Prospecting for Alaska beer from a cruise ship

During the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, the stampeders who flooded the boomtown of Skagway, Alaska, could send a telegram anywhere in the world for $5. The problem was that the wires did not extend beyond the “telegraph” office wall; the telegraph didn’t reach Skagway until 1901. It was one of many cons foisted by notorious criminal kingpin Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith upon unsuspecting treasure seekers.

Skagway and the 49th state have become a bit more civilized since a Mountie referred to the town as “little more than a hell on earth.” Nowadays, cruise line tourists rather than prospectors comprise the vast majority of visitors to coastal towns like Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Swindles such as three-card Monty and the shell game are no more. Instead, we have incessant automated BINGO and smoky casinos aboard the giant floating hotels. The shills who a century ago lured prospectors to financial ruin have morphed into “discount” jewelry merchants – some of which pay endorsement fees to the cruise ships -- pushing “closeouts” and unprecedented “bargains.” It’s called “progress.”

But if you manage to wend your way around the hucksters, visiting Alaska on a cruise ship can be quite enjoyable. The scenery is breathtaking even in transit, and the service and food aboard ships like the Norwegian Pearl are exemplary. The selection of wines available, while not exhaustive, was well-thought-out, too. Good riojas, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and a fine Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett (great with a roast duck/duck confit combo) made excellent meals even more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the beer onboard, which seems to be stuck in a time warp not so very far advanced from when Soapy Smith plied his nefarious trade. Onboard options included Bud, Coors, Miller and Euro lagers like Heineken and Stella on draft AND in bottles. The only Alaska beer on offer was bottled Alaskan Amber. Bass Pale Ale was available on draft and Guinness in cans. (Distributors are partly to blame, but the cruise lines are ultimately responsible and should demand better brews.)
That meant we had to forage for good beer whenever we went ashore, and happily the Alaska boomtowns, built upon a foundation of saloons rather than office buildings or churches, did not disappoint.

Avoiding the clutter and tracking down good beer in the Alaska cruise ship ports is a little like panning for gold: there’s a lot more crap than gold in the pan. The farther you get away from the tourists and the places set up to serve them, the better luck you’ll have. Walk right past the first bar, the gaudy Red Dog Saloon and its sawdust floors, limited beer selection and misanthropic, out of tune pianist playing for way too many tourists.
The Rendezvous, also on South Franklin Street, is worth a stop for a very nice Midnight Sun stout on tap, but the bar seems to lack charisma and character beyond a couple of pool tables. Farther down the street is the Triangle Club and Bar, which highlights beer from The Alaskan Brewing Company, the most widely distributed beer in the state and the 11th largest craft brewer in the U.S. Triangle pours a four-beer sampler of Alaskan beers – kolsch, amber, white and IPA – which are nice but not overwhelming (Alaskan Brewing doesn’t widely distribute its more exotic offerings). If you keep walking, the Viking Lounge Pulltaps & Billiards on Front Street has DJs and dancing. (By the time you read this, Alaskan Brewing will have opened a new Alaskan Brewing Deport in downtown Juneau.)
But the best beer bar in Juneau, hands down, is The Alaskan Hotel and Bar, a dingy tavern that doubles as a cheap hostelry in a historic building. Opened in 1913, the Alaskan Hotel and Bar proclaims it’s “the oldest operating hotel in Juneau.”

The selection of beers on tap, along with how it is served, is usually a good indication of the passion of the publican and the quality of the establishment. AHB doesn’t just settle for what’s easy and local. Bringing in great Belgian-style beers like Fin du Monde in bottles and Blanche de Chambly and Maudite on tap from Unibroue, as well as draft Chimay and Old Rasputin Imperial Stout from North Coast in California, is a good sign that AHB takes its beer seriously and respects the discriminating palates of craft beer drinkers. AHB also serves some distinctive beers from Midnight Sun Brewing Company, which doesn’t have the distribution that Alaskan Brewing has, but makes consistently challenging beers. We enjoyed a pitcher of Midnight Sun’s delicious Kodiak Brown, opaque and toasty, with restrained hops and a little bite. (Midnight Sun’s other beers are also worth seeking out as they gain larger distribution in the “lower 48.” Try the Arctic Rhino Baltic Porter and the Mayhem Belgian Double IPA.)
Before long, a young bluesman named Sammy started playing some Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, creating what might be the ideal Alaska pub vibe: a little funky, a little divey, with amazing beers as the perfect social lubricant.

In Skagway as with Juneau, finding beer means wading through the throng of cruise ship passengers and getting away from jewelry stops and tourist bars. To build up our thirst and to get a sense of the place, we walked past the downtown area to Skagway’s feature attraction: the town’s version of Boot Hill.
Simple white crosses mark the final resting places of Gold Rush era residents. The cemetery is dominated by a monument to Frank Reid, who was embraced as a local hero after an epic shootout with Soapy Smith that ultimately claimed the lives of both men. On his deathbed, Reid is reputed to have declared that he gave his life for the honor of Skagway – a dubious claim in a town that had very little honor to speak of. Soapy, meanwhile, was laid to rest just outside the limits of the cemetery -- a posthumous outcast of the new, more genteel Alaska. (If you go, don’t miss the beautiful waterfall right above the cemetery.)
Skip the tourist bars in Skagway and head straight for the Skagway Brewing Company. From the minute you enter, it’s obvious that the brewmaster in this rather inconspicuous brewpub/gift shop knows a lot about brewing beer and isn’t afraid to pique the beer palates of customers with brews like Skagway Spruce Tip Ale. Skagway Brewing also makes a very respectable, hoppy Chilkoot Trail IPA, which was a great segue between the cemetery and the White Horse Railway ride over the historic stampeders pass that led to the gold country.
Along with the White Pass Railway ride, Skagway Brewing belongs on any serious beer drinker’s Skagway itinerary (together with Lemon Rose bakery downtown, which makes some of the best cookies in the state).

Ketchikan presented a different challenge: a limited amount of time on shore and no brew pubs in sight. So instead of trying to push the beer bar higher, we took in a bit of history in the Sourdough Bar, right off the docks. Despite its location perilously close the cruise ships, the Sourdough is the real deal, and apparently too divey to attract many cruise ship tourists. Even though the Sourdough doesn’t have any taps, it has plenty of local character and some good beer in bottles, like the very tasty Alaskan Oatmeal Stout – a perfect beer for a dreary day. The Sourdough’s walls are covered with dozens of ominous black and white photos of stricken ships and boats that had run aground, caught fire or suffered some other nautical misadventure. Better yet, the Sourdough is a hangout for locals, the sort of guys who look at the sky and say, “It might get a little sloppy out there tonight.”
Like prospecting for gold, finding the “real” Alaska, or at least real Alaskans, and good beer takes patience and persistence, but it’s worth the effort. Cruise ships like the Norwegian Pearl could be more helpful, however. Their menus and the wines reflect a commitment to fine dining but the beer on offer sadly implies that the operators are not fully convinced that craft beer belongs in the mix. The Pearl, for example, hosted a “European Beer Tasting,” with mixed results. You can’t expect a whole lot from a neophyte beer server pouring bottles of Newcastle Brown, Franziskaner Weissbier, Bass Pale Ale, Boddington’s and Guinness. And it’s a shame.

Cruise ships have an opportunity not only to meet the dining needs of their passengers but to educate them, too, and perhaps introduce them to tastes that they might otherwise not encounter. They’re doing it with food and wine, but if you want good craft beer, you’ll have to do some prospecting of your own -- off the ship.

The Alaskan Hotel and Bar
167 S Franklin St
Juneau, AK 99801
(907) 586-1000

Skagway Brewing Company
7th St and Broadway
Skagway, AK 99840

Sourdough Cocktail Bar
301 Front St
Ketchikan, AK 99901
(907) 225-2217

Copyright 2010

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