Story last updated at 7/23/2014 - 4:22 pm
Just about anyone can walk into a brewery and - if the staff isn't busy and they are asked nicely - a tour might be in order. Most breweries have a scheduled time of the week, or multiple times when tours happen. This may or may not be convenient, depending on your schedule or how many people you're hauling along with you.
I know when I have friends or family up here, beer touring is always in order. I've even used brewery tours as office mixers. A little etiquette goes a long way; if you're going to haul a big group to a brewery tour, it's best to call ahead and make arrangements. Trust me; you're likely to have a better time, and chances are you'll get your own private tour instead of parading around the tanks with a bunch of other people who compete for the attention of the brewers and staff.
There's another alternative in Anchorage if you or your group is up this way. A new company, Big Swig Tours, is now postured to haul you and your gang a couple of places for an immersing 3.5-hour foam-rich excursion. This way, you can leave the driving to someone else (a smart move these days) and focus on the most critical aspect of beer touring, which is drinking the beer.
The organization's website (bigswigtours.com) baits you in with "imagine your frosty cold pint with a storyteller sidecar and you're imagining an afternoon with Big Swig." The tours depart downtown Anchorage at 2:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday, so you've got some flexibility for family and friends or your office staff.
"We launched in mid-June," said owner/operator Brian Caenepeel. "My wife and I led land tours for cruise guests from Seward to Fairbanks. We'd drop folks off in Anchorage and there was little for them to do except crawl and eat their way through the downtown area. We love beer, of course and I thought a brewery tour would be a great option for folks either just coming to Alaska or just leaving."
After serving as a guide for Alaska Alpine Adventures and being the operations manager for Adventure Appetites, the idea of running a mobile beer tour started to gel. "It seemed like the right time. I was ready to launch my own thing. I reached out to a friend of mine who runs a similar Brews Cruise in a number of places, I found out he wanted to start an operation up here in Alaska. The idea was good but the logistics weren't there, so I decided to go for it. I left my job in February and launched Big Swig in May," Caenepeel said.
Right now, the tour includes three stops, starting with King Street Brewery in South Anchorage. "King Street's the newest brewery in town and brewer/owner Shane Kingry is a real beer geek. He delivers my guests Beer 101 and talks about the ingredients that go into beer and talks about the advantages and disadvantages of brewing in Alaska. People get a true story about someone who had a passion that turned into a brewery that he calls a hobby gone bad," Caenepeel said.
Tour guests get 4-ounce samples of each of King Street's beers before heading to Midnight Sun Brewing Company.
This is a good inclusion in my opinion, because of all of Alaska's breweries, I think Midnight Sun best embodies the spirit of brewing beer on the Last Frontier. "We get to Midnight Sun Brewing Company and learn about their bold beers. My guests get another lesson about brewing because Midnight Sun discusses the whole process, from grain to the glass," he said.
Midnight Sun is a food stop as well. "The guests have been to King Street and have sampled through their beers by then and they are provided Midnight Sun's really killer appetizers on that stop. This is up in Midnight Sun's Loft. It's chill, very good, local and a lot of fun," Caenepeel said.
Rather than hit another brewery on the third and final stop, Big Swig detours into iconic Chilkoot Charlie's in Spenard. Guests are served more 4-ounce samples of the local beers on tap there. In all, guests experience beer from six different Alaska craft breweries.
It's more than just a beer tour. With Caenepeel's extensive knowledge of Alaska and Anchorage, guests are treated to tidbits of rich history, not only of beer but of Anchorage as well. This is especially true with the Chilkoot Charlie's stop.
"We tour through all 11 of the 'Koots bars," said Caenepeel. "If the walls could talk, the place has a lot to say. 'Koot's goes all the way back to Alaska's early pipeline days and there's lots to say about that and the early days of the rough and tumble life back then, especially in Spenard."
Indeed, Chilkoot Charlie's embodies a big piece of the historical beer-drinking scene in Alaska. The bar is internationally famous not only for the old-Alaska atmosphere and the beer, but the top-notch bands that have cycled through there over the years. Out of town guests get a sense that despite Alaska being one of America's Johnny-come-lately states, we have great beer and attract fame from outside as well.
Big Swig isn't Alaska's first beer touring outfit. Liquid Leisure Tours was around for a time and I'd heard that it was up for sale last year. I thought Caenepeel might have bought the outfit, but he confirmed that although he knew about Liquid Leisure Tours, Big Swig is all original and all his own idea.
"Liquid Leisure Tours was more on the party level. I think it was a little more about volume than deep beer and history immersion," Caenepeel said. "I'm not spinning this as a party tour. If you mix in a lot of alcohol, you start to have worries."
"At Big Swig, you're guaranteed 4-ounce samples of a lot of beer. I try to keep it tame and under control," he said, not wanting to portray Anchorage as just another big party town.
Big Swig's target market isn't the locals who can get to breweries and bars on their own. Again, a Big Swig Tour is a great introduction or good-bye for someone entering and leaving the state because guests are provided transportation from and back to the downtown corridor for a quick afternoon of sudsy fun. This may not be for me or you, but it could make a nice gift for a guest or someone you know spinning through Anchorage on their way to or from the state. Call Big Swig at (907) 268-0872 for details.