisterous bar, rubbing elbows and sloshing beers with friends and strangers alike, and without a goddamned mask on. I worry as much about my favorite watering holes as I do my local breweries that serve their beer.

My favorite beer this year caught me by surprise. My top pick goes to 49th State Brewing Company’s Thundershuck, an oyster stout that’s made with fresh, whole Kachemak Bay oysters supplied by Jakolof Bay Oyster Company.

It’s not the style that surprised me. I’m not at all unfamiliar with the use of oysters in beer, and I wouldn’t even say it’s the flavor of this beer that makes my socks go up and down. This beer is more than a beer to me, it’s an experience that initially involved more of my tactile and psychological senses than any beer had captured before. Everyone’s different, but drinking Thundershuck is as much a feeling as a flavor.

The good news is that it’s still around. As late as last week I saw cans of it available at 49th State Brewing Company downtown, and if beer hasn’t clouded my memory, I believe I’ve seen cans of it in the finer liquor stores too. Everyone’s different, but read my October 22 Anchorage Press article on the stuff, get after the beer and see for yourself.

It should be no surprise, too, that La Bodega remains my favorite liquor store. Of the 519 beers I logged into my mobile beer application – Untappd - this year, 331 of them came from Bodega. There’s a reason for this and it’s the same reason Bodega remains my top grog shop since the store’s inception years ago: attitude.

Bodega’s not just a liquor store chain that peddles good beer. Bodega’s a beer institution. Bodega doesn’t just sell beer; they live it and demonstrate their respect for it. This shows not only in what they showcase (and what they don’t), but how they care for it, feature it and through their deep knowledge about the medium.

Bodega is an example of customer service redefined to what a craft beer consumer expects; fastidious care for a perishable product and devoted store members that demonstrate ownership of their trade with expert product knowledge that’s a far cry from a typical chain store clerk’s all too common response, “sorry, I don’t know anything about it, I don’t even drink beer.”

Bodega does more to feature our local Alaska beer than any other retail grog shop in the state, and that means a lot to me, because part of that outstanding attitude that defines Bodega is being outwardly proud of what’s being made right here at home.

In 2020, I hit the top of my bell curve and instead of adding a significant amount of collectables and vintage beers that improve with age to my bulging beer cellar, I started drinking through my stash. I guess I finally realized there’s no liver in a shroud, and after consulting with a real, no-shit professional collector (honestly, I just hoard good beer, I don’t methodically collect it), I sadly realized that some of my beers are passing their prime right along with me.

When I established my cellar in 1989, I put four bottles of beer in it, and those were beers I brought with me when I moved to Alaska in 1979. For the record, Prinz Brau, a German-inspired brewery closed a week after I got here, and craft beer really didn’t exist in Alaska back then.

Now, 1,500 beers later, I’d rather see this foamy treasure go through my liver than down the drain. I have to admit that for a vintage beer collector or curator, Alaska’s a target rich environment for new entrants; our state consistently produces some of the biggest and boldest beers on the globe. For me, that means it’s tough not to hoard. I’m still tossing a few beers in the hole every now and again, the latest being the Glacier Brewhouse 12 Days of Barleywine Collection. I figure if I drink a beer a day, it would take my four years to get through what I’ve got, but I don’t go through it that quickly. Some days and weeks, I don’t drink one of my vintage beers at all. I figure that with a few additions here and there, and proper consumption, I’ll have that last beer when I’m 70.

Looking ahead, tomorrow begins a new year - 2021. I chuckle at people that proclaim "Oh, it's going to be so good to have 2020 behind us!" Do these people really think that the simple passage of time - the turn of a calendar page, or adding a different end-digit to the year numeral is going to suddenly change the fact that we're in the middle of a global pandemic and people are running amok celebrating petty indifferences while the burn and destroy? It’s not a crutch, but good beer helps me get through all of this.

Do I have any New Beers Resolutions? Nah. To me, resolutions are frail proclamations that rattle down twisty mental canyons and so infrequently return. Real change takes dedication and concerted effort, not just blind hope. I’ll just plod along, continue to ferret out good beer where I can find it, with a heavy emphasis on the local stuff, and sip through my cellar collection and watch what happens around me. My wishes are for a safer, saner, more peaceful year and the survival of our struggling breweries, bars and the people that support them. What more could I ask for; sometimes a wish is as fleeting and simple as a good brew.

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