Chasing the Beer Scene in Alaska

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Even if you’ve never been, Alaska needs no introduction. With dark, impossibly bitter winters, majestic spruce forests, and countless lakes, streams and marshes, it’s like an uber-Minnesota. Of course, Alaska also has thousands of miles of saltwater coastline and several towering mountain ranges that make the North Shore’s Sawtooth Range look like a collection of molehills. And, like Minnesota, Alaska has recently gained a deserved reputation as a craft brewing capital. Sorry, Russia: We’re keeping this rugged, beer-soaked wilderness to ourselves. At least until the last keg is tapped.

Let’s chase the beer scene in Alaska, shall we?

49th State Brewing Company // Healy

Our first stop is 49th State Brewing Company, a tourist-friendly outpost near the northern entrance to Denali National Park. Like most businesses in the town of Healy, it’s strictly seasonal: “We’re open from May until the snow starts flying in October,” says Kyler Chavez, the general manager. (The staff arrives earlier in the spring to get the place ready for the season.) 49th State makes the most of its limited season, throwing several huge parties each year—including the annual Summer Solstice celebration (when you can watch the 1am musical act without the aid of floodlights) and Augtoberfest, a self-explanatory festival that’s forced forward on the calendar by the region’s unpredictable fall weather.

49th State has 12 taps, so there’s always something good on offer. This time of year, they push lighter favorites—yes, even Alaska’s interior gets warm enough to shake the appeal of a stout or porter—like the airy, fruity Baked Blonde and the classic Vienna Lager. Rotating taps are a big deal here, too. Try the Dubbel on Tundra, a relevatory lager that pairs locally produced birch syrup with Belgian yeast, or the Equinox D.I.P.A., an end-of-summer beer that’s not for the hops-averse.  And the Hibernation Series includes ambitious barrel-aged selections like the mega-malty Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, the chocolaty Imperial Stout, and the faithful-to-a-fault Marzen.

Hungry? 49th State is attached to a full-service restaurant that specializes in beer pairings and regularly changes up its menu. Locally sourced meats, including yak and reindeer, feature prominently on the menu, as do organic greens and root veggies from a nearby farm.

You’ll need all the calories you can get: 49th State is a relative stone’s throw from Denali National Park. For a day trip, try the Mount Healy Overlook Hike, a four-hour round trip that gains 1,700 feet of elevation and provides breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks, river valleys, and lowlands. Denali itself is some distance to the southwest, and it’s not advisable for anyone without years of high-altitude mountaineering experience to attempt the peak. But the park’s interior does have a decent trail system that can support three-or-four day wilderness backpacking trips. Check with the National Park Service for details.

Related Post: Chasing the Beer Scene in Colorado

Denali Brewing Company // Talkeetna

To the south, near the other main entrance to Denali National Park, you’ll find the appropriately named Denali Brewing Company. It’s been a Talkeetna mainstay since 2009, and its more popular creations are available on tap at restaurants and brewpubs around the state. Its headquarters includes a full-service restaurant and tasting room, with a separate tasting room on nearby Spur Road just added.

For a brewery that also caters to Lower 48 tourists, Denali takes a surprisingly risky and experimental approach to its craft. The four tap mainstays—well-balanced Mother Ale, rich Single Engine Red, savory Twister Creek IPA, and warm-but-not-too-warm Chuli Stout—are accessible enough. But creations like I Squared (a 9.6% ABV, 122 IBU hop blast that sits you down and keeps you there) and Branwen’s Union Welsh Style Braggot (a 9.1% ABV honey-malt hybrid that truly toes the line between mead and beer) may leave you scratching your head in a hazy reverie. If you’re going to stout town, try the hearty TKA Ribeye Dip, or pair your Mother Ale with a (locally sourced) blackened Alaskan cod sandwich.

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