James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that in Phase 1 of a multi-phase plan to help Alaska get back on its feet economically – just in time for the oilfield to crash – restaurants could open for limited dine-in service subject to a number of protective requirements including advanced reservations for patrons to visit, a patron capacity limit of 25 percent of normal, and 10 feet of spacing between tables that can be occupied only by members of the same household.

This is good news. What about the beer?

I’ve got some concerns. No, I’m not going to get embroiled in the social issues surrounding the opening up the economy vs. the risk of spreading the infection. I am not going to get prescriptive about what precautions establishments should take; that’s not in my beer-drinking bailiwick. What I am going to do is implore re-opening establishments to do the right thing when it comes to the beer they’re going to serve and the system that dispenses it in those establishments that feature draft beer, which is my favorite format for the stuff.

This is probably old news to many craft beer aficionados, but beer is perishable. Like any other foodstuff, beer has a shelf life and except in certain styles that actually improve with some age, beer goes downhill over time just like anything else in your refrigerator or that might just be sitting out over time.

Most, if not all of the beer that hunkered down with us for the last 39 days will have survived just fine, but not all of it will have. Some beers are designed to be consumed as fresh as possible. This includes lighter, more delicate beers including pilsners, light ales, koelsch and yes, one of our beloved, IPAs.

Let’s talk about IPAs since everyone seems to know the style so well. What makes a good IPA a good IPA and a damned superior IPA a damned superior IPA is that the beer delivers the brewer’s intention when it comes to the right balance of flavors. But often, the most prominent feature of the style is the beer’s aroma. Not everyone considers the contribution that aroma in an IPA delivers, but the style’s often very delicate hop aroma actually enhances the overall sensory impression of the beer and somewhat helps shape the beer’s flavor at the same time.

The very first thing to degrade in an IPA over time – and very quickly it does – is aroma. This isn’t unique to the IPA style; it’s just more noticeable because the aromatic features in the style are fundamental.

Do you want to know why you don’t see many of Anchorage Brewing Company’s incredibly delicate IPAs distributed more widely and commanding a bigger market outside of the brewery? Ask brewer Gabe Fletcher. He doesn’t trust the average publican or grog shop to take care of his art form good enough to properly feature it and manage it when it ages very quickly, which could include removing product from the tap line or shelves. Fletcher’s beer is best served under his control and at the source. He doesn’t want any of his beer turning into bad product out there, so he keeps it at home in the brewery.

This doesn’t mean that all beer coming out of the pipes and poured from bottles and cans at a venue’s re-opening will be crap; most will be fine and any subtle degradation would only be noticeable on a fine tuned palate that’s looking for defects. Drink with confidence for the most part.

The other part of the beer quality and freshness equation when it comes to draft beer is the draft system itself. The tubing, taps and spigots aren’t like the plumbing in your house where for the most part it’s manufactured when the place is built and mostly forgotten after that with zero maintenance required. Draft system parts and pieces – and especially the sometimes long lines of tubing between the cooler and the draft towers – require ongoing periodic maintenance which includes flushing and cleaning, as do the spigots the beer eventually comes out of.

Although there’s nothing in beer that can make you sick – pathogens can’t survive in beer – improperly cared for systems can quickly degrade what’s going into the glass before it gets to the consumer.

The concept of pulling product from shelves or taking draft beer offline is not foreign to the better, more beer-centric establishments, but it might be suspect in others. A lot of publicans take beer for granted and would be aghast at the concept of removing it from the lineup.

You probably know where I’m going with most of this. My hopes are that back on March 22 when restaurants and bars were closed during the start of the hunker down stage of dealing with the pandemic, proprietors did the right thing and disconnected, drained, or otherwise prepared their systems for hibernation and at least considered what aging beer would taste like at the unknown other end of the shutdown. At a minimum, I would think that venues would flush the draft lines and at least get rid of the hose juice that’s been sitting in them for the better part of two months. My hopes are that remaining product is at least considered in terms of shelf-like and freshness.

Again, at the better establishments, the right steps are being taken. According to ‘Kiwi’ Mike Middleton at Humpy’s, “we’ve inventoried all the beer. We’ve managed to save most of it, but there will need to be testing. Right now we’re getting ready to reopen while watching very carefully what’s happening around us.”

This is the right approach.

Our local craft brewers are starting to ramp production back up in anticipation of a slow return to normalcy, and now – more than ever – our brewers and the establishments that feature their beer need our support.

I don’t want to be a fear-monger, but I’ve had enough stale beer in my lifetime to want to avoid it if possible, but I’m still anxious to get out there and see what I can find. Our local beer’s been steadfast during the hunker down phase, but it will be nice to go out and enjoy it somewhere other than my living room, garage or back yard. I long for a nice, cold pint of beer at one of my favorite pubs, even if I do have to hail friends from across the bar.

Will there be some new beers? I hope so. Which brewery will be the first to feature a Hunker Down Brown? Where’s that Post-Pandemic Pilsner? Return to our local establishments at the right time, the right way, and forever with beer in mind.

Will you rush right out and be among the first?

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