Dr. Fermento

James ‘Dr. Fermento’ Roberts

Happy New Year! How do I start a beer column going into a new year and a new decade? Of course, I drink something. I want something reflective. I need something that looks both forward and back.

Should I drink with resolve? Isn’t New Years all about resolutions? I really don’t have any. Oh, I do, but I just need a goddamned beer.

I have lots to pick from. Aside from drinking beer every day of my life, I collect it. I’ve done this for years. I drink for today and collect for tomorrow. I’m happy I have the ability to reach deep. I’m happy that I can reach back and still add to my collection. Beer is timeless, after all. Beer’s been here for all of our ages, and it isn’t going away; it’s just getting more diverse and better. Especially in Alaska.

My selection? I’m not sure yet. It’s got to be one that’s not too old or not too new. I guess it’s personal. Beer is personal to everyone. I’m just happy I live in a place where I have an industry that supports my ongoing vision of beer.

When I look back, I know that the beer industry isn’t about me, but it’s indeed a major benefactor in my multi-faceted beer lifestyle. The industry has given me many foamy gifts over the 40 years I’ve lived up here, all of which I’ve been deeply involved in both a consumer and a participant. Other than celebrating our diverse industry in this column every week for the past 22 years, I’ve never worked directly in the industry, but I’ve been more than a casual observer the entire time.

I’ve never opened a brewery of my own, but I have helped breweries get there, usually through the contribution of grunt labor and sweat equity in exchange for beer in the process. The same goes for pubs, restaurants and bars; I’d never own and run one, but I’ve participated in getting some up and going. Every time I get this opportunity, I enjoy it immensely and feel lucky to be a part of it.

I wonder how many thousands of beers I’ve had along the way? Last year I challenged myself to drink three new beers a day for a year and I pulled it off. It took a lot of effort and a lot of time in bars and liquor stores, but it’s testimony that there’s a lot of beer up here in a constantly changing tapestry that baits my palate on a daily basis.

When I got to Alaska in 1979, there was only one operating brewery. Today, there are 46. That’s just over one new brewery a year by sheer numbers, although the numbers are bigger if I consider than 12 breweries have come and gone in that same time span. The most explosive growth has been in the last decade, attesting to local craft beer’s explosive popularity and potential these days.

The craft beer landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade.

For one thing, the quality bar is higher. As junior craft beer aficionados in the early years – and through craft beer’s explosion in the mid 1980’s — we were much more tolerant drinkers then and most of us didn’t have the palate or vocabulary to tell the difference between a technical flaw and a brewer’s twist on a stylistic interpretation. No more. Our palates have matured and have become fine-tuned, and substandard beers stick out right away. Most of us still apply a grace period, but any more, we’re discriminating drinkers and a new brewery is judged at a much deeper level than ever before. A new brewery’s beers better come out of the tap at first pour stellar, enticing and differentiating.

Beer festivals reflect this. Beer festivals have shifted from being marketing platforms to collaborative venues that celebrate the broad diversity and high quality of Alaska’s beers and all that they stand for. Beer Festivals are prime social gathering opportunities. Beer festivals have become more reflective of their region’s differences rather than attempting to homogenize and fit into the mainstream.

As a whole, our beer festivals are drawing in both more outside brewery participation – where warranted – and especially more outsiders that come up here specifically to vacay with beer in mind. This is why the near-demise of Alaska’s 25 year-old winter Beer and Barley Wine Festival this year shook us all. The Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival is now rebranded as the Alaska Craft Brew and Barleywine Festival and has moved from the Egan Center to the Dena’ina Center and is scheduled for January 31 and February 1, so join me there to experience everything I’m talking about.

Despite all of this craft popularity I’m heralding, our breweries are facing intense challenges within our troglodyte legal environment, despite the industry’s contribution to our economy. The infighting between our breweries and brewpubs and other venues that serve beer in diverse environments is sickening and stupid. So is the constant pressure to increase alcohol taxes, using “booze needs to pay its way in reducing the social ills it causes” as a guise. I hate to talk about all of this because it’s been my single writing objective since day one “to make people thirsty for good beer,” and this doesn’t fit that mantra for me. Enough of that.

Not as a result of this, but our brewery footprints are getting smaller. It’s actually cool. Smaller breweries are increasingly popular and have become more geo-centric, brewing just for their own communities and neighborhoods rather than building broader distribution markets. I like this, although I don’t have a brewery in my neighborhood yet. It’s great to see more and more breweries in increasingly remote locations, giving testimony to beer’s social power and a brewery’s value as a gathering place for locals.

At the same time, many of our breweries have a much keener focus on sustainability, the use of local ingredients – a major challenge in our state – and giving back to the communities that support them.

In all, the outlook for craft beer in Alaska is very good. With 46 licensed, operating breweries are we at a saturation point? Not in this state. There are at least three more breweries in various phases of planning, licensing and build-outs. Our local establishments are increasingly featuring and supporting local beer. Years ago it was tough to find a local beer other than something from Alaskan Brewing Company on tap or in bottles; that’s not the case anymore. Craft beer drinkers thrive on variety and choice and Alaska beer and of venues that serve it continue to deliver.

What beer are you kicking the new year off with? I’m still undecided, but I’m looking in my beer refrigerator and headed to my cellar collection to pull a few. I don’t know what they’ll be, but I can tell you this; they will be local, tasty, and remind me of why I love drinking beer up here so much.

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