One of the more interesting social aspects of beer is the names our creative brewers use to identify products within their lineups. Certain names are fiercely protected as part of branding and product identification. Others are simply creative and fun. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau governs what shows up on the labels that bait us in when we’re shopping for product on our grog shop shelves, but they don’t have much to say when it comes to what’s marketed internally in a brewery and not destined for distribution. This is where the fun begins.
The most notable local example of this is a beer called Valley Trash, brewed by the long defunct Great Bear Brewery in Wasilla. Great Bear opened in June of 1999 and shut down in 2009. Great Bear was known for defying convention in both brew and brawn and created noteworthy beers like Arskigger, a 13 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) Scotch ale back in a time when craft beer was in its infancy up here and alcohol by volume wars preceded the more current hop wars, but of which seem to have passed for more reasonable brews.
Back then – for those of you that have been around for a while - Cusack’s brewed Tsaminator Dopplebock at 12 percent, the strongest lager in the state at the time and a 9.2 percent ABV tripel. Great Bear’s Valley Trash weighed in at a heady, but more reasonable 8.4 percent ABV. To say the very least, this re-named golden strong ale was dangerously drinkable. Maybe you remember it.
“It wasn’t that long ago when there were a lot of folks that weren’t completely familiar with craft beer and the ABV that comes with it,” says Jed Wade of Wasilla’s Bearpaw River Brewing Company where plans are to re-create this crazy beast. “Great Bear was ahead of its time. Great Bear, like many others, had to shape the palate of the community. With Valley Trash, we all had to learn to pace ourselves,” he says.
Wade graduated from high school in 2004, the year the Valley Trash debacle got started. “I came back from college and encountered Valley Trash bumper stickers and T-Shirts everywhere. The whole thing became a source of local pride.”
The term Valley Trash made national fame when Senator Ben Stevens lashed out at a constituent that criticized his explaining away of taking consulting fees from oil companies. Stevens replied “your [sic] just more valley trash,” and the fun began
The response – which was ultimately more positive than negative – made national news. It made the popular online Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia too, attesting to the concept’s staying power. Apparently, even Sarah Palin wore a T-shirt proclaiming “Proud to be Valley Trash” during her 2006 campaign for Governor of Alaska.
I drank the beer back then when I had a chance to get out to the Valley. This beer helped me to temper my consumption speed, but more than that, I was caught up in the hype over the name like everyone else.
Apparently, Valley residents haven’t forgotten this craft beer’s contribution to the whole Valley shtick. “Since we opened two and a half years ago, Valley Trash is the #1 most asked about beer. People from all over the Valley come in here that were around when Great Bear was and ask us ‘have you ever heard about Valley Trash?,’ ‘did you ever try it?,’ and ‘will you ever make it?.”
Indeed, the attitude in the Valley seems to be “if we’re going to stand out, this is how we stand out. We’re the bad boys in Anchorage’s back yard and you’d better be careful or we’ll burn your fence down.” Valley Trash is more than a beer; it’s a symbol and it continues to resonate. “It’s carried weight all these years and it still rings a bell with people out here,” says Wade.
Once Bearpaw River announced an upcoming remake, the interest ratcheted up. It certainly caught my attention and brought forth some names I hadn’t heard in a while.
“Some of the former owners come into the tap room from time to time, although with other people that worked there. A former brewer named Ky who was there in the final years shared with us how the recipe developed over time right up to when the Great Bear Closed. Ike Kelly is a former at the Great Bear. Between all of them, we got the original recipe,” says Wade. I know them both.
Fans have come out of the woodwork. Unsolicited, Great Bear has become the repository for old shirts, pictures, party memorabilia and even an old Great Bear keg brought in by the former owners that will be ceremoniously filled with Valley Trash and dispensed picnic style – or high school style as the norm may have been – on the release date on August 4 at the Bearpaw River Brewing Company.
“Show us stuff, we’re telling our customers. It’s really fun piecing together all of the different stories, myths and legends that came from Great Bear. The brewery obviously brought life to the Valley a long time and many foggy nights ago,” says Wade.
It's interesting, too, that the Last Frontier Brewing Company that ultimately replaced Great Bear in the same spot hasn't weighed in. I figured that by now, Last Frontier might have tried to recreate the iconic brew. Last Frontier opened in February of 2011; they've certainly had enough time.
"We haven't heard anything from Last Frontier. I don't think they've ever brewed it. We went out and looked; we tried to do our research. No one's been making it," says Wade.
Bearpaw River wants to brew the beer exactly the way it was before. They're taking great lengths to do so. "It's definitely a throwback," says Wade. "The City of Wasilla has a place where we can get Wasilla water. We're on well water here," he explains. "We're going to a tote to put in the back of Jake's truck and fill it up. It might take a couple of trips to get enough water for the brew, but that's the point of this project. We're going to get the recipe and ingredients as exact as possible. We're sourcing the same yeast used in the beer. It's a tribute to the Great Bear Brewing Company that so many people in Wasilla loved. It's an original craft brewery in Alaska and especially in Wasilla where we are."
Wade remembers Great Bear well. "It was really a fun place for everybody. It was all about good food, good beer, Hobo Jim and the Rebel Blues and all kinds of local people enjoying upbeat, great entertainment. You always had a great time when you were there. People definitely remember it fondly. Even now with the beer coming out, people are in here with a lot of excitement, sharing pictures and tales of those great nights at the Bear."
If you want it, you'd better be around when it's released. "We're probably going to make at least two batches," says Wade. We're going to have it on draft and can it. It will be available at the brewery. We'll have somewhere around 75 cases of cans and the kegs."
I wondered if the beer would have the same staying power as the theme. "That's a good question. Maybe we do it every year and it becomes an annual thing. I'm not ruling anything else, but it's not part of the plan to make it a mainstream beer for distribution too far, but we'll see how it goes," says Wade. In other words, don't expect it to show up in Los Anchorage.
The Bear Paw celebration will try to create a similar mood. "We're going to have the Ruben Haus out here with food. They're a staple at the State Fair. Alaska Firelights is a taco truck; they'll be here too. We're still in the planning stages, so there's much more to come. On July 1, the City of Wasilla Plastic Bag Ban goes into effect; this is great timing in August to re-release Valley Trash. We'll be giving away sustainable Valley Trash tote bags," says Wade.
Mark your calendar and keep your mug to the wall for the August 4 release. The Great Bear and the Bear Paw will be dancing in the streets with the rest of the Valley Trash. I'm feeling a little nostalgic and trashy myself so I'll probably be in the mix.