The Winter's Tale: Barleywine in Alaska

Alaska? In the middle of winter?

Absolutely. There's no better time and place to enjoy barleywine, the complex, extra-strength ale made for sipping on winter nights.

Barleywine, which originated in England several centuries ago, has gained a following on this side of the Atlantic. Its revival began in 1975, when Anchor Brewing Company turned out its first Champagne-split-sized bottle of Old Foghorn. Other brewers, especially in the West, followed suit.

Given Alaska's long, cold winters, it's no coincidence that the state's brewers--even the tiniest--have tried their hand at barleywine. Some brew two or three, each with its unique character. Dawnell Smith, who writes about beer for the Anchorage Daily News, was impressed enough to call Alaska "The Barleywine State."

There's no better place to get acquainted with new beer styles than at a beer festival. That's especially true of barleywine. The best showcase for the style, and one of the world's biggest, is
The Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival in downtown Anchorage. In its seven-year history, the festival has outgrown several venues, and now calls the Egan Convention Center home. It has attracted thousands, including such celebrities as Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter, who raved about his stay in Alaska.

The price of admission, $25, turned out to be a bargain. It included a souvenir glass and 30 drink tickets, each good for a two-ounce sample. Although some 175 beers were on hand, the real stars of this show were the barleywines. In all, there were two dozen--far more than most stores carry. There were also dozens of strong ales, doppelbocks, and other winter warmers.

Barleywine packs a big alcoholic punch, so sampling it is the ultimate test of pacing yourself. Haste does make waste with strong ales; a tasting strategy is a must. So after finding seats, we opened our programs and picked the beers that most intrigued us. We started, of course, with the Alaskan barleywines we wouldn't find back home.

As the evening rolled along, a steady stream of people--most of them dressed for a pleasant evening out--joined the party. I saw more middle-aged attendees, and parents with small children, than usual for a beer festival. There were plenty of people in their 20's and 30's, too, and most of them really knew their beer. Beer fans of all ages enjoyed the live entertainment, a lineup that even included a band led by Tom Dalldorf, the editor and publisher of
Celebrator Beer News

While the beer flowed, this year's guest of honor, homebrewing legend Charlie Papazian, and his fellow judges were hard at work downstairs. They spent more than three and a half hours [charlie.jpg]evaluating the barleywines before finally emerging to announce the winners--Anchorage's own
Midnight Sun Brewing Company and Glacier BrewHouse. Again we marveled at how judges manage to keep their wits about them with all that beer to taste.

Did I say "we"? This event called for a tasting partner, and I was fortunate to have one--my wife, Maryanne Nasiatka. A veteran Beer Traveller in her own right, she, too, has "hop"-scotched her way around Europe and North America.

Since few tourists find their way to Alaska in the winter, the festival turned into a celebration of drinking locally. Even though the list of brewers included the Pacific Northwest's biggest names, much of the crowd gravitated to where Alaskan beer was poured. Who can blame them? In addition to the barleywines, they had an incredible variety of local beers to choose from.

A tour of the hall convinced me that the festival was first class all the way. There was fresh cola and root beer for designated drivers, and, at the pouring stations, bread to clear the palate. The souvenir program was one of the most informative I've seen; it also fit nicely inside a jacket or pants pocket. And the volunteers--the heart and soul of any festival--keep things running smoothly all night.

Last call was at 10:00. It came far too early for us; we still had a handful of unused drink tickets. On our way out, we had our program autographed by Charlie Papazian, who'd graciously stayed around to meet his many fans.

Since the weather was still dry and unseasonably warm, we decided to linger downtown and talk about the festival over a pizza and a couple more pints. We also made a belated New Year's resolution--namely, to go to more beer fests in our part of the world.

Our beer tour of Anchorage didn't end with the Beer and Barleywine Festival; it only started there. In my next Beer Traveller article, I'll show you around the city's brewpubs...and maybe take a quick trip out of town.