Bill Howell pours a beer in the kitchen of his Sterling home. He has gone from enjoying beer, to brewing beer to teaching a class at Kenai Peninsula College about beer.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Whether it's unwinding with a lager at the end of a long day, popping the top of a porter before tuning in to watch football, or catching a buzz off an ale while sitting in a shanty waiting to catch fish through a hole in the ice, there are many occasions when a beer is enjoyable.
There are just as many people that enjoy knocking a cold one back, too. By some estimates there are 84 million Americans that drink beer, and while many are satisfied with the macrobrew giants' "plain" beer offering such as, Budweiser, Coors, and Miller Lite, a few beer buffs have a thirst for something beyond what is available in the cold case at the grocery store.
Some folks desire a little more flavor to savor from their fermented beverage of choice, and fortunately for these hop-heads there is an ever-expanding number of microbrew and home brew options available.
"Beer culture is growing rapidly in Alaska," said Frank Kassik, who along with his wife Debara, own and operate Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop in Nikiski.
The Kassiks are a prime example of just how much beer culture has grown in the central peninsula area. A few years back, not only did Frank not run a commercial brewery or have any idea that he ever would, he also barely even drank beer.
"A six-pack would last me two weeks," he said.
But, roughly six years ago, Kassik's wife gave him a Christmas gift that would change the course of their lives forever.
"I got a home brew kit, and from that start with two 5-gallon buckets, it just kept evolving," he said.
Not only did the Kassiks like what they had brewed, others did too, and before long the demand was exceeding their supply. So, slowly over time, they began purchasing better brewing equipment, building areas to house it, and devoting time to the process of doing it.
Beer samples line a counter at Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop. Local brewers craft a wide range of beer styles, appealing to the palates of a diverse mix of drinkers.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
They built a 36-by-50-foot shop, purchased a used seven-barrel system, multiple fermentors and converted a Connex into a large refrigeration area.
"We still weren't sure how far it would go, but we knew if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right," Debara said.
The Kassiks incorporated in 2004 and opened the brewery on Memorial Day weekend in 2006. Their first brew was the Beaver Tail Blonde, followed a few weeks later by the Moose Point Porter. Their operation continued to grow, requiring the two of them to leave their day jobs.
"We were getting buried as we started seeing an increase in production, and we wanted to maintain a commitment to our customers because if you're out of beer, you're out of business, so Debara left Tesoro in April of 2007 and I left Agrium in May of 2007," Frank said.
Now, with more time to devote to the brewery, Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop is currently open six days a week during the winter, and daily during the summer. They also now have eight varieties of beer on tap, and continue to experience surging numbers of suds-seeking customers with each passing year. Their beers are also on the menu at numerous pubs and restaurants, locally and in Anchorage.
"We expect to do at least 500 barrels this year, which is about 15,500 gallons of beer," Debara said.
They're not the only game in town. There is also the Kenai River Brewing Company in Soldotna, which will be joined by the St. Elias Brewing Company, scheduled to open soon. Some beer drinkers also still make the drive south to fill a few half-gallon "growlers" at the Homer Brewing Company.
The Kassiks said they don't see these fellow breweries as competition. Instead they view them more as having a like-minded mission to produce the best brew possible.
"The community of the brewing industry is really friendly, and we encourage people to try the other breweries. Homer (Brewing Co.), Kenai (River Brewing Co.), we all have different brew styles. We all do things differently, so people should go to everyone to find what best suits their palate," Debara said.
The Kassiks said they also aren't trying to take anything away from the big macrobrewers, since in their opinion, their products are dramatically different.
"My hat's off to the big brewers, because to brew such a huge amount and have it all around the U.S. and all be consistent in taste is amazing, but there's really no comparison between their beer and ours," Frank said.
Debara gave a simple analogy to make this point between micro- and macrobrews more clear.
"It's similar to the difference between drinking fresh ground coffee or a cup of Foldger's. Once you've had the good stuff you'll never go back, at least you'd never see me go back," she said.
This brings up an interesting point: if a person has only ever had mass-produced beer, how would they know what they're missing? Debara said the answer is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job.
"A lot of people have only ever had Bud and Coors, and don't even know what a microbrew is, so educating people is the fun part," she said.
Typically this education takes the form of lining up several sample-sized glasses in front of a novice from a light, golden-colored, easy to drink blond at one end, to a thicker, more complex oatmeal stout as dark as a raven's feathers on the other end.
"Before they take a drink we explain what they should expect and what they're going to taste," Debara said.
She said she will explain all the differences: Is it light or heavy in feel in the mouth? Is the aroma and taste malty, floral, citrusy, nutty or maybe even spicy? Does it have a hop forward bouquet tasted on the tip of the tongue or is it a full bittering effect tasted through the whole mouth?
"We educate people about serving temperature. Not all beers are best served cold in an icy mug. Some beers, such as our Roughneck Oatmeal Stout, need to sit and warm up to about 45 degrees, and then you can taste a difference. There's more flavor," Frank said.
"We also discuss the visual indicators. Some people won't touch a dark beer because of the common misconception that the darker the beer, the stronger it is, but that's not always the case. Our Moose Point Porter is 5.2 percent alcohol and our Roughneck Outmeal Stout is 7.2 percent alcohol, but both are black as coal. Also, our Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch is lighter colored than both of them and it's 8.5 percent alcohol," Frank said.
The percent of alcohol in the beer is also mentioned to all newcomers since it may be a little more than they are used to.
"In domestic macrobrews the percent of alcohol is typical 3.5 to 5 percent, but our lowest on tap is 5.2 percent," Frank said.
Debara said this higher alcohol content will draw in a few people, but the return customers come for a different reason.
Kiel Nichols of Kenai River Brewing Co. pulls a tap to fill a "growler" with the company's Swiftwater Stout beer. The refillable half-gallon sized bottles are how most people purchase micro-brewed beer.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"Novices will come for the higher alcohol content initially, but then they become educated about the flavor, which is what our regular customers keep coming back for," she said.
"Our beer is more flavorful because its almost all malted barley and wheat. It's not made with cheaper rice and corn like a lot of the macrobrewers use," Frank said.
Once all the differences are explained to the novice, there's nothing left for them to do but take a drink. From there the Kassiks ask a novice what they like about the brew and what they don't, since each person's taste preference is unique.
"We talk to them and watch what they do, and dial in for their individual palate. It's fun to watch people learn the difference in the beers. We don't call it work because it's so fun," Debara said.
Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop isn't the only place that people can go to learn about beer. Bill Howell will soon be teaching "The Art and History of Brewing" at Kenai Peninsula College. It will be the second time the one credit course has been offered to students 21 and older.
"My goal is community education, and I thought people in this community might be interested in the course, but also I want to give people an appreciation of beer. Some people just see it as a commodity sold with cute commercials on TV, but there's a tremendous history, depth and range of beer in this country," Howell said.
While in Germany beer drinkers can get a good German style beer, they may not be able to get a good British style beer, and vice-a-verse for people living in Great Britain, but in the U.S., thanks in part to the proliferation of microbreweries, Howell said people can get both and many more styles, and often locally.
"We're living in the golden age of beer. There's so many styles and brews available from breweries in America that weren't available 20 years ago. Back then, you would have had to travel all around Europe to try every one, but now you can get them brewed here and brewed well," he said.
And with so many different styles of beers available, Howell said there is a lot to educate people about.
"The outcomes of the course are students will gain a basic understanding of the history and process of brewing beer; understand and appreciate the various styles of beer, including proper methods of presentation and pairing with food; and they'll observe the actual process of small-scale craft brewing during field trips to a local brewery," he said.
"We'll also end each class with a tasting, only about one ounce, but it will be related to the subject. So if we're talking about a Belgian beer, we'll try something Belgian, like a Chimay Trappist," he said referring to one of the most recognized names in Belgian beer.
Howell said his goal, like the Kassiks, is to expand people's beer horizons, and they both said they believed beer culture would continue to grow locally and nationally as more beer drinkers become educated.
"It's still growing in good strides, and it seems like everyday we get at least one new customer, so I think production will go up in the future. We've started something in this community and we don't want it to go away," Frank said.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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