Alaska and the Yukon
Last Updated : 13/11/05
Do Bears Sup in the woods? – If the beer is this good they must do! - by Steve Westby.
ack towards the end of July I was relaxing outside in the sun, enjoying the views out over the sea, supping a pint of real ale and trying to avoid getting sunburn. Nothing unusual about that you might think, except that it was ten o’clock at night! From that clue you can tell we weren’t at Skeggy, but then you can’t actually see the sea there and as for sunburn!
Amazingly I was enjoying a pint of real ale in Anchorage, Alaska where the weather gets pleasantly warm in the summer and there is almost 22 hours of daylight. We were on a coach tour of Alaska and the Yukon, covering 2,600 miles of this vast and beautiful area. But what I wasn’t expecting when we booked the holiday was the wide range and diversity of beers available, including several real ales and the pleasing relative shortage of the US mainstream domestic brews on the bars.
It was a good omen when we checked into our hotel on the outskirts of Anchorage to find a brew pub almost next door. Needless to say, despite the 15 hours of flights, I was in there checking out the beers as soon as I had chucked the cases in the room. The moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria is really just a pizza restaurant, but it has its own brewery and there is a small drinking area around the bar. I ordered a “Prince William’s Porter”, described as dark, rich, full bodied and lightly dry-hopped and was handed a free one “if I wanted it”. When I queried why it was free the bartender said because he had poured it by mistake a few minutes earlier and it was now a bit warm – but it tasted superb to me and if anything still a little too cold. The pub had about a dozen beers on draught, varying from stouts and porters to a hefeweizen, raspberry wheat and an amber ale. There was a handpump on the bar but it had no pumpclip, so I queried when they sold a cask beer, as many US brewpubs put them on once a week, and was delighted to be told that it was available now! So my second beer in Alaska was a real ale, a very tasty IPA.
The next day we took a boat trip on Prince William Sound to the glaciers and the amazing scenery, but before we got onboard I called in a small café in Wittier and found bottled Copper Creek Amber Ale on sale from Silver Gulch Brewery in Fairbanks. Onboard the boat I discovered they sold bottles of Alaskan Summer Ale described as a kolsch style ale. Already the trend for the holiday was being set, with interesting brews popping up in the most unexpected places and not once was I faced with having either an American “domestic” brew or going without (I would have gone without!)
Downtown Anchorage provided some interesting drinking and eating, that night. We started off in the Glacier brewhouse where I had the best beer of the whole trip, and the best meal. They always have one cask ale on sale and on this occasion it was an I.P.A at 6.35% (yes they were that specific) and it was served at 52degrees F. Not only that but they had full tasting notes on all of their beers to ensure that the servers knew the full details of each one including ingredients etc. I was well impressed with this and the high quality of the beer. It wasn’t expensive by US standards either at $4.95 an American (16oz) pint – I paid $7 in New York back in February. They brew other beers such as a stout, raspberry wheat and a curiously named Zoo Blonde, but with a cask ale this good why bother? If you get to Anchorage this place is a must.
Our next port of call was the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewery, with its open decks overlooking the bay. The walls were decorated with English bar towels and I was surprised how many of them were from closed breweries such as Wards, Morrels, Hartleys, xe Vale, Higsons, Oldham and Tolly We ate here on another night and the food was good, although like the beer, not up to the high standard of the Glacier. They had a selection of their own beers on draught including a porter, Scottish Ale and IPA but apparently they had not had any real ale on sale for at least three weeks, despite the handpump on the bar and nobody knew why. Interestingly they had a good selection of Belgian beers and I finished my meal with a real treat a bottle of Boon Kriek Lambic – absolutely delicious!
Time was tight and we only had the chance to try one other bar in Anchorage. Humpys boasts 40 beers on tap and the selection was wide ranging across not only the US but worldwide, including draught Chimay, and they also served one real ale. It was “Sockeye Red” from the Midnight Sun microbrewery in Alaska described on their web site as “an extremely gnarly Brew created especially for the happy hopheads at Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. Humpy's Sockeye Red Ale is a finely crafted Northwest India Pale Ale (IPA) with a real bite. The predominant character of this incredible catch comes from outlandish portions of Centennial and Cascade hops.” Nobody seemed to know how strong it was unfortunately, but it was certainly a pleasant, hoppy brew.
Our next night was spend in Beaver Creek, just over the Canadian border which gave me the chance for my first taste of Yukon Brewing’s fine brews. This brewery, based in Whitehorse, was only founded in 1997 but already has more than 10% of the market share in the Yukon territories and on sampling them it is not difficult to see why. Their two best sellers are Yukon Gold a 5% golden ale and Artic Red a 5.5% amber brew. However the best of their beers I found was their 4.5% Grizzly Wheat Hefeweizen made specially for the High Country Inn in Whitehorse, where we stayed for a couple of nights. This is a refreshing, cloudy unfiltered wheat ale, light bodied with a tangy citrus character. Apart from a bottle of Grasshopper wheat beer from Big Rock Brewing in Calgary, Yukon was the only beer I sampled on the Canadian part of the trip, but they were so good that our coach driver used to take cases of it back over the border into Alaska.
There are several parts of Alaska that can’t be reached by road without going through Canada, except by boat and the small town of Haines was one of them we visited and it has its own microbrewery. Haines Brewing has four regular draught beers, Dalton Trail Ale (a British Pale Ale), Eldred Rock Amber, IPA, and Lookout Stout as well as seasonal brews. Unfortunately as it was the weekend we were unable to visit the brewery, which offers tours, but we sampled their beers in three of the bars and very good they were too.
It was back to Whitehorse in Canada the next night, but we then ventured into another piece of coastal Alaska via the spectacular White Pass and Yukon railroad. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this narrow gauge railroad is a piece of civil engineering brilliance, crossing a breathtaking panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls through tunnels and across fragile looking trestle bridges in the comfort of vintage parlour cars. Our journey ended at the small town of Skagway where the cruise liners dock, done up like a gold rush town it is very touristy and not a patch on Dawson City, which we visited later on our trip. However the Red Onion Saloon was interesting not only for the ten Alaskan brewed beers on tap, including Eldred Red and Lookout Stout from Haines, but because of the interesting tours they offered. This saloon was previously also a brothel and now ladies dressed in the appropriate costume of the time offer to take customers upstairs!
One of the most fascinating places we visited in Alaska was Chicken, a small town, population 37, in the middle of nowhere. According to the town’s web site, in the late 1800's, early miners travelled far in search of gold, food was sometimes scarce, but a particular area near the South Fork of the 40-Mile River was abundant in Ptarmigan, now the state bird, which bears a resemblance to a chicken. The miners kept themselves alive with the help of the Ptarmigan. In 1902, the town was to become incorporated, the second in Alaska to do so and the name "Ptarmigan" was suggested. The only problem was that nobody could agree on the correct spelling. They didn't want their town name to be the source of ridicule and laughter, so they decided on "Chicken." This place has no phone lines, outside toilets, a three legged dog and a superb bar with two old guys who claimed to be the town council sat outside. They served an excellent bowl of chilli and draught Alaskan Summer Ale and Red plus bottles of Arrogant Bastard Ale from the Stone Brewing Company in San Diego..
The second largest city in Alaska, Fairbanks, also proved to have an abundance of interesting beers. Pikes Landing, next door to our hotel had 17 draught beers on offer including the local Silver Gulch Brewing Company’s Coldfoot Pilsener, two beers from Deschutes of Bend in Oregon and even Kona Longboard Lager from Hawaii. Meanwhile the Salmon Bake just down the road was selling bottles of Midnight Sun brews including Baked Blonde Ale, Oasik Amber and Arctic Rhino Coffee Porter and the barbecued local wild salmon was excellent as well.
On the way back to Anchorage we spent a night in Denali national park, home of Mount McKinley and hundreds of moose, only we saw just one plus a porcupine. But the beer even out here was good with Silver Gulch Pickaxe Porter, Glacier Oatmeal stout and Pike Kilt Lifter amongst the brews sampled.
All in all, a fascinating holiday with incredible scenery and a surprising range of beer. The only disappointment was that we saw just one wild bear on the entire trip, plus the moose and of course the single porcupine.
All photos by Steve Westby.