During the event of my sister in law’s week-long visit from Denver that ended Tuesday evening, despite her not being a big beer lover, I did manage to use the guise of dining out to drag her through some places I hadn’t been to in a while, or at all, and actually exposed her to some of our home state suds.
Sis doesn’t follow my beer life super-closely, but she respects it, even though –for my mostly non-drinking, extended family that lives outside of Alaska – my writing, all of my false starts at fiction, and my 24 year weekly column with the Press is not taken very seriously, and is actually considered a frivolity in my otherwise time-cramped life, and worse yet, an affronting joke. I love her for being the exception.
We ended up deciding on a modified version of the “Valley Tour,” as Ms. Fermento and I describe it, which typically includes a drag-and-drink through of the Valley hop spots including Akrose Brewery, Matanuska Brewing Company, Bleeding Heart Brewing Company, all in Palmer, then crossing the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, sampling suds at Bearpaw River Brewing Company, and just beyond that to the west, a drive up the rutted hill for something decidedly German at Schwabenhof, and, depending on my tolerance for mediocrity after many beers, something at Last Frontier Brewing Company in Wasilla. If I’m feeling really frisky, I hit Odd Man Rush Brewing Company on the way back to Anchorage.
If that sounds like a lot, it is, even for a professional drinker like me, even if I focus solely on each venue’s new selections, or selections I haven’t tried before.
There was no way I was inflicting such a trek on Sis; that would have been way out of her league. But, I did have an excuse to at least get out there, if even for a solo destination, and that was to finally visit Bearpaw River’s new second brewery on Railroad Avenue in Wasilla. The new brewery is a decidedly different affair than the much smaller, original location at 4605 E. Palmer-Wasilla Highway, and with a different focus. The new, much bigger “production” brewery on Railroad Ave is ultra-modern, flashy and serves food – right now pizzas and salads – and that was enough to bait Sis out there. He’s a decided foodie, loves her pizza, loves a road trip, and it was her idea. That’s a bonus, and I was a willing accomplice.
I didn’t make the grand opening out there two weeks or so ago, and had been itching for a visit, so this was a welcome cruise. Another reason we dispensed with the Palmer side of the equation was the FOFT factor, or Fear of Fair Traffic in both directions.
Bearpaw River’s new digs are worthy of a visit, right now primarily for the pizza. I’d heard good things about the pies that had become a reputed hit since day one of the establishment’s grand entrance into Alaska’s beer scene. I wasn’t disappointed. We got two pies; the traditionalist in me took the safe route with a simple pepperoni (my yardstick style when evaluating one of my favorite foods, and the girls split a simple meat pizza.
When we ordered, the pies came out quick and hot. My pepperoni was still sizzling atop the stiff, but not cracker-ish thin crust. Although neither pizza looked it at first glance, I’d push these pies into my own “noteworthy” class of beer edibles because, somehow, with a combination of crust and very flavorful, but balanced sauce and toppings, these little gems tasted perfect. My yardstick told me “yeah, I’d come back here just for the pizza.” The pies are not big, so if you’re making the brewery a meal destination, augment with salad, and plan on ordering a pizza for every 1.5 people in your party, or perhaps one each if you’re in a troupe of voracious eaters, or are just returning from a hunger and thirst-inducing adventure somewhere in the Valley.
Disappointing to me, but 1,000 percent understandable, was the discovery of only one beer I hadn’t had on the beer menu, that being a Double Frontiersman, the brewery’s imperial/double IPA, not that it was necessarily a new beer to either of the brewery’s lineup. I was hoping for some sort of grand opening special beer; there was plenty of real estate on the multi-multi-handled tap line that featured just a handful of the mostly flagship selections, but this is no indictment on a brewery that’s created a beautiful, huge new brewing destination in the Valley. I’m beyond certain there is much more to come in this gem in the rough.
Don’t dismiss “Little Bear,” the original brewery on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway; it remains a hallmark, and is always worthy of a visit. I think Little Bear’s going to evolve into the more creative side of the Bearpaw River brewing equation.
Being among the first ones to the brewery last Sunday at 2:00 when it opened, and given the snappy, attentive service, our visit went quick, and I decided to haul Sis out the Palmer-Wasilla highway to mile 6.5 so she could experience all of the somewhat tacky grandeur that’s the Schwabenhof, the self-professed “German beer garden serving Wasilla.”
If you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss this neat little place on a hill to hang out and slam a full liter of very high end beer from a broad, almost entirely Euro selection that makes this a no-miss stop any time I’m out there. The drive up the winding, ungroomed gravely hill might give your outside visitors pause, but I’ve only found it treacherous in the winter.
The Schwab’s clientele is mostly regulars that lend a neighborhood bar feel to the place, and in essence, that’s what it is. It’s no disappointment to me that early afternoons afford a visitor breathing room in the small, cozy octagonal-ish building to sit in and marvel over the Goldilocks-sized furniture that’s made entirely out of wood left after the Miller’s Reach fire, and when the weather is fair, to haul your dimpled glass outside to enjoy one of the best views of the surrounding valley landscape.
Plan it just right and you can BYO stuff for the outside grills, and with good beer choices, turn your afternoon into a killer picnic in the outside beer garden.
If my description paints the Shwab as a sleepy neighborhood bar, it’s entirely a misnomer. Dare I call the place charming, though? Although it subdued and almost docile during our visit, some of the most bad-assed, wild beer parties I’ve been to over the years have been on that hill, and have added some fiery color to my Alaska beer drinking experience repertoire.
Among many other party opportunities, the most kick-ass Oktoberfest parties happen at the Schwab, so consider this when planning your late fall beer drinking adventures, if partying is what you’re after. “Oh, if she only knew,” I thought as I shot a sidelong glance at my sister-in-law who was surveying the vista outside on the deck.
Although Sis didn’t imbibe – she’s a decided lightweight that I’m entirely okay with because she’s such a damned good sport – I thoroughly enjoyed a liter of Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, a classic wheat beer within the style from the world’s oldest brewery, and almost ordered another because it was so good, and it had been so long since I’d had one on tap.
It had been a long time since I’d been to the Valley, too, and I made a pact to get back out there as soon as possible for the full Valley Tour, when I’d devote the time necessary to make all of the stops and really saturate myself in the great suds just north of us here in Anchorage.