Posts Tagged ‘Alaskan Brewing Company’

Geoff Larson of Alaskan Brewing Company

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

alaskan logoJuneau, Alaska is a forbidding place to open a brewery. It is accessible only by plane or boat. It stays mostly dark for half the year. And then there is the cold. But that is exactly what Geoff and Marcy Larson did. And not only did they open a brewery in Juneau, Alaska, they founded Alaskan Brewing Company in the early 1980s, a time when the whole idea of “craft” brewing was an anomaly. What were they thinking?

I vividly remember the first time I tasted Alaskan Amber Ale. It was several years ago while on tour with my theatre troupe. That beer was on the list at the restaurant where we were eating dinner. The first sip was an “oh my god” experience for me. It was so creamy, rich, and full of caramel. I immediately became a fan of the brewery, even more so when a couple years later I finally got to try Alaskan Smoked Porter, a beer with a reputation that made it seem legendary. I’m still a fan. Alaskan Winter Ale is one of the winter seasonal brews that I wait for every year.

I actually did this interview with Geoff Larson in November, 2011. You know, sometimes you get busy and things just slip by. We sat at Republic (was it still Sargent Preston’s then?) sipping Alaskan Winter and eating sausages. Over the course of our hour-long conversation we talked about the history of the brewery and of the beer industry in Alaska. He revealed how over 2000 pounds of spruce tips are collected to make Winter Ale every year. And just as a warning, we got pretty geeky about smoke. The interview may be two years old, but it’s as relevant today as it was then.

Geoff & Marcy Larson

Geoff & Marcy Larson

You opened Alaskan Brewing at a time when small breweries were still fairly rare, and in a place where they were even rarer. What made you think that was a good idea?

The experience I could draw from was the openness, and support, and almost “can do” – I hate to be cliché in that way – attitude that most people in Alaska have. You are living in the last frontier. You get a feeling of the last frontier. You’re exposed to what were, in the very recent past historically, really unbelievable pioneering stories that were successes. So I think there is a predisposition for people to say, “Yeah, that sounds like it can be done. Go for it.”

It tapped into the spirit of the place, in a way.

Yeah. And the mean age at the time was 27. Half of the population was younger than us. I mean, that’s just amazing. We were living in an extraordinarily contemporary, youthful, optimistic environment. It wasn’t necessarily all optimistic at the time. When we started interest rates were at sixteen percent. Sixteen percent is what our first bank loans were for inventory. That was the mid-80s. But I would say that once we started talking about the idea, in Alaska there was a lot more support. There wasn’t anybody that just laughed and walked away saying, “Well that’s stupid.” There was a real supportive feel towards young people.

I can see how that would tap into the spirit of the place. Like you said, until very recently it was pioneer.

Yeah. You know in 1900 Juneau was just coming into its own because they found gold there. And it is a dynamic place. I think there are those elements of hitting something insurmountable, unbelievably large challenges, and saying, “Yeah, we did that.” You know, a mine opening up in the back country. “Yeah, we’ll do that.” I’m going to go climb McKinley. “Okay. You can do that.” I’m going to go fishing and catch a 200-pound halibut. “Oh, okay. I wouldn’t mind a little bit of that.” I was kind of raised that way, in many ways. My parents were always really supportive of what we did as kids. Not towards the brewery. Both Marcy and I come from somewhat teetotaling families.

How did they feel about you opening a brewery?

Oh, I think they would have preferred us choosing a different focus in life. But I think really what was part of that step-wise transition towards getting into the industry was meeting people in the industry who had this reservoir of respect and feeling of being part of something larger than themselves. When we were about to move to Alaska I would swing by a brewery in New York, FX Matt Brewing Company, and FX Matt III spent an entire day with me. Here I was 24 years old. And this is 1982 or 1983. He didn’t sit there and say, “You’re 24. Get out of here. Get a job.” But he did say, “If you do start making beer commercially, make the best beer you can, because you reflect on all brewers.” I thought that was kind of a distillation of what he was talking about. At this place in our history, you are representing all those that came before you.

I think that is still good advice now. If you look at the boom that’s happening right now, some of it is great beer, some of it isn’t very good beer. And it does reflect on everybody.

And definitely in the 1990s you saw that manifested in consumers. Because consumers say, “Well I’ve got to try this category.” And there were a lot of people producing anything. Put it in a bottle and it will sell. And they were right. But it would sell once. The problem was the consumer was ignorant, and would taste this and rightfully so say, “I don’t like this.” And then they judge the whole category. But I have to say those steps towards the feeling that there’s more to it than just making beer really were kind of an interesting genesis.

What were the challenges of opening a brewery in Juneau and what are the challenges now of running a brewery in Juneau, being as it is a place that you can’t reach except by plane?

What were the challenges? Well, it was more a challenge of the times, because it was still a very novel concept. “Oh, you’re going to make a beer and it’s going to be cheap. Great.” And they are thinking price, but I’m seeing implications of low-quality ingredients, price, and low-quality beer. And I was like, “No, we’re going to do something totally different.”

There is an interesting dichotomy in Alaska. There are a lot of alcohol issues that occur in the native communities. They are going through a cultural change away from a totally subsistence lifestyle. And part of that transition is coming into the social norms of what would be reasonable use of an adult beverage. So there was a fairly significant part of Health and Social Services who were concerned about, “Oh, we don’t need a whole bunch of cheap beer being put forth.” So we reached out and talked to those folks and said, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do. What can we do so that we don’t inadvertently do something stupid? What do you see as something that we could avoid?” Open dialogue.

Back then, finding equipment was tough. There was no real infrastructure to supply it. There was stuff that you could pull together. But my background was chemical engineering. I understood how to do things. I knew the right way. I think up front we kind of knew that we weren’t going to have a lot of forgiveness where we are, so we at least need to do things correctly and as efficiently as possible. It’s not like we can just get in the car and drive to get a rebuild kit for a motor. So I’d say we probably invested in some pretty good equipment up front to overcome some of those challenges.

Other challenges? I’d say supply chain. You order today it’s not going to ship and get there until seven days later. That’s still a problem, but in that problem there was a little bit of a benefit. We always had to make sure that we knew the logistics of getting stuff and plan ahead. So again, the challenge created more of a systematic approach. It wasn’t like we could go, “Oh hell. I’ve got to order today.” No, it was, “I’ve got to order for next week.” So it was some training early on that made our lives a little easier down the road.

Once again it’s that Alaskan self-reliance.

But fast forward to today and some of those challenges are still there. But I would say we are in a small community. We’ve always been in a small community. We’ve always been really attuned to our impacts. Early on we talked to the city water department, telling them our expectations for the next five years. “Is this going to cause any issues or growth challenges for you? Because obviously if you can’t supply us, we ain’t growing.” And every five years we try to say, “Okay, this is our forecast.” to our water utility.  And I’d say that we’re mindful of that even in the equipment that we buy. We exercise an awareness of how we fit into the larger fabric of our community.

You just talked about something that led me to one of the questions that I had. You have this whole focus on sustainable practice. Where did this desire to emphasize sustainability come from?

We moved to Alaska because we love the out-of-doors, and the out-of-doors in Alaska is pretty breathtaking. And there have been many times in the backcountry when we really have gotten that maybe mythical feeling. “My god, I could be the first person here.” I say that and I have images of specific times I’ve been in that zone. I’ve been to places where I know that no one has been in many years. We have a lot of land coming back from glacial recession, so there are areas where we were camping and it’s really a very fragile environment. You can’t help but think, “We made an impact.” No matter how careful you were, you made a big impact. But I think that sense of connectivity is really part of our state. Subsistence lifestyle is something that people talk about because there is truly a very significant part of our population who live off the land. So when you talk about sustainability it goes back to that, just walking in the woods. We live there because we love it, and I think that there is a certain sense of husbandry and nurturing that comes to you from the get-go.

As far as the brewery itself, I think sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. You know? If you’re wasteful, guess what, you’ve got to buy more of things. You’ve got to ship more of it, and you’ve got to get it up here. So sometimes it’s just common sense. But I think another element that drives Alaskan Brewing is that we’re in a place that challenges the standard way of doing things. You have to say, “Okay, that’s what everybody else does. Is that what we’re going to do?” Sometimes innovation just all of a sudden occurs. Innovation is a departure from the norm; a departure from the norm to improve something. Sometimes the norm has already created those little boundaries of your perception. I’m going to build a square box to live in as a house. Well, what about a yurt? If all you saw around you were square boxes, you wouldn’t even think about a round structure. How do you make round structures with 2x4s? That doesn’t make sense. They’re square. So I think that’s part of it, too. It’s just that we’re in a challenging environment and maybe what other people do we just can’t do. Or maybe we just don’t think about it that way. For instance, our recovery of the carbon dioxide off the fermenting beer when we were at a very small size was unheard of in this country.

That’s something that a lot of people do now.

A fair amount do, but I’m surprised at the craft industry. I think there are only like one or two of the craft breweries that do it besides us. It really surprised me. But we did it just a few years into our operation. One advantage that it creates is that we know the CO2 source. The primary CO2 source that people buy CO2 from is all fossil fuel. They’re burning fossil fuel and then purifying it. It’s really hard to purify it totally when you’re starting with hydrocarbons burning. So the fact that our CO2 comes from fermentation, you know what? It’s pretty easy. Not to say that you can’t have off flavors. You can have DMS and stuff like that coming in from the CO2, so you go through the purification process. But you’re still dealing with naturally occurring yeast by-products, not a whole bunch of aromatic hydrocarbons or other sort of cross links. Petroleum products.

How else has location influenced your brewing?

Marcy did a lot of work looking at some of the historical breweries before prohibition, mainly as kind of a pictorial essay – her training is in photojournalism – of where does beer lie and why is it even relevant in Alaska. It was really an interesting side trip that we took. What we found was that there were a lot of breweries in Alaska before prohibition. And obviously most of the brewing traditions came from the influx of white men going in for the gold. The gold rush attracted people from all over the world and they brought in brewing traditions. But they had additional challenges, many of the same challenges we face today. They had logistical issues. They had environmental issues.

How do you overcome the water or the temperature etc.?

Absolutely. So I think that was another little bit of inspiration for us. We looked at history as a guide to remain relevant today. Why are we in Alaska? Why brew beer in Alaska? Why not brew it down south and ship it to Alaska and call it Alaskan? We have a fundamental ethos that we’re going to brew it in Alaska. That’s one of the most common questions that we get is, “Where are you brewed?” And there’s incredulity in their eyes when we say, “Well we brew it in Juneau, Alaska.”

There were five operating breweries in Juneau at the turn of the century. There are a lot of photographs of them. But one of the breweries, the brewmaster was interviewed and he talked about his trials and tribulations of keeping the fermenters warm enough so that the ale could ferment fully. And that gave us insight into the cold fermentation of our ale. And then we got a phone call from a fellow by the name of Nick Nichols. He was a collector and he had bar tokens. And those were the coinage of the realm because they didn’t have a lot of coins. You know, you would bring in your gold nugget, they’d weigh it, and you’d get 50 tokens. So there is a lot of token collecting up there. But he had a treasure trove of files from the Douglas City Brewing Company, including shipping invoices for raw materials. So we could put together the raw materials with the interviews to try and emulate what might have been the beer that was brewed.

See this is interealaskan ambersting, because I didn’t realize this until I was prepping for this interview that Alaskan Amber was inspired by the history of the Alaskan brewing industry.

Obviously we’re challenged. We couldn’t say that we have his yeast and all that. We could give ratios of crystal malt and pale malt, but what’s crystal malt? Back then they didn’t say 20 Lovibond, 40 Lovibond, 60 Lovibond. You get verbal descriptions of hues, but those are subjective descriptors.

That’s always a problem when trying to recreate historical recipes.

Right. But even the beer we’re drinking right now (Alaskan Winter Ale) is inspired by Captain Cook, 1778. Captain Cook was very meticulous. His journal entries are phenomenal. He’s quite a remarkable man when you think about what he did. But he was also an adamant brewer on board. We had a chance to work with one of our local historical societies and they helped us do a lot of research into what Captain Cook said in his journals about brewing on board. We found fourteen references to where he used spruce in making beer on board. Not all of them were successful. He had a couple references in his journals in regards to literally his “mutinous” crew not being very satisfied with his beer and refusing to drink it. But that particular batch was where he used the boughs of a spruce tree. He was taking whole limbs of the spruce tree, chopping them up, and throwing them in there. So they proWA-bottlepint-smbably did taste like turpentine. And then there was one reference where he talked of his crew being especially appreciative of the beer that he made. It was from the new growth of the spruce tree. And that first growth, the spruce tips, really is that first flush of nutritive, high sugar content sap. I’ve tasted blue spruce. That’s not as tasty in the spring. But Sitka spruce, literally I’ll be going through the forest and I’ll be munching on the tips. They’re very citrusy. There is a tartness to them. And then there’s also a real floral character to them. But anyway, our Winter Ale is a kind of old ale – old as in “olde” – but with spruce as a component in its spicing. Captain Cook used the spruce tips as a replacement for hops. Because of course he’s going out there on the ocean for a long time. What’s interesting about spruce tips is that they are very high in vitamin C. And of course in beer you have the whole vitamin B complex from the yeast. Today you can brew any beer, any place, any time, but it’s kind of fun to sit there and rediscover that which is relevant to your past. I think we’re living in extraordinarily amazing times as consumers of beer. But I think it’s all been rediscovered.

So a question crossed my mind as you were talking. I don’t know how much Winter Ale you make, but how do you possibly get enough spruce tips to make enough of this beer?

Very good question. It’s actually a really interesting process. When Marcy and I moved to Alaska we lived in a town called Gustavus. We have a friend there who has a processing plant for mainly fish, for smoking fish and stuff like that. So we’ll send her the number of pounds of spruce tips we’re going to buy for brewing that year, and we’ll buy them at the spot price for hops. She puts out a little sandwich sign. It coincides with about when school lets out for the year, so these kids go out and start picking spruce tips. We have a little descriptor of how they should pick them for the health of the tree. You are pruning a tree, so it actually is healthy for the tree. It has to be on private land. It can’t be on public land because we have a lot of national parks and a lot of forest service land, so it has to be on private land. So they go out and pick. It’s wild. I went over there to visit and she says, “I’ve just got to show you this box.” It’s a little 3 x 5 box of cards. So she takes out one of her clients. It’s a kid, so she has the entries of his pickings. The first entry is like three ounces. Spruce tips are very small. They’re tiny. And he’s out there working away. The next week it gets up to be a pound and a half. By the end of the week it’s like four and a half pounds in a day. We’re talking hops are five to ten bucks a pound, so this little kid is getting twenty bucks. The next week, six pounds. Eight pounds. The spruce tips are getting larger. And by the end of the week what’s happening is that the amount we’re buying is going down rapidly, but the amount of poundage coming in is going up rapidly. By the end he was bringing in 15 to 20 pounds. I’ve had so many parents come up and say to me that it’s amazing. Kids get out of school, and all of a sudden there’s a three week stretch of absolute entrepreneurial, I’m getting outside, I’m getting up early in the morning and going out picking spruce tips. They said it sets the tone for the entire summer. The kids are like, “what can I do outside?” But that’s how we get the spruce tips. And we get a lot more than 2000 pounds. We get a lot more. And we’ve been doing this for a number of years. It’s hilarious. I go to Gustavus and I know the yards that have been picked from.

alaskan smoked porter

So Alaskan Smoked Porter. I have to tell you that one of the greatest beer experiences of my life was at the Craft Brewers Conference in Chicago a couple years ago. At the reception before the World Beer Cup awards banquet there is this huge trough of beer from all over the world; all of the World Beer Cup entries. As if that weren’t enough, I’m standing at the trough trying to decide what I want to try when a woman next to me pulls out a bottle and says, “That will work.” It was 1998 Alaskan Smoked Porter. It was awesome. But it’s counterintuitive that that beer should age as well as it does. It’s not an 11% barleywine, it’s a 6.5% porter. It should stale. Why doesn’t it?

Well, you know smoke has been used for ages as a preservative. Now maybe indirectly people would say that it’s the drying process where you’re concentrating the salts, which are also a preservative in meats. But actually there are a fair amount of interesting characteristics in smoke. It’s a pretty complex substance. There are a lot of phenols, furfurals…I could go on. My background is chemistry, so I could really go off on a tangent on that one. But a lot of them are bacteriostatic. Not necessarily bactericidal, but they tend to inhibit all growth. They don’t necessarily kill bacteria. But with bacteriostatic – the Latin root “static” means “staying” – it doesn’t allow growth. But there is also a class of compounds that are antioxidants. There is a characteristic oxidation that takes place in the smoked porter, like kind of the dried fruit character of ports and the like, you know, plums, dried cherries and whatever, that comes through in the oxidation of the roasted malts. But I really do think a lot of its age stability is from those smoke compounds that are antioxidants that prevent it from becoming like cardboard. The ugly side of oxidation.

But I have to admit, when we first made that beer – the first year we released it was 1988, December of 1988 – we said, “Well we can’t put 1988 on it in December. By January it’s going to be 1989, people are going to say, ‘Well it’s old.’” So we put that first release as 1989, because beer is best when fresh. We were really fixated on, “This is a porter. It’s not a barleywine. It can’t age.” So we were of the same mindset.

But of course, we’re passionate about what we do, so we keep the beers around. We crack one every once in a while. And after a few years it was like, “Wow. These older beers are good.” So it was at GABF 1992, I got a few people together in my room where I could actually go back to 1989, which was actually the 1988 vintage, and taste a series of beers and ask their opinion. I had the opportunity to have Michael Jackson in on the tasting with Fred Eckhardt, Charlie Papazian, and some others. It was a pretty heavy-hitting group. But I asked them, “What do you think?” And I had them taste the beers and there was a rounding endorsement. “This ages elegantly.” Actually Michael Jackson later said to me, “One thing you might want to think about. Don’t filter out the yeast. Leave the yeast in. It’s a living beer, so let life stay there.”

Which also helps curb oxidation.

Right. So from 1993 on, we stopped filtering that beer. And we kept a library at the brewery, so we have beers all the way back to 1993. And it’s interesting, because obviously the dynamics of flavor change is, simply put, you have smoke that’s actually kind of diminishing over time, but not at a real rapid rate. Maybe it’s really rapid for the first year. There is a real sharp decline of certain characteristics of the smoke that first year. You’ll find that even in Bamberg where they try to keep the same smoke characteristic throughout the year. They can’t smoke malts in the summer, so during the summer they will actually add more and more of their smoked malts to get the same sort of smoke character in their beer. But what happens is that after years the smoke diminishes, so when I do vertical tastings I always recommend that people go from the oldest to the youngest. The aromatics of hops will disappear. That goes fast. In 18 months to two years it will be really hammered. The bitterness also decreases over time. But then you have some of the unique oxidation components that elevate over time. So there is a real dynamic and it’s really fun. It wasn’t intuitive that it could age. But it did.

I think when you said it ages elegantly, that’s a good way to put it. I did have the opportunity at GABF to taste through a three year vertical sampling. Older is better. Not that the new isn’t perfectly good. But older is better.

The Brewers Association asked me to write a book on smoked beers. They got me together with Ray Daniels to write this book. What an experience. I had an experience that was truly life impacting. I called up the Library of Congress and asked them, “I’m writing a book about smoke flavored beers. Living in Alaska, how would I go about getting research information from the Library of Congress?” So I got the culinary science research librarian. Of course, they have such. And he said, “Quite frankly the library of Congress is probably not your best resource. But there are three collections that you are looking for, that have been sold and are probably in the public domain. But we don’t know where they are.” He gave me the name of these three collections and I went to the one that they had record of and I tracked it down. It was called the Hurty-Peck Collection. The wealthiest beverage manufacturer in 1900. He’d been making soft drinks for 100 years. He was extraordinarily wealthy and he decided to collect every book ever written in the English language having to do with any beverage. So he had this collection of English books. It was the University of California-Davis that had finally bought it. So I went there and spent three days immersing myself in this collection of books. I was in awe. I was holding texts that were written and printed in the 1600s. The 1500s. I’m going through and I’m looking for references to smoke. But there was a research librarian that was asking me what I was writing about and he said, “You are the first person who has ever asked for this collection. We’ve had it for three years. When it came into our shop it had the most intense, sickeningly sweet raspberry smell.”

Soda maker.

Soda maker, but from 1900! How in the world did it hold the smell that long? A hundred years! But this librarian said, “You have to put yourself back in that time and you have to be understanding of what they’re writing about and how they’re writing.” He says, “For example, you’re reading texts from the 16th-century, the 17th-century, and the 18th-century. In the 16th and 17th-century for sure, who was doing all the brewing? And where were they brewing?” Well, it’s going to be on farms. Farm brewing. “Well who was doing it?” And I was like, “Well…brewers.” He says, “Women. The women were in the kitchen brewing. But women weren’t taught to write. So who was writing these books? It was men. So were men being real attentive to how women were brewing in the kitchen? Possibly not. So you have to be very careful about what you take as far as research and how much credence you put into it.” And I was like, “Oh, got it.” It was like, “Aha!”

But I was kind of frustrated because I couldn’t find positive references toward smoke in these texts. If they had a reference toward smoke it was usually negative. Well, I’m not going to write a book about bad things about smoke. Well in 1600 or 1700 you walk down any street and what did you smell? Smoke. You go to any kitchen and what do you smell? Smoke. Everything had smoke. The reason they mention smoke is when it is unusually intense. Even when we made the Smoked Porter originally, too much of a good thing wasn’t pleasant. So really there’s a balance; hedonistic balances about hitting that threshold where it’s really very appealing but not going overboard.

Pleasant and not oily.

Yeah. And they talked about specific woods having different character and specific sources of heat that they used to dry out the malt that were very pleasant or not very pleasant. But that’s the other thing that was very interesting too is the flavor association thing. Alder is the wood that we used to make the smoked beer in Alaska, because that’s the hardwood that’s available. Many of the breweries in Juneau were brewing and malting companies. They malted their own. So really the smoked porter was again a touch of the history of our locale. But each wood has its own signature. And I would often get asked about the fish flavor of the smoked porter. We clean the smokehouse really well. There is no fish involved. I would go to the tenth degree of being defensive about that. I didn’t get it until a friend of mine, Greg Noonan from the Vermont Pub & Brewery told me his story. He was using hickory in his smoked porter. And he said, “People always thought I used ham. I finally got so sick and tired of that I started to go to maple. Then they started thinking that I was using sausage. Jimmy Dean’s Maple Smoked Sausage.” And that’s when I was like, “Flavor association.” Smoke is not the same from one wood to the other.

No, it’s absolutely not the same. If you think of the beechwood smoke from the Schlenkerla Rauchbier, all the Bamberg rauchbiers, that to me is like bacon, or it’s got that kind of oily ham thing. Cherrywood smoke is really popular now and that to me is char. That’s the best way that I can describe it. It’s not meat related, it’s char. I had a cherrywood smoked bock at the Goose Island Brewpub in Chicago and if I didn’t know better I would have sworn they used chipotle in it. It had that kind of a flavor without the heat. So how would you describe the flavor you get from the alder wood?

Well, my god. There’s a lot that goes on in the pyrolysis of wood degradation.

That’s your chemistry background coming out.

(Laughs) Well you have the hemicellulose, and the cellulose, and the lignin. And each of them creates a specific class of compounds. But because it’s a hardwood, there’s less lignin.

I’m just looking for flavor.

But interestingly enough, the types of phenols that come out from burning wood, there is some eugenol, which is clove. There is a fair amount of guayacol, which is the phenol from a lot of the traditional German wheat beers. But there is also a whole other set of compounds. There are a lot of vanillins. You get that with a lot of fresh, toasted oak. It adds the flavor impacts on any beverage that gets exposed to it. Even on bourbons and stuff you’ll get the vanillins.

That’s a really tough question… I would say the alder has a…It’s a less acrid set of flavors. Greg Noonan talked about it, and he was really familiar with hickory. He talked about it being much more phenolic in character, much more of that sharper kind of eugenol character.  I wouldn’t have said that, but hell, he’s around it more than I am so I’m going to trust his opinion. But I would say that the alderwood works really well just because of its tendency not to be so overbearing in some of those acrid notes. I also think there isn’t a huge amount of aftertaste. You talked about it being oily and it just overwhelms. But I think alder doesn’t do that as much. You can get it there, but…

That’s a tough question. I will pose that to my gang. How would you describe the character of alder smoke?

With my company A Perfect Pint I do beer tasting events and beer education. I’m always looking for ways to describe flavor. What does this taste like? How is this flavor different from that flavor?

Of course we all know that there are arguably four or five taste sensations in your palate. I guess it’s no longer arguable. They talk about umami being the fifth one. But aromatics, that’s where flavor is. And I’ve seen gas chromatograph readouts of various smokes, and we’re talking four, five, six hundred individual peaks. The primary one in wood burning, the largest peak other than water from pyrolysis is acetic acid. So when people ask me for advice on how to smoke grains, one of the pieces of advice that I’ll always give is that you’ve got to make sure that you dry the grains out totally, because what you want to do is drive off the acetic acid. Otherwise you will get acetic acid, which is typically really easily discerned and not necessarily pleasant. If you dry the grain totally the acetic acid will be gone. It will volatilize off. No problem.

I would not have associated acetic acid with smoke.

I was smoking malts out the wazoo. I was using corncobs for smoking malts. We brewed a whole bunch of different beers with different smoke sources. Corncob. Sassafras wood. All sort and manner of smoke sources. Straw. So we were just trying to get a different flavor. Ray (Daniels) and I were trying to discern sensory-wise is every smoke that different? Can somebody just pick it out? Ray set it up so that I would smoke the malt. I’d send it to him. He’d brew the batches of beer and he would send me dual trials. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. Then we would have our panel taste it. And our panel would look for what was the same. It wasn’t necessarily what was different, because it was all smoke character, but which two are the same and which is the oddball. He sent us seven sets and we nailed each one. So I’m convinced. Every source of wood is going to put out a different characteristic smoke that can be easily discerned.

One last question. What turns you on about making beer?

You know, originally I would say that it was an undiscovered flavor platform. People had no idea that there was something more than just this blond, wet beverage that was called beer that would give you more than just that sort of experience. And then having exposure to all these other imported beers and our homebrew really kind of gave me a great platform to talk about flavors. In the past I often would talk about how it’s easy for people to describe Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. You can do it verbally. You can do the swirls, the paint, the yellows and blues in the background. There is the little village nestled in the mountains. Whatever. Everybody is thinking the exact same thing. You see it in your mind. But when you talk about flavors, when you describe that very powerful sensory organ that we have, we have kind of relegated it to just being, “Oh. I’ve got to eat. I’m gonna stuff it down my throat.” It’s an ignored sensory platform. And here we are creating something to be able to appeal to that sense hedonistically. It’s just a wonderful little playground of creative reward that you get from your consumer.

And I have to admit, some of the most extraordinary experiences are going into halls and people are coming up to me – they don’t know me – and saying, “Have you tasted this? You’ve got to taste this.” And having personal experiences where it’s like, “Oh wow. That’s just beautiful. That’s elegant.” So I would say that those are the experiences that rewarded me early on. And you know, I still get those. So in some ways it’s still those magical canvases of flavors that are still being discovered. I still get a kick out of that.

I get a kick also from just thinking back on history. We’re rediscovering something that was as pleasurable back then as it is today. We suffer under a misconception that we are living in times that are unique and different than any others that go before us. I look at some of the technological feats of some of our predecessors in Alaska and what they did back then. We ain’t that great. But at the same time, it doesn’t diminish our own pleasure.

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Alaskan Pumpkin Porter

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Sure, it’s Thanksgiving Day. But while people complain about retailers like Wall Mart and Best Buy making their employees come to work, in many places liquor stores are also open (except in Minnesota, of course). So for those of you who somehow forgot to supply yourselves for the holiday meal, here is a last-minute, turkey-worthy recommendation.

Here’s my notes:

pumpkin_porter_bottle_pic-webbyPumpkin Porter
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: Imperial Porter with pumpkin and spices
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle

Aroma: Vegetal squash and pumpkin pie spices are way up front – allspice, ginger, cinnamon are what I smell, although that’s not apparently what’s in it. Black strap molasses. Graham crackers. Low-level dark chocolate underneath. You get the pumpkin filling and the crust.

Appearance:  Very dark brown, nearly black. Ruby highlights. Clear. Full head of creamy, ivory foam with good retention.

Flavor: Vegetal squash notes like acorn squash. Pumpkin pie spices – ginger especially, along with cinnamon. Ginger lingers long after the dry finish. Molasses grabs in the middle and also hangs on into finish. Low malt sweetness. Low-level, dry, chocolate-cookie roastiness. Bitterness is medium-low, but accentuated by dry finish and low-level of dry roast. Toast. Mellow coffee/chickory gets stronger as the beer warms. The pumpkin pie and the coffee to go with it.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: This is a lovely, unique, and complex beer. Crisp and refreshing, and yet dusky and mouth-filling. Spices are prominent enough to give the sense of eating a slice of pumpkin pie, but not so intense as to make the beer scream “SPICE.” The massive load of pumpkin used (11 pounds per barrel) really do allow for that vegetal squash flavor to come through. And at 7% ABV it’s just strong enough to call it “imperial” but not so strong that you can’t have another. It’s beautiful with a slice of pumpkin pie.

Alaskan Brewing Company Imperial Red Ale

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

I really don’t want this blog to be all about tasting notes. They aren’t that interesting and there are a million other sites doing them. But I’ve tasted so many great beers in the last couple of months. I have a desktop full of notes that I haven’t had the time to post. When Garrett Oliver was in town a while back to plug the Oxford Companion to Beer he said that working on a book takes over your life. It’s true. Working on two at once is just plain stupid. Anyway, I’m trying to get caught up on some of these tasting notes, so please bear with me. Hopefully you enjoy them.

Alaskan king crabs can weigh as much as 24 pounds and stretch 5 feet from tip to tip. Who knew? These giant, red crustaceans were the inspiration for Imperial Red Ale, the winter release in the Alaskan Brewing Company’s Pilot Series. While many winter seasonal beers are malt-forward, this 8.5%, West Coast style, red ale loads on the hops.

Here’s my notes:

Alaskan Imperial Red AleImperial Red Ale
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: Imperial Red Ale
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: The lead-off is mostly hops; bight citrus – Lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines. The hops lay on a bed of caramel with shades of brown sugar and toffee. Dark fruits linger in the background as the beer warms up. A bit of alcohol comes in too. This is a sniffer.

Appearance: Beautiful to look at. Jewel-like ruby red and crystal clear. Fine-bubbled, long-lasting stand of ivory foam. Lots of lacing on the glass.

Flavor: Malt takes charge here – caramel, some toast, melanoidins – but it is amply balanced by the hops. There’s fruit. Some raisins or re-hydrated prunes. Dark cherry. And is that just the lightest touch of roast peeking around the corner? Maybe a hint of alcohol. The bitterness is assertive, but stops short of aggressive. It hangs around for quite a while in the finish though. Hop flavors are resiny, piney with lemon, citrus, and chamomile overtones. Bracing but balanced.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. A bit creamy, but roughed up by hops. Medium carbonation. Some warming.

Overall Impression: This beer made me want food. It would be great next to dark-meat duck or roasted pork with some sort of chutney. It could work with tomato sauce dishes; cheesy manicotti or Chicken parmesan. It would also work with spicy though. Southern Indian potato curry, anyone?