Aurora Hunting and Craft Beering in Fairbanks, Alaska
A winter escape to Fairbanks, Alaska, is as close as most of us non-arctic dwellers will ever get to visiting a distant, civilized planet; one populated by fascinating denizens and bedecked with beautiful, frozen landscapes encircling a cluster of vibrant breweries.
The city’s otherworldliness helps explain the often-quoted slogan of Silver Gulch, the region’s oldest brewery: “Fairbanks, where the people are unusual and the beer is unusually good.”
Fairbanksans are also unusually hospitable, which is fortunate for tourists mystified by the quirks of subzero extremes and miniscule daylight spans. Locals seem to revel in taking visitors under their flannel-clad wings and patiently explaining the wondrous ways in which the laws of physics manifest differently in the Golden Heart City.
“Oh yeah, when you leave your car parked in 20 below zero, the air inside the tires compresses and the rubber hardens on the flat side,” I overheard a cheery auto rental clerk explain to a confused customer. “We call it ‘square tire.’ That’s why your drive might start off kind of bumpy, but the tires round off when they warm up a bit. You’ll get used to it.”
Other wintry adaptations include the ubiquitous electric prongs on the front of people’s bumpers, which serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that things are just different this far north. The plugs hook up to widely available outlets around town in order to keep the car’s engine block toasty and operational.
For beer lovers, perhaps the most practical advent of all is the repurposed coozie, which acts as a pint mini-parka to ensure beer does not freeze while enjoying it outside near the glow of a patio “pallet bonfire.” The locals are really enthusiastic about pallet bonfires, and since so much materia prima gets shipped to Alaska, pallets are never in short supply.
But the main winter peculiarity people from all over the world come to experience in Fairbanks is the inky black skies spontaneously erupting into dazzling, undulating curtains of colorful light. The aurora borealis is the obvious star of the show in these parts, and since the city provides access to many recreational amenities well within the auroral oval, it has become one of the world’s prime northern lights viewing locations.
Hunting Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks
If seeing the aurora borealis is on your bucket list, you are in good company. It has been at the top of many people’s bucket lists since before there were bucket lists, or even buckets.
Ancient Algonquin indigenous people of North America believed the auroras were the light given off from the flames of a fire kindled by Nanabozho, their creator. Early Chinese cultures also turned to the power of story to explain this celestial phenomenon; their aurora lore likely gave birth to some of the mythical imagery we now associate with dragons. There are even legends falsely attributed to foreign tourists; the most popular being that some cultures believe conceiving a child underneath the auroras imparts special wisdom to the child. That belief is not prevalently held by any culture, but just in case, if the yurt’s a rockin’… don’t come a knockin’. Do stay in an ultra-cozy yurt, if you can, though. Staying in glamping yurts is an extraordinary way to chase the auroras, even if you do not plan on conceiving children in the near future.
Besides a cosmopolitan gathering of visitors, what should craft beer lovers expect to encounter while aurora hunting in Fairbanks?
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A Lively Fairbanks Craft Brewery Scene
At first, worldly beer enthusiasts might be surprised by Alaska’s legal restrictions on the local craft beer scene. The tight regulations are designed to ensure that breweries are primarily manufacturing businesses instead of retailers, which is why under a brewer’s license, taprooms are limited to serving 36-ounces of beer per customer per day and must close by 8 p.m. However, that does not mean beer lovers have to forego having a delicious craft beer in hand when aurora searching into the wee hours; enjoying to-go growlers or crowlers from the comfort of one’s yurt, cabin, or lodge is very much a legal part of the brewing landscape in Alaska.
Other mainstays of breweries in other parts of the United States, however, such as live bands, games, big screens, and late-night closures, are not a legal given in Fairbanks’ taprooms, but this is far from being a shortcoming. Stripped of modern inconveniences and distractions, patrons are left to engage in the throwback exercise of socializing with friends and strangers without artificial diversions.
And socialize they do!
Even though Fairbanks’ craft breweries are the northernmost breweries in the country, they remain lively gathering places for both locals and tourists throughout the winter months. It is common to see food trucks serving up hot fare in frigid temperatures and beer enthusiasts enjoying their beers on outdoor patios, even when temperatures dip far below what most of us warmer-blooded weaklings would consider “patio weather.”
As for the brewing standards in this city of only 31,000, the people-to-beer ratio is through the roof, so your chances of encountering high-quality beer are all but guaranteed, and unlike the auroras, clear skies are not required.
America’s Northernmost Brewery
Silver Gulch Brewery is the northernmost brewery in America. It is about 12 miles north of Fairbanks in the town of Fox, Alaska, which is just a few degrees shy of being within the Arctic Circle. Its distance from city light pollution makes it an ideal spot for aurora hunters to enjoy a gourmet meal and craft beer while keeping an eye out for any sign of the auroras.
Some local delicacies you will find here include the moose barbecue bacon burger, blackened Alaskan halibut and a dozen craft beers on tap. The brewery’s most popular beer is the Old 55 Pale Ale, a citric, malty delight brewed with American malt and Pacific Northwest hops.
This Fairbanks brewery stays open past the typical 8 p.m. closing time for taprooms, so aurora chasers can keep sipping well into aurora prime viewing time. If really lucky, the auroras can be viewed from the windows or decks on a clear night.
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HooDoo Brewing’s ‘4-Ounce Bounce’
As the first brewery within Fairbanks’ city limits, HooDoo Brewing is quickly becoming part of local Fairbanks folklore. Since HooDoo Brewing‘s owner, Bobby Wilken, is committed to preventing a single drop of customers’ daily craft beer legal entitlement from being squandered on technicalities, a quirky 4-ounce pour glass is used to bridge the gap between pint glasses.
“We’re legally capped at 36 ounces, but it’s funny that our 4-ounce glass has sort of become part of the culture here in Fairbanks,” says Wilken. “We think of ourselves here as a large home brewery serving high-quality beer to our friends, which means we want to be as generous as possible within the legal limits, and that means we don’t do semi-filled pint glasses. We are the only brewery in town to provide two 16-ounce pours in a glass designed to accommodate a true 16-ounces with head and a real 4-ounce pour with head.”
If you see someone holding the small glass, it is a likely sign that they are about to wrap up their beer drinking. Locals call the tiny pour the “4-ounce bounce,” “penalty shot,'” and the cheekier ones refer to it as “the happy ending.”
The selection of beer on tap changes frequently and Wilken is always tweaking his recipes so they stay fresh. If you are fortunate enough to be in town when the pumpkin spice beer is available, it is pretty much a delicious pumpkin pie slice in a glass. Also, the surprisingly tasty Roasted Garlic Stout is so much more than most of us ever thought a beer could be.
This Fairbanks craft brewery is a perfect place to meet locals. If you decide to keep the calories in check while vacationing, there is a running group that meets here every Thursday at 6 p.m. to start their weekly 5k run. Yes, even in winter.
The Solstice and Smoky Beers at Black Spruce Brewing Company
Something that becomes immediately apparent when exploring Fairbanks and interacting with locals is that everyone seems to be hyperaware of how many minutes of daylight were lost or gained on any given day and how far in the future or past the solstices and equinoxes are from the present. You get the sense it must be what it would have been like to hang out with Mayans or Incas. This helps explain Black Spruce Brewing Company‘s origin story.
The brewery was opened on the winter solstice of 2018–which, for those of us who cannot tell an equinox from a musk ox, happens on December 21. That was six months after co-owners Stephanie Haskins and Carey Fristoe tied the knot on the summer solstice of the same year. So if you are in town for any solstice, there will definitely be an anniversary party at Black Spruce Brewing Company.
A unique aspect of Black Spruce Brewing Company is that it is a “dry brewery,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms but essentially means that it is not connected to the municipal water system.
“In Alaska, we have to be especially aware of our environmental impact and in operating a brewery we have special circumstances that make us extra cautious of wasting valuable resources like water and electricity,” says Haskins. “At the brewery, our municipal water gets delivered to us in big trucks, which sounds like an extra hurdle but we’ve managed and it has made us more aware of how much water we use.”
As for what is brewed with all that Alaskan water, Fristoe early on noticed that locals tend to appreciate smoky flavors more than tourists, so several of their beers honor that homegrown taste.
“Here in Fairbanks, smoky flavors aren’t at all exotic because we’re used to eating smoked foods, like salmon,” Fristoe says. “We sometimes have to convince tourists to give smoky beers a try, but we never have to sell it much to a local.”
For some of that local smoky flavor, try the PM 2.5 Rauchweiss, which is a smoked hefeweizen, and then ask about the name to get a very interesting story about the clash between nature and man.
If you are visiting at the beginning of any month, Fairbanks hosts a monthly First Friday Art Walk in which Black Spruce Brewing Company participates by showcasing local artists’ work. A portion of all art sales goes to non-profit organizations, including the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, Fairbanks Animal Shelter and the Fairbanks Arts Association.
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Fairbanks Brewery Keeps the Dive in ‘Dive Bar’
Midnite Mine Brewing Company has been open for less than a year in the city’s revitalized downtown. This newest Fairbanks craft brewery is the brainchild of Talon Mensik and his family. His grandparents bought the building in 2017 to take over the bar downstairs, while Mensik opted for launching his nanobrewery and taproom upstairs.
As a perennial watering hole, the old Midnite Mine bar catered to the clientele of the 1970s waning gold rush as well as the pipeline workers and coal miners that followed. Later, the bar served as a popular community gathering spot. Locals were happy to see it infused with new energy and a slightly new look under new ownership.
“We’re protective of our dive bars in Fairbanks and this is basically a home brewery on not-so-powerful-steroids tucked away into one of Fairbanks well-known dive bars,” says Mensik.
The relaxed vibe comes with some pretty amusing trappings, like rumors of a resident dog named Cleo being able to pick up customers’ beer money and tips and deliver them to the register. “Cleo is like a friendly strip club bouncer,” laughs Mensik. “She takes pride in nudging people to tip.”
Patrons are able to sample not just the craft beers Mensik is cranking out on the one-barrel operation, but also other Alaskan brewers’ creations. He says they do not offer growlers because “our beer is way too precious to sell in those quantities.” Instead, they have some options of pre-filled 16-ounce crowlers available.
Parting Tips on Aurora Hunting
It is important to keep in mind that the northern lights are unpredictable and can appear any time during the night, or not at all. Generally, the best time to try to catch glimpses of the auroras is from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. from August to April. Many hotels offer “aurora call” options, so the front desk can call your room if the auroras appear while you are sleeping off a night of brewery exploration. The duration of the auroras is also unpredictable, they can last just a few moments or long enough to give you time to drive away from light pollution for a better view.
Thankfully, there are so many amazing activities in the Fairbanks region besides aurora hunting, that even if the auroras do not cooperate during your visit, you can leave with amazing memories of exotic adventures. There are so many to list! There’s dog mushing, ice fishing, snowmobiling (called “snow machining” in these parts), yoga with reindeer. If you head to the nearby Chena Hot Springs Resort, you can have a martini served up in a hand-sculpted ice glass at the ice museum and memorialize your time in the Last Frontier with a selfie of your elaborately frozen hairstyle.
With or without auroras, you will be in a stunningly beautiful region of the world, so sit back, take a long sip of your delicious Fairbanks craft beer and, once in a while, ease off from desperately scanning the gorgeous heavens in order to appreciate the remarkable wonders beneath it.