In these times of high fuel and transport costs, you'd think that being based half a continent away from the main population centres and markets would be something of a hindrance to becoming a successful business, especially when what you produce is kind of heavy. Liquid, in fact. Beer is mostly water, and a pint's a pound the world around so they say (which isn't quite true but that's another story). The standard half-barrel keg contains 124 pints plus the weight of all that metal, and a glass bottle isn't exactly lightweight either, but none of this has prevented The Alaskan Brewing Company from becoming the 12th largest US craft brewery in 2010, according to the Brewers Association. That makes them bigger (in terms of volume) than Stone, Brooklyn and Lagunitas, and none of those can be described as minnows. Alaskan must make some pretty good beer, and a quick look at their Beer Advocate page shows plenty of As and Bs. Must be that glacier where they get their water.
As well as a solid lineup of year-round beers plus a very nice range of limited releases, they brew just two seasonals - Summer Ale and Winter Ale, and it's the latter of the two that we're presenting as today's Advent Calendar beer.
It's brewed in the style of an old ale, so let's briefly remind ourselves of what that means. Long story short, when beer was still mostly brewed at the alehouse and kept in wooden barrels it was either mild (young) or stale (old), regardless of what kind of beer it was, and the landlord would mix the two to the customer's taste. Over time, and as beer was more commonly produced in commercial breweries, old ale came to mean a sweet, malty, high-alcohol style of beer which, it turns out, is very suitable for putting away and ageing, like fine wine. Sometimes for decades. No, I didn't know you could do that with beer either until I became a beer nerd.
There's an interesting twist to this beer - it's brewed with pine needles. Spruce beer has long been a staple in parts of the world where pine trees grow in abundance such as Scandinavia and Canada, and was used by Captain Cook to help ward off scurvy among his crew, the needles being rich in vitamin C. It can also be made as a non-alcoholic drink, a bit like root beer. Adding spruce tips to a malt-brewed beer enhances the piney, resiny flavour that some American hops can impart to a beer.
I've heard a strong rumour this week that Alaskan beers will soon be on sale in Texas and I can't wait to try their smoked porter, as well as a bottle or two of Winter Ale. While sipping on it I might listen to Stanley Holloway. You're probably familiar with his portrayal of Eliza Doolittle's father in My Fair Lady, but acting and signing were only two of his talents. He was also a master of the comic monologue. Old ale and sandwiches sounds pretty good to me.