Alaska Life

Brewing up a plan to share suds, but we'll skip the bowling

DILLINGHAM — Back in Alaska's pioneering days, when many of today's cities were no more than villages or clusters of buildings along barely passable roads or trails, goods and services could be scarce. Fresh produce was rare and expensive. And a nice, cold beer might be found only at a tavern many bumpy, uncomfortable miles away.

So it's no wonder that those who enjoy an occasional sudsy adult beverage began brewing their own and sharing with friends.

In Bush Alaska today, where a liquor store may charge more than $40 for a case of Budweiser and nearly $20 for a six-pack of IPA, it's no wonder that many residents still produce their own.

So it was no shock to discover a thriving beer-making culture in place when I moved to Southwest Alaska. The bigger surprise came in learning of the quasi-covert nature of this solo yet highly social endeavor.

I first heard about the Dillingham Bowling League a few days after moving to town.

"Bowling League?" I asked. "Dillingham has a bowling alley?"

"No, it doesn't," said one longtime resident. "That's the whole point. It's the official name of our home-brewing group."

No lanes, bowling ball, pins

About 30 years ago, it turns out, a handful of home-brewing enthusiasts — spurred on by the staggering prices of locally sold commercial beer and turned on by the science of brewing — distilled their interests into an ongoing event. They settled on the idea of a best-brew contest, and they envisioned a party of brew-loving buddies who would congregate every few months to judge the best homemade beers.

When I first attended a Bowling League function, I discovered a house packed with brewers, tasters, onlookers and judges lured there by the variety and quality of the many beverages cooling in reusable bottles and other containers.

An eclectic mix of some 50 people filled the front porch, living room, kitchen and sun room. They milled around pony kegs and a table laden with potluck dishes. They chatted in groups while tipping brown and green bottles with taped-on labels. They sampled and nibbled, told stories and shared brewing secrets.

Some of the home-brewers appeared more excited by the chemical and culinary aspects of beer than by actually drinking it. But most were clearly fans of the beverages. Some extolled the benefits of IPAs, while others raved about their most recent wheat beers, stouts or porters.

No one mentioned bowling. I saw no lanes, bowling balls, pins or custom bowling shirts.

In the months to come, I learned more of the history of this social activity known as the Dillingham Bowling League.

The league (and its fanciful moniker) was the brainchild of two home-brewing buddies, Bill Darling and Gorden Isaacs, who shared their idea with other home-brewers — who, in turn, concocted the group's arcane, and still-extant, bylaws:

• Rule 1: For identification purposes, all brewers will go by the middle name of Bob at meetings.

• Rule 2: Members will not own a dog who is a member of the Communist Party.

• Rule 3: Socially redeeming behavior is not allowed at official meetings.

• Rule 4: Nothing official may happen at official meetings.

• Rule 5: Members must like home-brew or those who do.

• Rule 6: No member is allowed to bowl in Dillingham.

Judging varies contest to contest, but sometimes the 10-15 entries are divided into dark beers and light beers, and a panel of judges for each category is chosen from among the non-brewers. Judges receive new score sheets and fresh glasses for each new beer. Each sample, usually about 2 ounces, is numbered and anonymous, and votes are tallied once the judging is complete.

One of the winners is selected to host the next gathering at his or her home several months later, depending on the season. Bowling League tends to meet more frequently in winter when no one is fishing. After all, more than anything, the league is just an excuse to get together with friends.

Promotion and advertising

The Bowling League name was created in the beginning to suit twin purposes:

• Keep the club and gatherings private, allowing new members to join by invitation only; and

• Create a clandestine means of advertising.

The most effective means of promoting league meetings, especially in those pre-Internet days, was via the public airwaves, which meant Community Calendar announcements on KDLG, the area's sole public radio station.

This effort was aided by the fact that the station's news director was an avid member of the league.

Once when he hosted, Isaacs created additional advertising with a series of signs leading to his home. "I made some hand-drawn signs to post along the road to tell where the meeting would be," he said. "On some, I drew bowling pins. One afternoon I had just put out the signs, and a couple grade-school girls knocked on my door, asking if this was where the Bowling League would be held. The answer was yes, so they wanted to know if they could bowl or watch. I had to explain that since there was no place to bowl, they couldn't watch, because it was adult activities involving drinking beer. They went off very disappointed and shaking their heads."

Despite the subterfuge involved in the name, word has occasionally slipped out, sometimes with humorous results: Six years ago, a reporter from International Bowling Industry magazine called up Darling and Isaacs for information on bowling in remote Alaska. Although the reporter was initially disappointed to learn that Dillingham had no bowling alley, let alone no legitimate league, he convinced his editor to let him write about the home-brewers instead.

The article, which provided some history of the club and a vignette of life in the Bush, concluded: "It's a story that just goes to show how long Alaskan winters are. Or maybe it goes to show that the best part of bowling in Alaska is the beer."

Clark Fair, a Kenai Peninsula resident for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.