Story last updated at 6/25/2014 - 2:13 pm
I got a cryptic but baiting email on June 12 from a friend of mine who's been around for a while. The email reminded me of something I sort of already knew, but had missed a few crucial details about. A couple of the "old timers" in my beer-lovin' gang had gone out golfing and a conversation ensued. After the game, they emailed me.
The email said something along the lines of "we all know that this is Humpy's 20th anniversary month, but it came to our attention that it was June 13 20 years ago that Humpy's opened for business. We all got to thinking that the old guard ought to show up on Friday night and celebrate the first dollar spent there."
The email had particular impact for me. I was there on that day 20 years ago. In fact, I stood outside expecting a line to form just before 11 a.m., when the legendary alehouse was to open.
Ms. Fermento and I were the only ones in line. I was ushered inside and I ripped to the bar and had to have a pint. I looked around and noticed no one else was there. I had to beg dollars off of my wife to pay for the pint. I got my beer and sat down in a brand-new venue I had great expectations for. I enjoyed the pint and had lunch. It was only later that I found out that Humpy's had framed my dollar as the first one spent there. I consider that a milestone in my sudsy beer career.
Although Humpy's has been my "Cheers" until recently, my allegiance comes from more than a familiar barstool, an almost unwieldy selection of outstanding beers and feeling like I'm family.
I'm indebted to Humpy's, as I credit them with being the bar that busted open the Anchorage downtown corridor and brought in a younger set of partygoers. Humpy's pioneering venture 20 years ago paved the way for other establishments and brought a little more shine to what were some pretty dim streets.
I first heard about Humpy's when I was a regular at the now-defunct Harry's Restaurant in midtown. This was more by default than anything else, since I worked on the fifth floor of the Key Bank Building. Harry's was located on the ground floor.
Aside from Chilkoot Charlie's, Harry's was about the only game in town that had a decent draft line. Every other beer joint seemed to be serving light, rice, ice, and other crap.
A barkeep at Harry's noticed my affinity for good beer because I was always pestering the ownership there to add more handles to their respectable lineup. One night, he leaned over the bar and said, "Wanna know a secret?"
It was then that one of the future Humpy's owners, Jim Maurer, said, "Don't tell anyone just yet, but me and a friend of mine, Billy Opinsky, are opening an alehouse uptown that's going to focus primarily on craft beer."
In the year or so after learning about Humpy's, I'd ride from the east side of town on my mountain bike and help put the place together.
The building at 610 W. 6th Avenue has had many iterations. At one time it was the Municipal Print Shop and was connected to Lucero's to the east and Stephan Fine Arts to the northeast. Back when I was pounding nails, scraping floors, hanging out and drinking beer, the dark place certainly looked and smelled like a print shop.
One of the hallmarks of the remodeling was plumbing the draft lines under the floor from a dinky walk-in cooler to the over 50 waiting, thirsty tap handles behind the bar. This involved wrestling four bundles of glycol-cooled and -wrapped lines under the floor through some conduit. I don't recall who was commissioned to do the work, but the poor guy was ancient and certainly not capable of the task.
Jimbo, Billy and I jumped in and fought like there was no tomorrow. When we were done, exhausted, and sitting against a wall in the cooler drinking a beer, we named the process "wrestling the ale snake," and made a pact we'd never do it again.
About 10 years ago, I got a call from Billy, who said, "You wanna have some fun? We're replacing the draught lines and thought you might want to lend a hand wrestling the ale snake one more time."
I wonder if I'll be around for a third go at it before I'm as ancient as the old guy I first helped with the task.
Humpy's has always been respected for great beer and a lot of it. In the early days, the thought of 50 taps was liver-boggling. Humpy's has since been usurped by the Eagle River Alehouse, which hash the most handles in the area these days, but what Humpy's has is the beer prowess of co-owner Billy Opinsky. It was Billy's passion for great craft beer that drove his dream of an alehouse that featured tough to get and rare beers. In this sense, Humpy's is partially responsible for shaping our collective local palate and demonstrating that Alaskans really do have a penchant for higher end suds.
It didn't hurt that Billy was (and still is) a beer pack rat. When Billy drove deals with local distributors and Outside suppliers, he'd over-order and quietly stash some of the good stuff away in a "top-secret location," which turned out to be a corner of what became the Broken Tooth Brewing Company. Although Humpy's didn't create beer dinners in Alaska, it was the legendary pairings of beer and food that proved such things really would work.
Today, Humpy's is only getting bigger and better and has annexed the remainder of the real estate on the corner of 6th and F. Humpy's-owned Flattop Pizza occupies the former Stephan Fine Arts area, and the Subzero Bistro and Microlounge occupies the former Lucero's. Humpy's global prowess has reached across the ocean with the addition of Humpy's Big Island Alehouse in Kona, Hawaii.
All this makes me wonder what's next. I haven't heard plans of another Anchorage location yet, but the south side of town seems wide open for a Humpy's-esque venue. One thing's for sure: Humpy's isn't going anywhere, and either am I. I wonder if they're secretly tracking my beer consumption and might let me know when I've consumed my 10,000th pint? If nothing else, I'll get a call when it's the next time to wrestle the ale snake.