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The Beer Frontier: Binge Drinking in Alaska

Anchorage Music + Nightlife Food + Drink
by Eva Holland Feb 20, 2011
Eva Holland samples dozens of brews at The Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival and comes out the other side alive. The state with more craft beers per capita than any other leaves her with many a hazy lesson learned, which she has been generous enough to share with Matador Nights.

It’s 9:30PM on a Friday night in Anchorage, Alaska. I’m queasy and crashed out on a cigarette-burnt bed at the downtown Howard Johnson. The Friend I Brought Along Because He Can Hold His Liquor Better Than I Can (henceforth known as TFIBABHCHHLBTIC, or TFIB for short) is doing likewise in the other bed next to mine.

The all-you-can-drink beer festival that we bailed on an hour earlier hasn’t even wrapped up yet, we’re just three days into what is supposed to be a six-day Alaskan beer-drinking odyssey, and we are both, inarguably, down for the count.

Where did we go wrong?

Rule #1: Don’t shoot your wad two nights too soon.

Wednesday Night:

We arrived sometime in the late afternoon in Tok, Alaska, a hundred miles past the Canada-U.S. border.

We ate halibut burgers in the roadside diner attached to our motel, then wandered across the parking lot to the Husky Lounge. Here – cue surprise and delight – we found a handful of Alaskan microbrews on tap, though we hadn’t expected to start our “research” so soon.

Hours passed as we went several rounds deep, feeding quarters into the pool table while a shitty cop show blared on the TV behind us.

At the end of the night we stumbled back across the snowy parking lot to our $69 motel room, and drove the rest of the way to Anchorage the next day with hangovers that we would never quite shake for the rest of the trip.

Rule #2: Underestimating Alaska will get you nowhere.

Overconfidence can be a fatal flaw in the Alaskan backcountry; likewise, it can lay low two intrepid beer-hunting travelers.

TFIB and I are novice home-brewers and – so we thought – seasoned, hardy drinkers. We crossed the border feeling like binge-ready pros. But Anchorage’s beer scene went deeper than anything we’d ever encountered at home.

We arrived in town late Thursday afternoon. By 6PM, we were touring Midnight Sun Brewing Co., one of four Anchorage brewpubs on our itinerary. The next day we hit another brewpub, Glacier Brewhouse, for lunch, and then headed to Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse for a mid-afternoon thirst-quencher.

At 5 pm, 24 hours after we’d arrived in Anchorage and just over 48 hours after we’d crossed the border, we were lined up at the entry to the beer festival. We’d already sampled 20 Alaskan craft beers, and the main event hadn’t even started yet. We had a long way to go.

Rule #3: Never ease off the throttle.

Inside the convention center, the beer festival was rolling. A huge room was broken up into several aisles, each lined with tables decorated with brewery banners. We passed through multiple security and ticket checks and were issued our souvenir miniature pint glasses – at each brewery’s table, we’d hand over our glasses for a sample pour.

For the first hour and a half we were going strong. We sampled 14 beers from 7 breweries and pushed our way through much of the Alaskan selection. Then we made the fatal error: We headed downstairs for a bathroom break and a sit-down away from the mayhem.

When we came back upstairs, the crowds seemed that much more oppressive. (Go ahead and laugh, New Yorkers or Angelinos, but when you live in the Yukon, close crowds of people quickly become a rarity in your life.) Our bellies began protesting the strange, carbonated, alcoholic mixture we’d been foisting on them, and our progress slowed.

We struggled through four more Alaskan offerings, then cut across several aisles to close out the night with a couple of English ciders. In line, I squinted at the menu while a woman behind me railed against special education teachers “sucking up tax dollars.”

“I just don’t believe that we as a society have to educate people that aren’t normal,” she said. I sipped my cider and felt sick.

The Final Tally, and Lessons Learned

On Saturday we forced ourselves through visits to two more brewpubs and a couple of especially beer-centric bars. Our final Alaskan craft beer count, after three full days plus one evening in-state: 50.

The two-day trip home was a quiet, alcohol-free affair. The moral of the story seemed clear to me as I sipped Gatorade, watched the mountains go by and waited to feel fully rehydrated: No matter how delicious and finely crafted the brews – and the Alaskan brews we sampled were, indeed, finely crafted and delicious – the end result of too much beer is always going to be bloating and bright yellow urine.

Even in this, the biggest state in a go-big-or-go-home nation, “all things in moderation” still applies.

Community Connection

This is the companion piece. Eva’s Guide to Beer Drinking in Alaska where you can find her picks for the best microbrews the 49th state has on tap.

If your travel plans include a lot of beer drinking, there’s no shame is scheduling your next trip as a beer drinking mission. To get you started, check out Matador Trips’ 20 Best Beer Towns in America.

And to read up on what’s new in the world of ales, have a peek at 13 Beer Experts to Follow on Twitter. Or if you wound up here because you’re itching to know more about Alaska, check out Matador Network’s Alaska Focus Page.

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