James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

The Alaska Craft Beer and Barleywine Festival didn’t happen this year. You know the reason. But when COVID restrictions started to ease up, our brewers got restless, and beer festivals started to foam up once again. Brewers and beer lovers alike welcome them back; I didn’t realize how much I’d missed them until I felt the excitement well up when I started seeing announcements pop up. 

The Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival happened last weekend, and it was a raging success. I didn’t make it, but according to the Kenai Peninsula’s resident beer guru Bill Howell, “there were 20 breweries in attendance, along with food trucks and live entertainment at the Soldotna Sports Center. Hometown favorite Kenai River Brewing Company took home the People’s Choice for Best Brewer again, while 49th State Brewing’s coffee lager, brewed with beans from local Declination Roasting Company, took the award for best beer.”

In terms of one of the first post-pandemic re-emergent beer festivals, “numbers were down a bit from the past due to a combination of deliberately limiting tickets sold and the fact that the Kenai Peninsula Fair in Ninilchik decided to move up a week, so it was in direct competition,” reports Howell. 

The deliberate limiting of tickets will probably be the norm through an indeterminable post-pandemic adjustment period, as event organizers and the brewers figure out what combination of size and space works best to both fill the sample glasses and the coffers to create a successful event. 

Next up is the “replacement” event for the barley wine festival we missed in January. It’s called the Alaska Craft Brew Festival – Summer Edition. This takes place this Saturday, August 21 on the Park Strip in downtown Anchorage, and features two sessions. 

As best I know, this will be the first time since the creation of the beer festival that it’s happened outside. The long standing home of Alaska’s famous winter beer festival has been the Eagan Convention Center - until last year - when it moved to the Dena’ina Center, with new management by Alaska’s premier event organizer, Peak 2 Peak. In the early years, the annual event jumped from location to location, but my recollection tells me that the very first one, that happened both inside and outside of the then ARCO Atrium in downtown Anchorage was the only other time it’s happened outside, and certainly, this year’s edition is the first summer beer festival with roots in the long standing history of the epic gig.

A Connoisseur Session (“C-Session”) runs between noon and 3 pm, and – if my experiences with the long running 26 year Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival that the Alaska Craft Beer and Barleywine festival replaced – this is the session to experience the best of the best in both beer, and the ability to get after it. 

The C-Session is a couple of more bucks - $55 as compared to $45 for the general session. The $10 difference goes directly to the Brewers Guild of Alaska. That’s important, but regardless, in my long-standing, professional beer drinking experience, if I had to choose one session or another, it would be the C-Session (although, I generally attend both it and the regular session that follows from 6-9 pm). 

The best part of the C-Session is each participating brewery’s provision of a rare or very special beer that will debut at the session, and generally won’t last into the general session later that evening. The combination of purposely limited tickets, and the increased cost makes this smaller, tighter, quieter session the best for the most serious beer drinkers and connoisseurs in our mix. 

This year’s summer version obviously won’t feature the distinguished awards that punctuate the hallmark barley wine and winter beer judging integral to the winter event. According to Peak 2 Peak’s Events Manager Darcy Kniefel, “after talking with Pete Devaris, the lead judge for the normal barley wine competition, we opted to cut out the certified competition. Looking at the stricter guidelines with COVID, and the availability of judges to travel north, we didn’t want to take the risk that either might result in not getting the right space and conditions, or enough judges to make it a certified competition.” 

Don’t worry, you can still weigh in with your impression of you favorites. “Instead, we will have a virtual voting for our titles. There will be a QR code on site that all festival can scan to place their vote, one vote per category, per person,” says Kneifel. 

Not so much to make up for the concessions made to pull the gig off with limited planning time, but to add more value to Alaska’s longest standing craft brewing event, “this year, we will have cider, mead, seltzers and hard kombucha in the lineup, so there’s more for every palate out there,” adds Kniefel. This will probably stick around in the winter festivals to follow. It’s a good addition in my opinion.

Of particular joy to me is the addition of food trucks. I’m a staunch supporter of local food, and I’m an even bigger supporter of our local food trucks that provide food that’s as local as it can possibly get. Food trucks make incredibly good sense at beer festivals. This is a departure from the insult of shitty concession food choices mandated by the bigger indoor locations, which has the effect of driving people to the streets looking for better food elsewhere, or inducing them to skip eating all-together, a practice that’s sure to intensify any well-intended beer buzz, and potentially lead to negative results. 

In addition to Howell’s testimony of the popularity of food trucks and beer at the Peninsula festival, I’ve been to many beer festivals outside of Alaska, and food trucks are somewhat the norm. It’s a feature I look forward to, as a matter of fact. “We have a huge selection to make sure everyone has plenty of choices to keep their beer bellies going, including MELT Grilled Cheeses, BruseSkis Turkish Food, Mammoth Cheesesteaks, Yeti Dogs, Polynesian Association of Alaska, Serrano’s Mexican Grill and Jerome’s Streatery,” boasts Kinefel, with my applause in the background. 

“And, did I say we have bands?” baited Kniefel. “Oh yea,” she replied to herself with little prompting. “We have room for dancing, and we have two of Alaska’s hottest local bands to get your boogie going.” 

I Like Robots will play through the C-Session and the Jangle Beers will mix it up during the General Session.

An addition this year – totally appropriate for an outdoor beer festival – are lawn games. Although I didn’t get a lot of detail, expect at least cornhole boards to liven things up and bait some friendly competition. I was hoping for sharp lawn darts, but I don’t think that’s in the mix.

“We will be following all municipal and state guidelines for COVID measures,” says Kniefel, “and that may change a few things up. Expect to see hand sanitizer stations, and spacing between beer booths to allow for comfortable distancing.”

This will be the first time I will experience one-use small cups for the sampling pours, “but don’t worry, we have a commemorative glass for everyone to take home after the fest. These will be handed out at the do as folks leave, so you don’t have to carry it around the fest with you,” explains Kniefel.

Here’s another bonus for you glassware collectors. “Because they did not have to be sample size, this will be a full size glass for your home drinking adventures,” says Kniefel. 

I remember the years of the Great Alaska Beer and Barlewine Festival where full sized pint glasses with two ounce pour lines were handed out. Do any of you beer aficionados go back that far like I do? For you fest veterans out there, who remembers the gig when it was at the Linford Warehouse, at the LoMark Furniture Store on Gambell Street, and in the long defunct Pay and Save store in the University Mall? I’ve got pint glasses in my collection from those festival editions.

Sure, a summer festival seems out of sync with the whole concept of a winter beer and barley wine festival, but COVID aside, how could we possibly miss some facsimile of our favorite Alaska beer fest that’s gone on, despite all odds, for the last 26 years? My wig’s off to Peak 2 Peak for keeping the beer fest spirit alive and adding a lot of class along the way. 

I’m assured that – unless things drastically change – the 2022 Alaska Craft Beer and Barleyine Festival is already in planning for the weekend of January 28-29 of next year. 

Put the October 14 – 16 Alaska Crafted Beer Festival on your calendar. It’s in the works right now with details to follow. 

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