When you travel, treat yourself to the unique pleasure of visiting really small local breweries. Local breweries are more than watery abattoirs, squeezing helpless hops to their gooey deaths. They’re most often run by locals involved in their communities. They provide post-5k beer, T-shirts and cases for fundraising prizes. You’ll often see them at fundraising events.
That’s exactly the first thing folks in Sitka, Alaska told me about Rick and Susan Armstrong, owners of the year-old Baranof Island Brewery. Here are some actual quotes from people I met on the street in Sitka: “They’re really involved in the community.” “They really support Sitka.” “Looks like you have bear poo on your shoe. Get closer and I can tell you what kind it is.”
Rick & Susan brought young 20-something Sam Scotchmer from Colorado to this metropolis of 9,000 people and about 5 million salmon to brew their beers. Unexpectedly, the former Central Washington U. cross country runner entered & won the grueling 17th annual Alpine Adventure run, posting the second fastest time ever in the 7-mile race up “Great Big Honkin’ Gavan Hill,” bringing instant advertising in comments like, “Hey if he’s such a good runner maybe his beer is good, too, don’tcha know.” Legend is born. Three people I spoke with around town including the manager of the Sitka Sound Science Center Aquarium mentioned the need to refill their growlers at Baranof. A local woman who says she goes by her “ancestral name of ‘Betty’” said she needed to fill two growlers in her Bronco so she could go home & “drink my husband pretty.” The balding, well-tanned buddha-like man slouching next to her flashed a delighted gap-toothed smile at this point. Must be her husband. Must be damn good beer. The dude has hair where monkeys don’t!
Baranof brews 6 beers and one of the world’s greatest root beers. Unimpressed with the large Alaskan Brewery in Juneau and various mild, inoffensive offerings in Victoria, B.C., I was so pleased to discover Baranof beers have character. Each has a local flavor and name: Halibut Point Hefeweisen (ruggedly citrus), Silver Bay IPA (wonderful!), Baranof Brown Ale (excellent English style), Peril Straight Pale Ale (named after the site where 150 seal trappers died from shellfish poisoning. Mmmmm. Shellfish poisoning. May I have seconds, please?), and Medvejie Stout. We tasted them all… twice, except for the Medvejie (meh-duh-VEE-gee)… that one we tasted three or four times. Medvejie is truly a snowbound Alaskan’s best friend. A bit of malt wafts into your nostrils, followed by flavors of a brilliant brew slaking your thirst with chocolate, molasses and barley. Cascade and Williamette hops quell the sweetness and dry the finish, lingering into a craving for another taste. Here comes the sloshing of oatmeal, black malt, chocolate malt and then the high-nitrogen crystal malts, adding a sweet toffee flavor I only noticed in the second or third serving. The second-best reason to enjoy yet another serving of the Medvejie Stout is to fortify you for the 1.5 mile hike through the forest back to town. I’ll be back… just follow my bear-poop sneaker tracks.