Story last updated at 8/27/2014 - 7:54 pm
I attended the Alaska State Fair in Palmer this year for the first time in about a quarter of a century. I'm not a big fan of the soiree and stopped attending after the first few of the 35 years I've lived in Alaska. I'm not saying the fair is a bad thing; it's just not for me.
Those who don't attend probably share the reasons I avoid the 45-mile trek to Palmer and back. First of all, I hate traffic. Traffic between Anchorage and Palmer during fair time is integral to the event. What normally takes just shy of an hour can be a couple of hours each way during peak attendance. This is a me thing, and some folks have no problem with this and consider it part of the adventure, somewhat akin to knowing you're going to wait a long time for a table at Anchorage's Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria in the summer, but at least there you can wait with a beer in hand.
Then there's the parking. Add more waiting in a long line for the privilege of ponying up five bucks to squash around the back 40 of a muddy, pothole-ridden field before hiking to the entrance. It just seemed even more operose this year in the pouring rain and cool breeze that was sweeping across the Matanuska Valley on the afternoon of my visit.
Let the spending begin. With five bucks already sunk to rent some dirt in the parking lot, I hadn't accounted for the variable admission scheme I encountered when I got there. I was too stupid to do my online homework because I could have saved some money better spent on beer inside the gates. My visit was impulsive and last-minute, but I felt a little bit gouged having to fork over an extra two bucks for admission just because I decided to attend on a weekend. I know I'm griping, but really?
Another reason I avoid big venues is because of the crowds. This is the same reason I avoid concerts and the bigger beer festivals both here in Alaska and across the United States. Shame-shame, but I've never been to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the World Beer Cup at its various locations and prefer the smaller festivals to the annual Great Alaskan Beer and Barley Wine Festival in January every year (although I faithfully attend every year). Threading through the throngs of people and getting elbow-checked around almost every corner isn't my idea of fun. This year I finished the fair, only to discover that after being bumped into by a couple of running, screaming kids, I had sticky cotton candy glued to my Healy Hansen jacket. Some of it transferred to the seat of my truck on the way back to town.
Then there's the money. I get it that the fair is a big economic boost to small vendors and even the larger ones, but $11 for six puny, flavorless deep-fried shrimp?
Being ill-prepared and dripped on in the rain, I ducked in to a vendor to select a hat. Sure, I know that griping about the rain to an audience in Southeast is laughable, but a friend of mine from Juneau once scoffed at my notion of brining an umbrella on a visit to an Alaskan Brewing Company event that was outside. "Don't look like a fool; get a hat," she advised.
Umbrellas are commonplace at the State Fair, but I needed a rain hat anyway, so I looked around. I paid $39 for it to find out that it's available elsewhere locally for $24. It's my own fault, and I'm really bitching about nothing, but stuff like this is a reason I don't hit the fair every year.
With all this bitching about it, you're probably wondering why I went. As far back as 1980, beer at the Fair was sparse and watery at best. If you don't remember, Budweiser wasn't even available on tap. I can't remember what I drank, but it was bland, insipid swill in the early days.
Much has changed and I was long overdue to check out the beer scene at one of Alaska's biggest annual gatherings. I expected to see a good representation of Alaska's local craft breweries represented, and I wasn't disappointed.
Right inside the Red Gate and on the right, I spotted my first beer-potential venue. Situated in the historic Colony Theater is the Wine Bar and on tap I discovered Denali Brewing Company's Twister Creek IPA and three selections from Glacier Brewhouse -the brewery's Amber, Raspberry Wheat and Brewhouse Blonde. The one little bit of "gouging" I will tolerate is paying a little more for a pint at an outside venue, and I didn't really balk at the pretty standard $7 per pint price for craft beer here. The Wine Bar turned out to be the more "upscale" of the venues serving beer at the fair, and I found the atmosphere there just a little itchy, with the couple of draft offerings are seemingly lost in the 20 or so wine and cocktail offerings.
Next was the Oasis Beer Garden, which is right across from the bustling Carnival Midway. Beer is a bit more prominent here with at least 16 draft selections that included Alaskan Brewing Company, Kassik's and Denali Brewing Company offerings - even beer from the Pacific Northwest's Elysian Brewing Company (Washington State) and Ninkasi Brewing of Eugene, Oregon. I could have spent some time in this tent.
To me, the gem in the rough at the State Fair is the Sluicebox, which not only features more Alaska and Denali Brewing beers on tap (about 16 of them) but has just the right atmosphere. I like the rustic feel, the crowd that seemed more local than anything else, the wide selection of beer and the constant stream of live music. I could have hung out here for my entire visit.
There was another venue I didn't stumble across, which is the Broken Lance Tavern, and if I happen to return, I'll see what's pouring there. I did look up one place - The Ruben House - that doesn't pump beer but does feature deep-fried mushrooms with an aioli dipping sauce that uses Arkose Brewery (Palmer) Boxcar Porter in the composition. The combination is quite tasty and I was OK with spending the bucks on this one.
Would I go back? I guess so. Maybe I just need a little more Alaska spirit to get me out there every year, but with an increasing cadre of good local beer, it's getting a little less painful.