Some things just get better with age. That was proven true for the proprietors of Soldotna's St. Elias Brewery at the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine festival in Anchorage this month.
Brewer Zach Henry's Moose Juice Barley Wine won second-place overall, beating out Glacier BrewHouse for bragging rights as the best in Alaska. The overall winner was a brewery in Washington.
It wasn't the first time St. Elias entered the barley wine competition, said Henry's sister, and the brewery's co-founder, Jessie Kolesar. They entered a barley wine last year. But their entry was the first barley wine her brother made, and was crafted specifically for the festival.
In 2010, Kolesar and Henry entered Moose Juice in the competition and didn't advance. So they put a keg in the cooler and decided to see what would happen, Henry said.
"It's a wine-strength beer," he said. "It gets better with age."
The beer mellowed out and the judges deemed it worthy in 2011, Henry said, calling the award "pretty exciting."
President of the local brewing society Bill Howell agreed.
"This is a real feather in St. Elias' cap," he said.
The judges were 18 beer aficionados with prior judging experience and training, said Jason Ditsworth, the judging coordinator. Ditsworth said the St. Elias barley wine competed against 31 other entries.
The brewery's entry isn't available on tap. but Henry said there will be more next year, although he'll probably change the recipe. And the other beer they entered in the competition is still around. That beer, H&H Highland Ale, didn't win any awards. Henry collaborated with Howell on the beverage, and they entered it into the new seasonal ale competition at the festival. Henry said he'll give that category another shot next year, too.
Although this was Henry's first barley wine, it was no where near his first beer. Before opening St. Elias in 2008, he was a commercial brewer in Tennessee and had been involved in home-brewing for more than a decade before that.
Like the barley wine, St. Elias was about two years in the making, Kolesar said.
Kolesar said the brewery was a family affair -- relatives helped develop all the recipes for food, and constructed the brewery.
"My brother and dad actually built it from the ground up," she said.
Their award is just one sign of a local beer scene that is aging well, Howell said.
"The Peninsula is really a great spot for beer right now," he said.
St. Elias and the other local breweries -- Kenai River in Soldotna and Kassik's in Nikiski -- hosted their first Central Kenai Peninsula brewery event in conjunction with Alaska Beer Week at the beginning of January.
The event gave people an incentive for visiting all three breweries in the first two weeks of January, Kolesar said. Each brewery was stocked with postcard-sized brewery passports that had a space for each establishment to sign after a visit. Once a patron visited all three and the passport was full, they could leave their card at whichever brewery they happened to be at.
Kenai River Brewing Co. did the drawing last week after they got back from the beer festival, said their owner, Doug Hogue. The winner was Alex Pfaffe. He got an assortment of paraphernalia and gift cards from the breweries.
Hogue said the three breweries combined collected about 75 or 80 cards, and was definitely just the first of many. Next time, the brewery in Homer wants to participate.
"So it'd be all four from the Peninsula," he said.
Farther down the line, Howell hopes to help orchestrate other events that showcase brewing on the Peninsula -- he said he'd love to see a whole festival down here.
He and a cohort of other brewers and connoisseurs recently started a local beer society.
The society wants "to be a kind of engine to help brewing and craft brewing down here," Howell said.
Some of the members are home-brewers, but not all, Howell said. Basically, they're "a group of people who like to get together and enjoy good beer."
Their meetings revolve around tasting and learning about beer. The first official gathering was in December, and they've already started outgrowing their home at Kenai River Brewing Co with more than 30 registered members.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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