I've been lucky enough to travel as part of my day job. Yeah, I don't just write about beer; I'd be a starving artist. If I could just retire and do the beer thing, I would. I'm not there yet. So, I'm appreciative when I get to travel around Alaska on my day job.
Every year — as a human resources guy — I have to (get to) rip around the state where the companies I represent work, and I always chase beer as part of it. My company’s annual benefits open enrollment process at this time of the year has me traveling all over the state doing benefits “road shows.”
I have others in my department that handle the annual benefits open enrollment debacle too, but we share the wealth. I could chose to go to Prudhoe Bay, but I always choose to canvass the Kenai Peninsula because - well - Prudhoe is a beer wasteland, and the Peninsula is ripe with some of the best beer in our state.
I hope my boss isn't reading this, but I factor in a lot of afterhours beer chasing when I'm on the Peninsula doing my job. After all these years, I know where to chase beer, find it, and manage to make the most out of what can be some pretty toilsome work.
Two weeks ago, I had great visit with Zach Henry, owner/brewer at St. Elias brewing Company in Soldotna. Because I do a full immersion and try to sample everything on the beer menu when I visit breweries, I’m only good for one brewery each evening. No, I don’t drink full pints, I methodically work through the tap line sampling the smallest amounts possible.
If I can’t drink through the entire menu, I always focus on what’s new, although the tried and true flagship beers at each brewery always bait my palate.
During that visit, I got my share of St. Elias’s Oktoberfest Marzen, an artfully brewed, stylistic classic, replete with the perfect amber-ish malt center and just the right amount of spicy Euro-hops to make this a true fall sipper. St. Elias’s The Cub is one of the best brown ales I’ve tasted in years and it turned out to be my favorite of the evening. Brown ales aren’t in vogue as much as they used to be, crowded out by America’s craze for big, hoppy IPAs, so it’s refreshing to find an excellent local example like The Cub.
Lady Violet is a lovely version of the brewery’s flagship Island Girl Kolsch that’s infused with blackcurrants instead of the raspberries that make this beer famous on the Peninsula. This one’s smooth as silk and quaffable with the more tangy darker fruits that add a tart edge to the aroma and flavor. This beer debuted in September and is probably gone by new, but ask for it if you visit.
Zach’s Czech Pilsner that’s stylistic with German malts, fermented with a traditional Bavarian lager yeast and amply spiced with German Saaz hops. The pilsner turned out to be one of the more refreshing and quenching beers during my visit.
Of course I couldn’t resist a couple of flagships including Williwaw IPA and Mother’s Milk Irish Stout. I had to claw my way away from the table and let Zach get back to work in the brewery with Mother’s Milk being a fitting nightcap.
This last Monday afternoon after getting dry-mouthed with an open enrollment presentation and a 40 mile white knuckle trip across ice rink back roads to Swanson River and back, I treated myself to a visit to Kenai River Brewing Company in Soldotna as part of my excursion. Here I met with one of the owners – Doug Hogue – and his brewery production manager Joe Gilman.
The brewery’s tap list is formidable with some big booze bonkers in the mix, so I stuffed my gut with one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while, Kenai River’s KRBC Burger and fries. I was going to order another item off the extensive menu but my server politely told me “oh, that burger’s enough; it’s pretty big and you’ll be plenty full with just that.” He wasn’t wrong.
While waiting for that, I chatted with Hoge and he walked me through some of the breweries specialty offerings. He featured Leah & Shannon’s Chocolate Imperial Pumpkin Porter, a knee-knockin’ 10.8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) dark wonder inspired by a recipe from local homebrewers Leah Vik and Shannon Martin.
“Years ago, I said I’d never brew a pumpkin beer in this brewery,” but this homebrew recipe changed all that,” said Hogue. I can see why. Despite the fortitude of this beer, it’s incredibly balanced and both Hogue and I commented how we both don’t care for the “spice in your face” versions of pumpkin beers and how this one is more pumpkin than spice forward. The booze is easily lost in the rich, complex swirling flavors of organic unsweetened chocolate, vanilla beans and over 190 lbs of pumpkin in the batch.
Hogue then gave me a shot of Spruce Tip Double IPA, a 9.2 percent ABV brewed to support Kachemak Heritage Land Trust that has holdings along the river right behind the brewery. “The surveyor would come in here after tromping around in the woods, getting soaking wet. He’d sit down for a beer and we’d talk. The spruce tip beer is one of our beers we produce that directly benefit non-profits in our community,” says Hogue.
Indeed, Kenai River Brewing is a big part of the local community. “We’re also producing a series of beer that has proceeds diverted to the Tsalteshi Trail association that maintains the popular trail,” says Hogue. “We’ll be rotating through this one, a cross country ski, mountain biking and running beer through the seasons. Hogue hinted at a versy limited can release of some of these beers in the brewery’s amicably named “non-profit” rotating beer lineup.
With a new canning and labeling system, Kenai River will have some distribution here in Anchorage, so watch for some specialty on-off canned beers to show up on our local grog shop shelves over time.
A real treat, the brewery’s famous Winter Warlock – another heady brew, and English strong ale packing 9.2 percent ABV – was on tap and I enjoyed one of those with other brewery classics including Pothole Porter, Gummi Bear Beer, Honeymoon Hefe and one of my all time favorites, Skilak Scottish Ale.
I left Kenai River Brewing, ripped back through Kenai and headed out to Kassik’s Brewery in North Kenai, but alas, the brewery was closed that evening. There’s always next time.
I’m lucky enough to get to the Peninsula as a side benefit of my day job, but it’s close enough for a great weekend getaway and a break from the confines of Los Anchorage. Pencil in the next big event that brings all of the Peninsula’s brewers together and others from around the state, the 2019 Frozen River Fest slated for Saturday, February 19 between 4-8 pm at the Soldotna Creek Park. Check out the Kenai River Brewing Company Facebook page and the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce page for details and links for getting tickets and securing lodging in the surrounding area.
It's just as dark on the Peninsula as it is up here in Anchorage in the winter, but the beer’s just as good so plan a trip to experience great local beer just south of town.