Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Beer of the Week: Alaskan Summer Ale, it’s got the Kolsch style pegged

By William Brand
Staff writer

I’VE NEVER BEEN to Cologne, but I did spend one night at an inn near the city on my way west to France and I wandered into a pub where they served authentic Kolsch. It was the pub’s major beer, and it came in a distinctive, tall, 0.2 liter glass called a “Stange.” It was a medium gold color — and being no fan of yellow American beer, I was a bit wary.

But after one sniff and a single hesitant taste, I became a fan. Let me correct that; I became a big fan: Shocking, silky malt, spicy, quenching hoppy follow.

I was on a tour and Cologne, the famous cathedral city bombed back into the Stone Age during World War II, unfortunately, wasn’t on the agenda. But since then I’ve chased American-made Kolsch-style ales relentlessly. Mostly, they just don’t equal the real thing. They’re just yellow beer, often finished with aggressive, piny, citrusy American hops like Cascades.

But American craft brewers are a creative, often sensitive lot, and American Kolsch-style beers are getting better. They’re being made with German pale malted barley, finished with the appropriate German Hallertau hops. The only problem remaining appears to be the often-ancient, proprietary ale yeast used in the brewhouses in Cologne. The yeast provides some of the finishing spice and the hard-to-describe earthy, fruity notes.

But the other night during a visit to Hopmonk, the new pub-beer garden in Sebastopol, I tried Alaskan Summer Ale and gasped. I thought for a moment I was back in Germany.

Then I realized there was a slightly different spiciness as well. But it was anything but off-putting. Alaskan’s Ashley Johnston says the grain bill includes speciality malts and malted wheat as well. The brewers say the spicy finish comes from the finishing hops.

Alaskan Summer Ale ***½, from Alaskan Brewing, Juneau, Alaska, is our Beer of the Week. It has a mild, spicy nose. True, it’s “yellow beer,” but the taste is full and mouth-filling, not sweet. Finish is dry with a pleasing mild, spicy finish. It’s a perfect summer beer. Forget PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) and the rest of that ilk. They taste overly sweet and corny by comparison.

I’m not alone in loving this one. It won a first place gold medal in April at the World Beer Cup in San Diego. The World Cup is the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association international companion to the Great American Beer Festival: blind tastings, professionally-trained judges.

You don’t have to visit Hopmonk to sample Alaskan Summer Ale. It’s widely available in the Bay Area in 12-ounce bottles. But let me recommend Hopmonk. It’s the first pub that Dean Biersh, co-founder of Gordon Biersch, has opened in eight years, and he’s done everything right. If you’re being dragged northward to visit wineries, convince your people to stop at Hopmonk for lunch.

By the way, another excellent Kolsch-style ale’s made right here in Berkeley: It’s Pyramid’s Curve Ball ***. Over in San Francisco, Dave McLean at Magnolia (1398 Haight St.) makes Kalifornia Kolsh, a hoppy, very American version. Magnolia, incidentally, re-opened in June after a makeover with a greatly improved kitchen. It is, McLean says, becoming a “gastropub.” That’s U.K. slang for a pub that focuses on good food.

Photo: That’s my cell phone shot of my glass of Alaskan Summer Ale at Hopmonk in Sebastopol a few weeks ago. Excuse the reflections, but do note the big, white head. Tastes as good as it looks.