By Beer by James ‘Dr. Fermento’ Roberts
The big news that came in last week is that event organizer Steve Shepherd of Aurora Productions has canceled the January 17 and 18, 2020 Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival (GABBF). Aurora Productions is the organization that has put this epic festival on for the last quarter of a century. The announcement was unexpected and a blow to brewers and attendees alike.
In a letter to “Vendors, Volunteers and Partners,” Shepherd cited that “Aurora Productions, Inc. has made a decision to cancel the 2020 Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival. After 26 years, the economics of continuing the festival don’t pencil out in the current economy.”
I heard a rumor that the letter showed up on Facebook and I immediately logged in to verify the sad news. The social media platform immediately blew up with reactions from new, returning and long time fest veterans like me. I held back. I didn’t know how to react.
I’ve been a part of the festival since its inception.
I wrote the preamble to many of the years’ festival guide. I attended. I volunteered. I showed up the next day to clean up the aftermath for many of the years.
Over time, I had the distinct honor of partially emceeing the event. For the last number of years, I had the ultimate joy of standing up on stage during the middle of the three session gig – the Connoisseur’s Session – to announce the winners of both the best barley wine entered in the competition integral to the event and the best winter beer. With a lot of pomp and circumstance, I was proud to hand out gold pans to each of the winners in the respective categories.
I took thousands of pictures of my friends and of the brewers and volunteers over the years. To me, the GABBF was an annual brewers and beer lover’s “family reunion;” the GABBF brought more of our remote brewers under one roof every year than any other beer gathering in the state. Knowing the draw of the fest to the brewing community, the Brewers Guild of Alaska scheduled the organization’s annual meeting to coincide with the gig.
The night before the Friday night kick off, a huge, private industry party was held at 49th State Brewing Company and over the years quickly became one of the most prestigious and well attended beer social gigs in the state. I had the opportunity to emcee this gig many years as well.
Next, my email and text message platforms started blowing up. “So, I heard about the barley wine festival cancellation by Aurora Productions. What happened? We brewed a special barley wine for the event as we are not packaging [this beer] this year,” wrote a long time outside brewing entity that hauled their goods north every year to be featured. “I already bought airfare and got hotel reservations for this; what do I do now,” asked another fan.
I really don’t know how to react.
I have also heard that a couple of key people integral to the event this year, and possibly the Brewers Guild of Alaska are scrambling to pick up the pieces and cobble something together as an interim or long term replacement to a beer festival that’s been defining over so many years. I quickly volunteered to help. Like you, the best I can do is wait, stand by to assist, and hope.
Do not read this as any indictment for Shepherd or Aurora Productions. Shit happens, and as shitty as the news is, there’s a huge degree of realism here. Our beer industry and climate up here are volatile. 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 in full or replaced by a shiny new beer festival penny instead. Have faith; craft beer remains huge in Alaska and years down the road, this will be just a blip on the foamy radar.
On the brighter side, craft beer remains explosively popular up here attested by the back to back opening of two new breweries last week.
Onsite Brewing Company in Anchorage did a soft opening on Saturday, November 30. I missed that. Extensive business travel kept me from attending. I featured the brewery in my May 25 edition of this column.
The brewery launched with four beers: a Coffee IPA weighs in at 6.2 percent alcohol by volume. A Brut Session “Champagne Pale Ale” is a hit and imminently drinkable at 4.9 percent. A Jalapeno Kolsch is a spicy alternative and interesting interpretation of a sessionable style of beer; this one tips the scales at 5.3 percent and the big hit at the soft opening was the Sitka Spruce Tip Pale Ale at 5.9 percent alcohol by volume. A “Stout” is on deck and might be available during the scheduled hours this week of Thursday, between 3-8 p.m., Friday, 3-8 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 8-p.m. The brewery is at 3211 Denali Street, so get in there and check it out to show your support.
The next day, Valdez Brewing Company opened on Sunday, December 1. I couldn’t make it down for that momentous event either. This is the city’s first post-prohibition brewery and is open daily between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. if you happen to be down that way. The holidays are a good time for a beer road trip, after all.
Out of the taps comes a Blonde, Prop Wash Pilsner, Snow Blind White, a SMASH Pale Ale and SMASH IPA – “SMASH” stands for Single Malt and Single Hop” – Dark Night IPA, Full Steam Ahead, Imperial Salted Chocolate Porter and Black Magic Stout.
A couple of buildings down, Growler Bay Brewing Company is also on the cusp of pour beer for the first time.
In Juneau, Forbidden Peak Brewing Company in Auke Bay – Juneau’s 4th brewery, opened on Saturday October 12. If you make it down there, this brewery is open between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily. I’m particularly interested in getting down there to sample one of the brewery’s latest; AukNess Black Lager; I’m a huge black lager fan, and none of our new breweries are distributing beer outside of their breweries, so I’ve got to get to the source to get my fill.
I’m also aware of at least five other Alaska craft breweries in various phases of design, build out and opening.
The bottom line is despite the GABBF setback, good beer is alive and flourishing here. Keep your mug to the wall; lots of great local craft beer news is always coming.