Battle of the brews: The Alaska Brew Fest isn’t just about sampling

SPONSORED: Breweries from across the country compete in the 2020 Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival.

Primed to be the biggest beer festival in the state this year, the reimagined and rejuvenated Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival (also referred to as Alaska Brew Fest) is calling for the best beer and barley wines in Alaska and beyond to be poured in the Dena’ina Center on January 31 and February 1.

While many locals may be familiar with the tasting portion of the festivities, what’s arguably less known is the beer judging competition that happens largely behind the scenes.

Breweries determined to have the best brew by the elite panel of judges receive an engraved gold pan and serious bragging rights — there are only a couple barley wine festivals in the U.S., so placing here is a big deal.

“I’ve always really enjoyed this festival, because it focuses on the fact that Alaskan breweries are renowned for our barley wines,” said Lee Ellis, Brewmaster at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. “If there’s a style of beer that people think of internationally when they think of Alaska, it’s barley wine. I think part of it has to do with the cold weather and high proof beers — they seem to go together well for people up here. It makes for a fun competition.”

Finding the best of the best

Any commercial brewery can enter their beers to be judged by the festival’s professional panel. It’s not free-for-all, though. Entries are limited to one barley wine and one winter seasonal. The latter category can include everything from porters and stouts to Belgian-style quadrupel ales and strong ales. Judging criteria provides insight into what the judges will be looking for: generally bigger, stronger, darker, fuller-flavored beers.

“Judges will be looking for beers that are flavorful, well-made and easily enjoyable during the holidays as a celebratory or reflective treat. Think of that evening closer you enjoy while sitting in front of the fire,” the entry packet read.

While the umbrella category allows for a lot of creativity, it does mean India pale ales, sours and “lawnmower beers” are out — at least for judging, many are still available for sampling by Festival-goers.

What potent potables the various brewing companies submit are up to them.

Ellis said Midnight Sun’s strategy is to enter beers they’ve perfected over the years: Arctic Devil, their barley wine with complex caramel, toffee and bourbon characteristics; and Leche Robusta, their cinnamon forward chocolate milk stout styled after a Mexican drink called horchata.

On the other hand, Bearpaw River Brew Co.’s Operations Manager Jake Wade said they’re entering two beers they’ve never entered at this particular festival: their 2018 American barley wine, Down the Barrel, and their 2017 Russian imperial stout titled Anniversary Ale.

While Midnight Sun won the second iteration of the festival — this reboot is the third name change; the festival was titled The Great Alaska Microbrewery Invitational during its first two years — with their Arctic Devil barley wine the highest number of times, Ellis said there’s no guarantee they’ll place with it this year.

“It can be a bit of a broad category and people can get pretty wild with it,” Ellis said. “Judging is really complex. Everybody’s palette is unique. There are stated style factors, but we’ve won and we’ve seen others win with beers on the fringes of the style category. The judges also look for something delicious and unique. Something that breaks out of the everyday.”

On Friday night, at the same time as the festival, critics with at least Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) credentials will do the first rounds of judging. While some of the judges hail from Alaska, many come from the Lower 48 and as far away as Canada and the United Kingdom.

Judging Coordinator Pete Devaris said it’s important to him that they source a wide pool of judges, so naysayers can’t claim that Alaska judges purposefully select beers brewed in Alaska to push forward. Having judges from numerous states and countries means if an Alaska beer stands victorious, it got there on its own merits.

Devaris said this particular festival is one of the few that does double-blind tastings for each entry, meaning each beer is voted on by two seperate groups. That’s two opportunities to be eliminated or move on to the Best-of-Show round.

The following morning, judges in the upper echelon of the program, those who have achieved BJCP Grand Master, Master or National judge status, will do the final round of blind tasting to determine Best-of-Show. Results for the top three of each category will be announced during the Connoisseur’s Session on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s usually pretty easy to land on which three are the best in the category, but what order they place in leads to lengthy discussion,” Devaris said.

This year marks the first where there will be gold, silver and bronze awards for both categories. In years prior, the winter seasonal category only had one winner, while barley wine had the top three.

“We realized it was unfair to pick only one when the category was so diverse,” Devaris said. “You might ignore the quality of some truly exceptional beers to pick the outlier, like a little-seen wheat wine.”

Last year Anchorage Brewing Co. won the barley wine portion with their Deal With The Devil, and Maui Brewing Co. won the winter seasonal category with their Night Diver. Since they began entering the competition, Anchorage Brewing Co. has placed every year. However, Glacier Brewhouse currently tops the list with most overall medals, and Kassik’s Brewery is the only brewery to win gold over three consecutive years.

A party of pours

While the main focus of the festival competition is barley wines and winter seasonal drafts, breweries are encouraged to bring a wide swath of their products for festival-goers to sample during the three sessions — General Sessions from 6-10 p.m. on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, and a Connoisseur Session on Feb.1 from 2-5 p.m.; tickets for all sessions are available now.

“Alaska is a unique environment where we have a very transitory population, so even though we may have had a beer for 20 years, there’s always newcomers who haven’t had it yet,” Ellis said. “So we’ll have many of our mainstays, as well as a few new or unique products.”

Though the name of the new festival only differs by one word, Ellis said he thinks the feel of the festival will be significantly different.

“A venue change is something we’ve been looking for for a long time,” Ellis said. “The Egan Center was packed. You know, almost as important as the beer is the ambience it’s being served in. So I think having the opportunity for people to have more space in the Dena’ina Center is critical.”

That space, Ellis thinks, will both allow breweries to bring more beers and will entice breweries that had not attended recently to come back.

“It’s going to be a better opportunity to connect with people,” Ellis said.

Devaris echoed that ethos, saying he thinks the revitalization of the festival will help make Alaska Beer Week and the Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival a reason to travel to Alaska in winter.

“This isn’t just a little festival in Alaska,” Devaris said. “This shows that Alaska is a go-to destination for beer lovers. And it’s only going to get bigger from here.”