My Dec. 5 beer column recapped the painful-to-hear announcement from Steve Shepherd — event organizer of the 26 year Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival – that he’d jerked the plug on the gig a mere eight weeks before the 2020 event’s January 17 and 18 dates. It wasn’t so much my news, but the formal Aurora Productions announcement sent massive shock waves throughout Alaska’s and the nation’s supporting beer communities.
Some things just don’t die, but rise up to take on a new life of their own.
“While I’m doing my best to fend off a lot of the nastier rumors associated with this situation, I’m confident that either the fest itself or a reasonable facsimile will happen in 2020, or by next year, it will be resurrected and replaced by a shiny new beer festival penny instead,” I wrote in that piece.
The event is sacred to many people and not just new and returning attendees every year. In particular, the announcement totally shocked Humpy’s co-owner Billy Opinsky, the guy who originally came up with the concept over a quarter of a century ago. A winter beer and barley wine festival has never been a profit center for Opinsky, but rather a pure celebration of the suds that make our state stand out in an ocean of craft beer across the globe. Opinsky took the announcement very personally.
“Oh, trust me; this isn’t dead,” he promised in an initial conversation I had with him about the downfall. “I’m scrambling to cobble something together this year; trust me, I’m not going down without a fight,” he pledged.
On December 17, at 3:52 pm, my cell phone screen popped to life with the message, ‘We have a show, brother. I’m extremely excited.’ Opinsky, the Brewers Guild of Alaska and a new outfit – Peak 2 Peak Productions, a division of the Anchorage Daily News – had pulled it off. There will be a beer festival this year. King Gambrinus may be a beer god, but for craft beer-loving Alaskans, Opinsky reigns supreme this year for sure.
With this transition comes a complete redesign of the festival – a work in progress — including a new name, new venue and new format. It’s all for the better. For most in the industry, the word on the street is “it’s about time.” I guess I can’t argue with that, having seen and participated in the festival since day 1.
“I feel really comfortable going forward with this,” says Opinsky of taking over the festival and rescuing it from near demise. “This is a transitional year and we’re locking down the future and growing the show.”
In order to react, the organizers moved the festival to January 31 and February 1. Tickets are already on sale. Use universe.com/events/alaska-craft-brew-barley-wine-festival-tickets-TWVQ8D to gain admission. One show takes place on Friday, January 31, from 6 to 10 p.m., there’s a Connoisseur’s Session from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, February 1 and a 6 to 10 p.m. session on Saturday night.
Ticket pricing hasn’t changed. The cost is $45 for the regular sessions and $55 for the Connoisseur’s Session. Admission provides attendees with a sampling glass and wrist band tickets for 20 two ounce samples of beer. Additional wristbands can be purchased for $10 each. The goal is to tighten things up and dissuade tire kickers that come in to fire for effect. Expect a much tighter managed and better run gig this year.
The re-designed and re-branded festival is now called the Alaska Craft Brew and Barleywine Festival. This reaches back to the early days and the first five years Opinsky put on the show by himself and when it was called the Alaska Winter Beer and Barleywine Festival.
“The fest is coming full circle; the festival is coming back to what it was originally designed to be,” says Opinsky. “The biggest change is that we’ve moved the festival from the Egan Center to the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center.”
For long-time festival attendees, this is a welcome change. Anyone who has attended the third session of the three – the Saturday night session – will appreciate a lot more room to sample, mingle and move around. All of the sessions in this sell-out event are crowded and the extra room is welcome.
“The space will be bigger; much bigger,” says Opinsky. “We’re going from 19,000 square feet to 24,000 square feet this year, then we’re counting on 39,000 square feet next year. Eventually, we might have the entire bottom floor of the Dena’ina as we grow this festival.”
“Then there’s the food,” says Opinsky. “We’re sending invitations out to all of the participating brewers that do food like Glacier Brewhouse, 49th State, Moose’s Tooth, and others. They can sell food and we’ll bring in other local vendors. I want to put food in people’s stomachs; it’s not only a nice amenity, but people need to eat while enjoying great beer.”
What about the beer? I wondered if there would be any changes to the beer lineup in this legendary festival as it moves forward.
This festival directly benefits the Brewers Guild. One big change is we’re paying for their beer, unlike before. With that, I threw out some bait,” says Opinsky. “I told the Guild brewers, ‘I expect you are going to bring the good stuff this year, right?’”
Our local brewers always provide great beer, but “not that they don’t always, but maybe there will be something extra in your festival stocking this year. ‘Bring the good stuff! Especially those awesome winter beers,’ is what I told them. Regardless, we will have more and better beer,” says Opinsky.
Don’t expect major changes all the way around.
“This is a transitional year and we had very little time to react,” says Opinsky. “We’re using this to lock down the future going forward and to grow this show for another quarter of a century.”
The Barleywine and Winter Beer Contest – a very major piece of the festival – remains intact. I’ll be in chambers judging with other professional judges and will be proud to announce the best barleywine and best winter beer submitted by participating breweries at the Connoisseur’s Session on Saturday. Crow Creek Pipes and Drums will be starting the ceremonies as usual and other live music will kick things up through the three-session festival.
Of all of our state’s beer festivals, this one brings the most of our remote craft breweries under one roof at the same time and you’re likely to sample beers you just can’t get unless you travel afar to chase it down.
The annual Alaska beer festival we’ve grown to love over the years isn’t going anywhere; it’s just getting bigger and better. Step into one of the sessions and show your support for great craft beer in Alaska and the brewers that produce it.