Nothing says February in Alaska like a bonfire and an icy beer by a frozen river.
On Feb. 17, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce with host the Frozen RiverFest at Soldotna Creek Park. Now in its fourth year, the festival was conceived as a way to engage the community during the reliably cold and bleak winter months.
“The whole idea was to get people out of their house and to do something in February,” Andy Heuiser, events and programs coordinator Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, said.
The festival features music, food and bonfires, but the main attraction is an assortment of local craft brewers showing off a bevy of unique brews.
Doug Hogue, who helped organize the first Frozen River Festival and has been involved ever since, said the festival is a good opportunity to bring in new customers and mingle with regulars — who are often unrecognizable in their winter gear.
Hogue’s Soldotna-based brewery, Kenai River Brewing Company, was founded 12 years ago, and now boasts 22 beers on tap.
He will be debuting new beers at the event. One of those — dubbed AB Imbav — is a labor of love.
Short for Andy’s Bitter Imperial Bavarian Lager, AB Imbav is named after its brewer, a former oil rig worker who learned the art of brew from the ground up. The beer has been in the works for eight weeks. That’s a significant time commitment for a small brewer, but one that he expects will be worth it. The beer includes a lot of Pilsner, Munich malt and noble German hops, he said.
“It’s a nice big imperial lager,” Hogue said.
It might seem a risk to serve beers he’s never poured at a big event, but Hogue said he’s confident they’ll pass muster.
Big changes in brewing
Since the first craft brewer opened up on the peninsula two decades ago, the craft beer industry has undergone enormous shifts.
Stephen McCasland, owner of Homer Brewing Company, said his company was the only brewery on the peninsula when he first opened up shop 21 years ago. He remained the sole brewery until the mid-2000s, when Soldotna’s Kenai River Brewing Company and Kassik’s Brewery opened, McCasland said. Now the borough is dotted with breweries with their own special take on craft beer. Even so, the Homer establishment has stayed close to its roots — they only sell beer in Homer on tap and in wholesale barrels, he said.
“We just sell beer in Homer,” McCasland said. “We like to keep it small and simple.”
The Homer Brewing Company has eight beers on tap — four flagship beers available for the wholesale market and four rotating specialty beers only available at the brewery. McCasland said he hasn’t finalized the beers he will bring to the festival, but expects it will be a mixture of his flagship and specialty beers that will satisfy diverse tastes.
McCasland said he looks forward to attending the event, and organizers are welcoming and accommodating.
“They appreciate us driving there and doing this, and being a part of their festival,” he said.
New brews and new business
Since its conception, the festival has grown from 11 to 18 vendors, and now attracts craft brewers and attendees from across the state.
Reid McDonald, co-owner of Odd Man Rush in Eagle River, is attending the festival for the first time. He plans to bring at least three beers to the festival, including a coconut stout and a dark winter beer.
“I’m a big believer in seasonal beers,” he said
The brainchild of three former hockey players, the brewery takes its name from a hockey play. With two sons on the Kenai River Brown Bears hockey team, McDonald has made regular trips down to the peninsula — and even got tips from Kassik’s local brewery.
“We’re really excited to come down,” McDonald said. “It’s a great community.”
As one of the smallest breweries in the state, Palmer-based Bleeding Heart Brewery can’t always make it out to beer festivals, but was finally able to make the trip to the fest this year, Zack Lanphier, the brewery’s cofounder and director of marketing, said.
The two-year old company, which is based on a colonial farm, has a one-barrel system — which means they make every batch of beer 30 gallons at a time.
“We’re pretty much always brewing beer,” he said.
Bleeding Heart has eight taps with four flagship brews and four specialties. Lanphier said he’ll be bringing two of its regular beers — Valley Trash Dirty Blond and a brightly hued Bleeding Heart Beet IPA — as well as their specialty oyster stout beer, dubbed William the Hippopotamus.
Lanphier said he was especially looking forward to building relationships with peninsula breweries and sharing the company’s product with a wider audience. He’s also looking forward to just hanging out with some fellow brewers.
Keeping a local flavor
Although the event has expanded over the years — Heuiser expects at least 1000 people to show up this year — it still reflects the unique character of the local community.
“At its core, it’s definitely a Soldotna thing,” Heuiser said.
The $20 cost of admission covers two free pours, the ability to sample beer from the breweries, and a souvenir mug. Admission for designated drivers and non-drinkers is free. The event will also feature live performances by The Mabrey Bros. Band and The Mabes. Food vendors and a warming tent will be on site, but Heuiser encourages everyone to bundle up and enjoy the bracing February weather.
“Come out and defy the cold,” Heuiser said.