Part 4 of a 6-part series
After several days in the Alaska wilderness and wild lands of the north, it seems somewhat bizarre to pull into the Anchorage train terminal, what with its full bars of cell service, buildings many stories high and familiar outposts of capitalism. It’s somewhat of a comedown from the adventures of the past few days, but it will also be the next part of an ongoing journey.
Anchorage, the state’s largest city, also hosts half of the Last Frontier’s population, with 300,000 souls inhabiting a metropolitan area the size of the entire state of Delaware. Yet for all its modernities, tall buildings, conveniences and restaurants, it is still, unmistakably, Alaskan.
The first such instance of this is noticeable when we check in to our hotel, the Copper Whale Inn (440 L St., Anchorage, Alaska, 99501, 866/258-7999). A combination B&B and hotel, the Copper Whale encompasses two separate buildings, the latter of which houses our room. It’s a humble yet comfy affair, offering room-length windows that peer down at the waterfront.
Once again, the weather deities have smiled, as we have both clear views from our window as well as once we step outside to board our personalized transport courtesy of Jack Bonney from Visit Anchorage. A cheery local who once left these parts but, like so many Alaskans, returned, Jack explains the history of Anchorage as we head away from the downtown buildings toward the mountains nearby.
As with many cities in the Last Frontier, Anchorage too was born thanks to the railroad, with the headquarters at Ship Creek Landing graduating from tent city to incorporation in 1920. The oil and extraction businesses helped the fledgling city grow, and in 1975 it joined with Eagle River, Girdwood, Glen Alps and others to become the largest in Alaska. The military came too, and we learn that from here, many world capitals are less than 10 hours via plane from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
(The great English seafarer, Captain James Cook, even came here between exploring both Hawaii and Australia. Cook Inlet is named for him.)
Unsurprisingly, given its populace and its accessibility, Anchorage boasts nearly anything a visitor could want, be it world-class restaurants (especially seafood), performance arts complexes, the largest outpost of the University of Alaska, the Anchorage Symphony and, of course, hiking. I’m told the joke by those outside the state’s largest city is that Anchorage is “50 miles from Alaska,” but only a 20-minute drive from the Copper Whale, we might as well be back in the tundra of the past few days’ travel up north.
At Chugash State Park (18620 Seward Hwy, Anchorage, Alaska, 99516, 907/345-5014), Jack entreats us for a “mild” hike from the parking lot. Even though we can still see the relative spires of downtown in the distance, this is bear country and the wilderness, so Jack totes along bear spray and provisions to complement the water and fully charged cellphones that myself and fellow city slicker Victoria have along. (To be fair, I grew up in the country in New Jersey, but Alaska wilderness is of an entirely different level.)
As we walk along a beautiful pathway, Jack points to the glacial moraines of the valley to our left, the Knik Arm. The great ice rivers of the last ice age carved this terrain over millennia, leaving behind the tell-tale V-shaped expanses in between the peaks as they receded — their waters becoming either lakes or joining with Cook Inlet on their way out to the Pacific Ocean.
It’s windy today. A trio of hikers up ahead warns us the air blasts are even harsher further up the trail, so after photos at a righteously scenic outlook, we head back to Jack’s car.
Our lunch stop is a lovely cafe/restaurant called South (11124 Old Seward Hwy, Anchorage, Alaska, 99515, 907/770-9200), which boasts a fine selection of craft beer and locally fashioned cuisine, such as the caribou burger served with barbeque sauce, which is incredibly tasty and complemented by a fine penne pasta salad.
While I drink a Beaver Tail Blonde from Kassik’s Brewery out of Kenai, I comment on the relatively bland architecture of the strip malls around here. To this Jack nods, saying, “We don’t do good architecture in Anchorage, we do good food.”
He’s right. When you’re in Alaska, the point is to enjoy being here — preferably outdoors.
After a quick cleanup back at the Copper Whale, Vicky and I walk a few blocks down on 4th St. to meet up with Brian Caenepeel, a local entrepreneur and founder of Big Swig Tours, which helpfully chauffeurs you about Anchorage to enjoy the city’s thriving craft beer scene without having to ever get behind the wheel.
Brian, a kindly fellow with a thorough knowledge of both beer and Anchorage, started Big Swig a few years ago as a sole proprietor — working both for himself and on behalf of his town’s thriving beer scene. Business has been good, so good in fact that he hopes to have another van — and a second driver — up and running for the 2018 season.
For now, it’s entirely Brian’s show, and he shuttled Vicky, myself and a pair of local cousins to our first stop, King Street Brewing Company (7924 King St, Anchorage, Alaska, 99518, 907/336-5464), an operation opened in 2011 and churning out both quality brews as well as one of the absolute best tours I’ve ever had at a brewery. Not only does our host, Kevin Sobelesky, know all about the manufacture of beer, but he shares the minutia with the visitors. As the suds pilgrims sip the wares, Kevin shows us about the warehouse, where giant sacks of malts and grains sit awaiting to be transformed into fermented products. We sniff the different varieties of hops he uses to infuse his brews, as well as get other lessons on how various amounts of different hops lend styles of beer their unique tastes.
I’m digging on the Blonde Ale, as well as the rather interesting Breakfast Hefeweisen, with its unique, citrusy profile. The Hoffenweisen is extremely different from any beer I’ve had in a while, and the Imperial IPA has a pleasant, citrusy quality. The American Pale also boasts a refreshing quality.
King Street is booming, so much so that they will be moving into a larger location soon.
Back in the van, Brian ushers us on, and we are heading into yet another industrial area, where, due to zoning ordinances, craft brewers must do their business. Our next step is Midnight Sun Brewing (8111 Dimond Hook Dr., Anchorage, Alaska, 99507, 907/344-1179), the oldest such operation in Anchorage, which has been churning out local beer since 1995. Our host, Adam, walks us through the mechanical room, where foam “monsters” gurgle as carbon dioxide and yeast do their thing to turn mash into beer. He hands us all a limited Termination Barleywine to enjoy as he walks us through the process of how beer is made.
(There’s also a fish sculpture on the wall that, uh, “excretes” beer.)
Adam ushers us upstairs from to a comfy dining area, where we are seated at a VIP table to be served apps alongside the beers. These include a stellar crispy pork dip that has an after-bite of spiciness that lovingly complements the Wolfpack Pilsner, a refreshingly crisp brew that is among the best I’ve tasted in a long time. Adam explains how Midnight Sun’s first ever concoction was called “Wolf Spirit,” so the new “Wolfpack” calls back to that early experiment. (My late karate sensei always used to say, “Remember where you came from.”)
The Sockeye red IPA is the perfect “gateway” IPA for those who, like me, are picky about highly hopped beers, and the Modern Romance dark chocolate brew is like drinking dessert. For full points of creative controversy, the Panty Peeler Belgian tripel induces both a smile at its recreation of the Belgian high-gravity taste and a guilty giggle at its risque name. Adam says that some patrons have complained and campaigned to change the name, a suggestion he has wisely unheeded considering there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
For a hoppier product, check out the Hop Dog, with its bitter-tastic 100 IBUs.
Adam displays the cans in which the beers are sold, all of which are creative and artsy. Furthermore, he says employees are encouraged to help name any of the new brews Midnight Sun rolls out.
By now feeling very little pain, Brian sashays us over to Cynosure (144 E Potter Dr. E, Anchorage, Alaska, 99518, 907/563-2966), opened only last year, and named for the Greek word for the North Star, so prominent on Alaska’s clear nights. Co-owner Clarke Pelz tells us beer pilgrims that he spent much time “drinking and thinking” while conjuring up his products, as he and wife Cindy Drinkwater learned all they could not only about beermaking but about the importance of sourcing the right ingredients before a single drop of water has been boiled.
The Clouds Dry Hopped Pale Lager is wonderfully invigorating — and of course it isn’t long before on our fellow tourists holds up the glass to look at it “from both sides now.” (It was bound to happen.) The Saison is a little bit bitter on the tongue but drinkable, and the Black reminds me greatly of St. Pauli Girl Dark, which sadly has been missing from store shelves of late. It’s a hefty brew, so you’d drink one and be done. The Fest, Cynosure’s wondrous take on a traditional malty Oktoberfest brau, actually lifts me out of the malaise that summer is soon ending and the Bavarian-style brews will be coming out. Pick up Fest as soon as you can — perhaps after you purchase some lederhosen.
I drink a lot — for research (what?) — but I can honestly say I have never before come across a “patersbier,” a Belgian style that Clarke and Co. have updated for Americans with their so-called Potters Beer. It’s a unique single style, and I don’t really have anything else to compare it to, meaning you’ll have to come to Anchorage to try it out yourself.
(As these are all small businesses, please remember to tip your hosts and your “hoperator” Brian.)
The extreme benefit of patronizing Anchorage’s breweries is that you are drinking hyper-locally, all but one step removed from the fermentation process, and supporting independent business at the same time. On that same score, Victoria and myself, in the mood for spirits, make a hop not far from Cynosure to the aptly named Anchorage Distillery (6310 A St, Anchorage, Alaska, 99518,907/561-2100) where we are met by CEO Bob Klein, a kindly, smiling fellow whose humor is infectious and sneaks up on you.
As with other distillers I have met this week, Bob tells me that it was only recently that businessmen and lobbyists successfully won over enough legislators to overturn Alaska’s severely outdated Prohibition-era laws. Distilling has finally returned to the Last Frontier, but the stipulations on distillers are onerous, requiring them to be open to the public only during certain hours of the day and limiting the amount of samples they can offer to customers. Echoing what Rob at Ursa Major up in Fairbanks told us a few days ago, Bob says it’s a pain to visit state legislators in Juneau, who only are in session certain months of the year and, in a capital city with no roads in or out of the cloistered town, requires a boat or plane flight to even visit the requisite state reps and/or alcohol control boards.
It’s a streak of libertarianism I recall from my time in Montana: not so much a disdain for government but an endemic distrust of wonky, out-of-touch politicians who, much of the year, are not even in Juneau to meet their constituents anyway.
Bob is a member of the state’s craft distillers guild along with a few others, and together they continue to raise awareness of this booming sector and to push the Legislature to keep moving their alcohol-related laws out of the Great Depression.
But what Bob has been able to accomplish here is amazing, with glacial melt of the rivers of ice encircling Anchorage used as the freshest water imaginable as base for his distillations. The Glacier Melt Vodka made from barley is so complex that it is better enjoyed neat versus over ice. The Benefactor Pink Vodka, made from wheat instead of barley, is choice and should be poured over ice — and you can also feel good knowing that portions of its purchase goes to breast cancer research. The Benefactor Black is a mix of both barley and wheat, and I suggest it as the base for a cocktail. (Portions of its sales also go to support the military.)
Smiling, Bob moves us down the line of his wares, with the next offering being the Raspberry Vodka. Unlike many other flavored vodkas, the fruitiness and sugar content aren’t overwhelming, and it’s wonderful all by itself or for perhaps for a Cosmo. The Blueberry varietal is even better, and is begging to be added to craft cocktails.
Being English, Victoria is super picky about her gin, but she raves over the Aurora Gin, whose bottle artfully incorporates a representation of the Northern Lights. This one is too good to muck up with tonic, so sip it neat or with just one or two ice cubes.
If you’re feeling brave, try just the tiniest swig of the Ghost Pepper Vodka which will wake you up, I promise. It hammers at your taste buds fast, but the burn on the aftertaste is pleasant. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment — or perhaps a fraternity looking to haze pledges — don’t drink much of this on its own; rather, mix it up tenderly in a Bloody Mary, where the fire will nicely work in concert with the tomato juice.
I’m also digging on the Arctic Ice Moonshine with its oak chip essence, and to cap off our taste tour, Bob offers up a cocktail of simple syrup and lavender in a glass mixed with his blueberry vodka.
I seriously don’t want to leave.
We head back to the Copper Whale to change and then walk the ungodly distance of 100 feet next door to the Simon & Seafort’s (420 L St, Anchorage, Alaska, 907/274-3502 99501, a staple restaurant that, with its room-length windows, offers outstanding views of Cook Inlet, Mount Susitna (aka “the Sleeping Lady”) and the Alaska Range — all of which are afire this evening as the sun sets over the chilly waters.
Not only seafood, but steak and other choice entrees have been enjoyed here since 1978. Teri Hendricks of Visit Anchorage joins us for dinner.
Both Teri and our waiter make a none-too-subtle push to try out the halibut sweet cheeks, a lightly breaded delicacy that is an absolute wow. To complement this first course Vicky and I try out a platter of the local oysters on the half-shell, which are rather briny and large. The sushi roll we also enjoy during appetizer course, and it is absolute multifaceted goodness. The homemade bread, which I know I shouldn’t fill up on, is delectable too.
Because seafood is coming, I elect for a glass of the Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay from California. And what should my feasting eyes soon behold but a macadamia-crusted halibut steak, which boasts not only a wholesome taste but an amazing smoked flavor for good measure. Victoria’s choice of the silver salmon coho, which is right now running during breeding season, must be tasted to be believed.
In order to expend a few calories, I take a little stroll along the waterfront by Elderberry Park, where the Coastal Trail can be experienced on foot or bike. I make a mental note to rent a bike on my next trip to Anchorage — which I am already in the process of imagining.
This fantasia only increases in the morning when Bri Kelly, who has worked tirelessly beside colleague Kailee Wallis on behalf of the Alaska Travel Industry Association to put together our amazing itinerary, meets us for breakfast at Snow City Cafe (1034 W 4th Ave, Anchorage, Alaska, 99501, 907/272-2489). As I dig into Deadliest Catch, a benedict featuring both Alaska king crab cakes and house-made smoked salmon cakes, Bri tells us of all the things here in Anchorage alone we have yet to experience — to say nothing of the rest of this vast, vast state.
It’s a fine meal, and a fine way to put a face to a name with whom Vicky and I have communicated for months in anticipation of our trip.
Alas, it’s time to move on. Bri drops us off at Ted Stevens International Airport — named for the World War II veteran and longtime Republican senator who served Alaska in D.C. for 41 years — for our departure from “mainland” Alaska.
It’s on to the capital, Juneau, and the Inside Passage.
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