Essentials of the craft beer experience
Not so many years ago (most especially in Texas), our national beer psyche was dominated by the "white whales" of American craft beer. These were the limited or special releases that received the most buzz and the highest ratings around the blogosphere: Abyss. Black Chocolate Stout. La Folie. Racer X. Even Live Oak's Hefeweizen worked its way into this list -- most of which are now available on local shelves and taps.
These beers were indeed "white whales" for us in Texas because our state's distribution was so limited, even more so for these small-batch beers. Any exposure to these iconic brews generally came through shared generosity or out-of-state purchases. Today, the craft beer sector is so robust our obsession has become chasing the new and extraordinary, and I question whether such a remarkable cetacean status exists for individual beers any more.
One of these beers arrived in North Texas late last year, the Alaskan Smoked Porter from Alaskan Brewing Company. We are fortunate to see this beer here, as even without legal constraints supplies have historically been very limited. (In fact, once approved by TABC there was some debate whether we would see this beer in any significant quantities at all, as its demand is high.)
Top ten list, desert island fridge, basics of craft beer education, death row beer menu -- whatever enumeration of favorite beers you prefer, the Alaskan Smoked Porter should be on it. No, it is not new and hot (brewed and bottled since 1988). No, it is not extreme or "imperial" (a relatively mild 6.5% ABV). No, it does not contain stone fruits or chipotle peppers or Brettanomyces or Nelson Sauvin hops or kopi luwack beans, nor does it epitomize any classic Old World brewing style. (Technically, it is in the same family as the German rauchbier but porters are of British origin.)
What this beer does have is the finest example of the application of smoked malts to brewing I've ever encountered from a North American brewery. Alaskan Brewing smokes their own malts using local alder wood, which does for malted grains what mesquite does for brisket. The result is not overpowering by any means; the essence of a robust American porter is still there. The acrid high phenols that can be off-putting in many smoked beers are instead a gentle campfire flavor that folds into the coffee and charcoal nature of the porter perfectly. Brewed with glacier water from the Juneau Ice Field, the resulting beer is as clean and easy to drink as any beer can be.
Supplies are surprisingly healthy in North Texas, as it can still be found on shelves and the occasional tap around the Metroplex. Despite its relatively moderate ABV, the nature of the smoked grains does act somewhat as a preservative and it can be laid down to age for years. To really enjoy its full potential, pair it with smoked cheeses, smoked game, fresh (or smoked) seafood and preserved fruits.