Alaska is a world apart from the beer scene of the lower 48, but that hasn’t stopped Gabe Fletcher from pursuing his passion—making beers that aren’t for everyone, but which excite a particular passion in those who appreciate them.
“We’re really detached from the brewing industry up here,” Fletcher says. “People have to really go out of their way to visit us, but the people who have made the trek up here are our pretty good friends.”
Distance is one common thread among the beers and brewers that Fletcher admires. But those that occupy a permanent place in his beer hall of fame are examples of technical mastery and unique expressions of quirky character not common in the beer world.
Plzeňský Prazdroj (Pilsen, Czech Republic)
“It’s always been my working beer, especially when you pull it out of an ice-cold cooler and crack it open. But, they don’t make it in the green bottle anymore, and I loved it way better in the green bottle. They just fucked that beer all up when they put it in a brown bottle, and the cans are even worse. I always loved the skunky character of that beer and the way it affected the hops and aroma. It’s just not the same anymore, but I still drink it out of the brown bottle.
“When I remodeled my house, I was drinking cases of that stuff for months. My wife always knew if I had had a hard day, working on the house or building the brewery; she’d come in with a cooler of Pilsner Urquell and just make my day.
“I’ve always dreamed of visiting the brewery, and it’s on my list of things to do. People have told me stories of going down into the caves, drinking it fresh off of the oak tanks, and experiencing all the different pours—they have the soft pour, the crisp pour, and the milk pour. We actually installed a Czech-style faucet just to pour the pils that we do. Our beer is definitely inspired by Pilsner Urquell—all Saaz hops, decoction, naturally carbonated. It’s unfiltered even though it’s fined, but it’s still bright.”
Brasserie d’Orval (Villers-devant-Orval, Belgium)
“This beer has a long history for me. It’s one of the beers that inspired me to start Anchorage Brewing Company. This one inspired me when I was working at Midnight Sun and I started experimenting with Brettanomyces. To keep learning, I was always drinking that beer and drinking it at certain ages. For my 10-year anniversary with the company, they gave me a trip to Belgium. So I contacted Brasserie Orval, and we were invited to go and stay with the monks for three days. My wife and I had to abide by the rules—we had to be in silence any time we were on the grounds, we had to go to church with the monks. We got to sit there and drink the table beer, have lunch with the monks and do dishes with them. Really simple things. Not conversing, but still a more personal experience.
“On our very last day, we went in to take showers in the separate bathrooms. She heard a knock on the door and said ‘Come in’ because she thought it was me. In walks the monk who had been helping us around. She’s buck naked, and screamed, ‘Get out!’ and was just frozen. I walked in a few minutes later, and she was beet-red, from head to toe. She was mortally embarrassed, but it was very funny at the time, and I can just imagine that monk who still has the image of this beautiful naked lady in his head.
“Still, it was a beautiful experience... We went and drank from the fountain of Mathilda that’s still there in the old ruins. It was an amazing time.
“The head brewer at the time took us on a tour of the actual brewery, and I got to drink Orval right off the bottling line, which was incredible. It’s partially carbonated at that point, and they finish the carb in the bottle, but it’s still cold and carbonated when it comes off the line, and the Brettanomyces picks up the rest of the carbonation. I didn’t know it until I had it there, but I really enjoy it fresh, and also at a year old. I still like it as it gets older, but I’m less of a fan as it gets into the five-, six-year-old range. Fresh at the brewery, it’s just incredible—it still has so much hoppiness from the dry hopping.”
Brasserie Dupont (Tourpes, Belgium)
“I love the classic rendition of this beer, but they don’t make Dupont in the green bottle anymore, and I don’t like it in the brown bottle. Also, the carbonation isn’t the same as it used to be, and I’m not sure why, but it’s much bigger, rougher bubbles now, and it’s not the same beer. But when it was in the 750ml green bottle, my wife and I loved that beer and loved the skunkiness. We just started packaging a bunch of beers in green bottles because we love that skunky character so much. Especially in saison, or at least that style, where it’s firm and hop-forward with no real tartness.
“I bought like 30 cases to pour at the brewery. It’s still not quite the same, and I still don’t know why, but the original ones are still excellent. It starts with the carbonation and that super-fluffy lemon- meringue head. It’s dense and fluffy, with super-tight bubbles—one of those that you drink and it sticks to your nose as you pull the glass away. It’s so soft, but crisp at the same time, and firm. It had a really nice minerality to it that I really liked. That, with the firm hop bitterness, and soft character as well, plus the skunkiness from being in the green bottle—that made me really love that beer.
“We just started putting ours in green bottles. Unfortunately, we don’t have a bottling line that can handle those bottles, so everything we’ve done has been bottled by hand. But if I could do it right now, I’d switch all of that style of beer to green bottles.”
Oro de Calabaza
Jolly Pumpkin (Dexter, Michigan)
“This was the second beer that inspired me to start Anchorage Brewing, and to this day I still love it. Since then, I’ve become really close friends with Ron Jeffries, and he’s been up here quite a bit. We’ve shared a lot of beers together—mostly IPA, though. Anyone who knows Ron knows how much he loves IPA.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had one, and usually I don’t analyze beer when I drink it—I try to enjoy it. But if I think about that beer now, it definitely has their trademark ester profile that comes from their wild house yeast. It produces a lemony character and a specific sesame-seed character that I really like. That sesame-seed character was one I always picked up in Hanssens gueuze, and I always liked it, but it somehow showed up in Ron’s beer as well.
“It’s all naturally carbonated, whether in the keg or bottle, and it’s always really good carbonation—tight bubbles, meringue head—just a really amazing beer.”
Side Project and Cycle Brewing BVC
Side Project & Cycle Brewing (Maplewood, Missouri & St. Petersburg, Florida)
“I had BVC at Culmination last year, and it’s a collaboration with Cycle Brewing. Oh, man. I remember drinking it and being so impressed with how well the cinnamon was integrated. Sometimes cinnamon can be spicy and hot in an almost tinny way, like you’re sucking on a penny. But the way they did it in that beer—I was so impressed. I don’t know what kind they used, or how they used it, but it was this soft and warm cinnamon character that went well with the thickness and sweetness of the beer.
“There are few beers that set me back. It’s not very often I drink a beer and am like, ‘Whoa, this is amazing.’ Especially when it’s in the ‘pastry’ realm, although I actually like those kinds of beers.”
Monkish Brewing (Torrance, California)
“We always made a lot of IPAs but were just entering the realm of making hazy IPAs, and we never really nailed it until Henry [Nguyen, at Monkish] helped me out quite a bit. Having him up here and tasting some of his IPAs—I was blown away by what he was doing down there.
“It’s really hard to pin down what makes them special—he has a way of pulling out these really interesting esters, and if you taste one of those beers, you know it’s his beer. No one else’s IPAs taste like his. He’s doing something just a little bit different, and I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I’m happy for him for making such good IPA.
“I don’t get to drink it that much—every couple months a package will show up in the mail—and I try not to think about them when I drink them, just enjoy them. His sweet spot is his double IPAs, and everyone here at Anchorage enjoys them when they arrive.
“It relates to a story that Ron [Jeffries] shared in this magazine, which was also the first time Henry came up here to Alaska. We were stranded on an island after going fishing, when the steering went out on the boat.... We were stuck on this island, and everyone had brought some cans. I remember that night, walking on the beach, drinking one of Henry’s IPAs and thinking, ‘This is the kind of IPA I want to make.’ We’re in the realm, but still not on his level.”