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JUNEAU - Juneau is a tough place for any hobby - aside from growing mold, maybe, or collecting windshield cracks. And yet, not only do people here engage in every imaginable pastime, they really get into it.
Boil, boil, toil and trouble: Homebrewing in Juneau 051910 TRAVEL 1 For the Capital City Weekly JUNEAU - Juneau is a tough place for any hobby - aside from growing mold, maybe, or collecting windshield cracks. And yet, not only do people here engage in every imaginable pastime, they really get into it.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Story last updated at 5/19/2010 - 10:27 am

Boil, boil, toil and trouble: Homebrewing in Juneau

JUNEAU - Juneau is a tough place for any hobby - aside from growing mold, maybe, or collecting windshield cracks. And yet, not only do people here engage in every imaginable pastime, they really get into it.

This seems especially true of homebrewing. For one, while beer-making supplies do exist - thanks to Gourmet Alaska, whose owner Bill Wright is himself an accomplished homebrewer - they are limited. More extensive equipment arrives via the Internet sight unseen, ingredients selected without the benefit of taste or smell. And then, of course, there's the fluctuating weather, which makes it difficult to maintain the precise temperatures needed at different stages in the brewing process. Most daunting: due to the illegality of shipping alcohol through the mail, few outside Juneau ever taste the fruit of a local homebrewer's labor.

And yet, as unofficial organizer and self-appointed spokesperson for Juneau's DIY craft beer community Rachael Juzeler puts it: "Homebrewing in Juneau is booming."

This past September, she explained, the Autumn Pour Homebrew Competition received a record number of entries. She expects similar at next week's Great Alaska Craft Beer & Homebrew Festival in Haines.

I wanted to find out how the Juneau homebrewing community not only survived, but thrived in such a seemingly inhospitable location. And so, I convened a panel of local homebrewers to share their insights over a pint or two.

This panel included: Juzeler, 40, by day the quality assurance analyst at Alaskan Brewery; Amy Lamonica, 26, who, along with her husband Michael, discovered homebrewing after moving to Juneau three years ago; Brian Ross, 27, who began crafting his own beer before he reached legal drinking age, studied fermentation science at college and currently brews "lots of malty satisfaction" for Alaskan Brewery; and, DG "Scorch" Burnet, 64, who specializes in historic ales and boasts three-time membership in the Hangar's "Wall of Foam," drinking all 110 beers on its menu - three times.

This was a talkative bunch even before we'd had a couple. This hinted immediately at the first, and possible most important, facet of local homebrewing: collegiality.

"It's very friendly and educational," said Lamonica, recounting how experienced brewers shared their procedures with her at the beginning, just as she does now.

"It's like any other craft, like knitting or quilting," said Scorch, duly noting, however, the social lubrication inherent in his chosen hobby.

"And of course, this town is full of aficionados," Juzeler added. "Per capita, Juneau boasts more certified beer judges than any other city in the U.S."

Several years ago, the Alaskan Brewery began offering intensive 14-week classes to its employees - which it soon opened to the pubic - through the Beer Judge Certification Program. This course teaches judges the characteristics of hundreds of beer styles, as well as specialized tasting techniques. Specifically, they learn to detect and identify various "off-flavors" in beer - the imperfections.

"You get lots of really great feedback around town," Lamonica said.

"And that's why you enter a competition in the first place," said Ross. For him, it's not about his beer winning medals as much as it is meeting the approval of his fellow brewers, whom he characterizes as the toughest judges he's known.

"What's the best thing about brewing in Juneau?" I asked, actually managing to sneak in a prepared interview question.

One word: water.

"Perfect for brewing," said Scorch.

Another advantage: the availability of native ingredients. While spruce tips are the most obvious - even the Alaskan Brewery infuses its Winter Ale with local spruce tips - blueberries can be added to mead or porter, and birch syrup can be used as a fermentable.

"For fermentables, there's an endless number of things in Southeast Alaska," said Ross.

"I've seen Devil's Club, I've seen fireweed and honey," Juzeler interjected.

"I thought about using cow parsnip, actually," Ross continued. "But not skunk cabbage. That'd taste too much like Heineken."

"You take a risk every time you introduce anything to your recipe," said Lamonica, recalling a curry hefeweisen Michael once made with using garam masala.

"But if you want to talk about odd ingredients, ask Scorch," Juzeler suggested, so I did.

Scorch specializes in historic beers no longer made by any commercial brewery. These include mead and an ancient ale known as "gruit," which uses herbs and spices for flavor instead of hops.

"Hopping beer is newfangled. You know, from the 14th century," said Scorch, whose recipes - which can include dandelion, mugwort and horehound - sound like he stole them from JRR Tolkien.

"Remember, though," said Juzeler, "nothing in beer will kill you."

"Except the alcohol," said Scorch, like a true Wall-of-Foamer. We all raised our glasses.

The first-ever Southeast Alaska Beer Week, a series of craft beer-related events and celebrations throughout Juneau, begins May 22. Members of the above panel will participate in a homebrewer Q&A, May 24 from 5-7 p.m. at the Alaskan Bar.

The 18th Great Alaskan Craft Beer and Homebrew Festival takes place May 29, 2010, in Haines. Information can be found at seakfair.org.

Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his Web site at www.geoffkirsch.com.

Southeast Alaska Beer Week

Schedule of Events

May 22

Juneau: Maritime Festival Beer Garden, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Marine Park.

May 23

Juneau: Unibroue Beer Dinner, Zephyr Restaurant. Five courses. $50. Reservations: 780-2221.

May 24

Juneau: Homebrewer Q&A, 5-7 p.m., The Alaskan Bar.

May 25

Juneau: Beer Movie Night, 7 p.m., Goldtown Nickelodeon. $10.

May 26

Juneau: Craft Beer tasting, 6 p.m., Rendezvous. $15.

May 27

Skagway: Skagway Brewing Tasting and Tour, 1:30 p.m.

May 28

Haines: Great Alaska Craft Beer and Home Brew Beer Banquet Dinner, 6 p.m., Harriet Hall. $60.

May 29

Haines: Great Alaska Craft Beer and Home Brew Festival, 1-5 p.m., Southeast Alaska State Fair Grounds. $28.