Beer - Darcy and Jim

Anchorage's official Beer Ambassador Darcy Kniefel and James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts at Press Picks 2018. (Photo by O'Hara Shipe)

This is normally my favorite time of year when it comes to beer. Sure, Oktoberfest is way up there in a season that has a keen focus on beer, but mid-January is the time when AK Beer Week kicks off, and Alaska’s craft brewing scene brings out all the finery in terms of events that include brewery beer tastings, beer dinners at various beer-worthy restaurants, meet and greets, and other exciting events that span the 10 day celebration the culminates with the Alaska Craft Brew & Barley Wine Festival.

Probably like you, it was an easy assumption on my part that COVID slapped this sudsy bad boy of a beer gala away like everything else. 

Being wrong never felt so right. 

Not only will beer celebrations go on, but at least this year, AK Beer Week became AK Beer Month and runs between Friday, January 15 and Sunday, February 14. 

The creativity of the Brewers Guild of Alaska (BGA) never ceases to amaze me. The 21 year old organization was founded by our craft brewers up there to promote their industry through consumer education, community events and legislative advocacy. The Guild provides somewhat of a single voice to the close to 50 craft breweries in Alaska, and during the pandemic has been instrumental, if not critical to some of our breweries’ survival. 

The BGA doesn’t “own” AK Beer Week - or AK Beer Month this year - as always, the participating breweries, restaurants and pubs do. But, it’s the creative genius of the BGA brain trust, and in particular Alexandra Vrabec, the Development Coordinator that made sure that this month long celebration is bigger than COVID, is flawlessly orchestrated, and again gets Alaska’s craft beer loving drinkers connected with their favorite breweries – and perhaps some they haven’t experienced yet – to keep the beer flowing in a time of year up here where it’s typically dark and boring and Alaskans are looking for something to do. 

Add Peak 2 Peak Alaska’s Event Coordinator Darcy Kniefel and a rare mix of creative talent comes together, taming the seemingly impossible task of creating a hugely social event when it almost feels like we’re not supposed to.

The question remains: how do you pull something like this off in the middle of a health crisis that makes people feel safer away from the crowds typically associated with beer gigs? How about a month long, state-wide scavenger hunt that’s designed to bring people to the beer and to the happening beer places in the state in duos and trios, not droves and over time, not all at once?  Get signed up for the AK Beer Chase.

Although not all of the “missions” or “challenges” in the game have been revealed to me in my conversations with Vrabec and Kniefel, the month long AK Beer Chase got my motor running and within minutes of hearing about it I had reached out to, scrolled down to the Beer Chase event and snagged my $22.86 (fees included) ticket. My confirmation email linked me to downloading the GooseChase app and got me all set up to join the foamy fray when my registration code will show up with the first set of challenges the day before Beer Month kicks off.

“When you’re in and have the app installed, you’ll get a big dump of challenges all at once when it all kicks off, but more challenges are added as you go, keeping it exciting, motivating, challenging, and most of all fun,” says Kniefel. “This event is designed to get people out and to our state’s wonderful breweries and other establishments that feature our great local beer, but not to get everyone out all at once.”

“I’m having so much fun working with our brewers and local establishments to come up with these whacky missions. This whole thing is a mix of text, GPS, and video and voice recorded adventures that are silly, fun and adventurous. What do most Alaksans want at this time of year, anyway, and what has AK Beer Week always brought them?” explains Vrabec of the concept. 

“All right, so, one mission or challenge is to feature your best Beer Fest Fashion. Got your lederhosen? Check. Got your fanny pack? Check. Pretzel Necklace? Check. Now, snap a picture of your outfit, and submit it on the Goose Chase app and you score,” says Vrabec.

She doesn’t want to reveal too much, but I’m suspecting extra points of these pics, videos and recordings come from nearby or far-flung local establishments. Vrabec and Knifel hinted at other challenges like creating beer can art, sharing a picture of you with your favorite beer on your favorite hiking or skiing trail, showing off your favorite beer-Tee at your favorite brewery, and the like. I can picture Fermento doing an impromptu beer commercial outside of say, Humpy’s, Café Amsterdam or O’Brady’s on Huffman, for example. I don’t know if it’s a challenge, but that’s part of the fun of the format. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

“AK Beer Chase is completely state wide,” says Knifel. Breweries from Silver Gulch, Hoo Doo and Black Spruce in Fairbanks are in the mix, Gakona brewing Company is part of it, and every brewery all the way to the bottom of the state can be included.”

I got to thinking, “how in the hell am I going to get from Fairbanks, through Kodiak and even to Ketchikan to win this thing?” No worries. A weighted system is designed so that the challenges level the playing field and consider all of the obstacles. Points are awarded and at the end, the person with the most points wins the grand prize of $500.

“There are challenges you can accomplish anywhere. Anyone can win,” Says Kniefel. 

Some of the inspiration came from last year’s Sip Alaska Festival in May, another virtual event. 

“People will travel to participate in this event. At last year’s event, we tossed out there that there would be extra points for anyone taking a picture of the road sign to Talkeetna. We had hundreds by 5:00 that night and come to find out it flooded Talkeetna with people for the weekend. That’s the goal, people want to get out. Establishments need the business. Let’s find a safe way for to connect them,” says Kneifel.

The event description on the myalaskatix page hints at so much more and provides the basic structure for the gig. 

There’s another interesting benefit in this format for me. Over the years, the event’s grown to the point where, last year there were over 75 events vying for my time, my palate and my liver. Each year has been a hell of a lot of fun, but taxing. I had to make some difficult choices as to what events to attend and which I had to blow off, because I could only be in so many places at once, and – oh by the way – I had this pesky day job that always got in the way of my wanting to party hearty into the wee hours during the week days. I recall it becoming an endurance test of sorts and took great pride in sitting down on the final Sunday for the Brewer’s Brunch and enjoying biscuits and gravy and beer at 10:00 in the morning, then going home to occupy the couch for the rest of the day.

With the new month-long format, I can enjoy this whole thing on my time and at my leisure. This will enable me to participate in so much more. 

There’s no doubt that the goal is to get people to the beer and to support local craft brewing and the hospitality and food and restaurant industries that support our beer. “Right now the breweries are all coming up with these super cool, creative events. They’re brainstorming ways to do take home beer dinners, virtual tastings and the like. Once we have all of the events put together they’ll be shared on the page. We decided that even without the Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival this January, we wanted to do these events during this very slow time of the year and during a time when our establishments need patronage more than every. There are multiple ways to partake,” says Vrebek. “Lets drive some traffic to our local beer makers.” 

Kniefel’s right there with her. “The traditional Beer Week was our breweries’ opportunity to really shine. This is obviously tougher this year. I would just say that, honestly, this is the most important year ever to get out there to support local breweries and the industry that surrounds them. Hey, you just got a $600 stimulus, check, what’s a better way to spend it than on local craft beer?”

Oh, and want a spoiler alert? “W actually are working on the Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival,” says Kniefel. “This year, it won’t be until late May or early June because it has to be an outdoor festival. It’ll be matched to whatever COVID dictates at the time, but we’re working on it and as you know, we’re Alaskan;s we can live through anything.” This will be the first outdoor even in the fest’s 26 year history, but you’ll know where I’ll be when it happens. 

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