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Brewing beer Alaska-style.

Two Alaska breweries continue the state's proud beer-making traditions.

Many breweries have come and gone in Alaska since the turn of the century; breweries with such typically Alaskan names as Gold Belt Brewing, Eagle Brewing Co. and Pioneer Brewing Co. Small and simple, they produced only enough for local consumption. In the early 1900s, before Prohibition, there were approximately 42 microbreweries established in Alaska, each producing its own special recipe.

Alaskan brewers encouraged locals to buy their potions. The Pioneer Brewing Co., operating out of Fairbanks, wanted local support and embodied this concept in the slogan, "A cheering thought as you blow the foam: your money remains right here at home." They also proclaimed the beer was made "In Alaska, by Alaskans, for Alaskans."

Unfortunately, with Prohibition in the 1920s, early Alaskan microbreweries were forced to shut down or produce other products or services. Some brewers switched to soda pop instead of beer, making it possible to stay in production without changing their machinery.

The ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933 brought an end to Prohibition, and Alaskan brewers again were able to produce. Since relegalization, seven breweries have been established in the state. Two of the seven are still producing today: the Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau, and the Bird Creek Brewery in Anchorage. These breweries serve mainly Alaskan markets, but both are testing Outside potential, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

Alaskan Brewing Co.: Battling the Imports.

According to Geoff and Marcy Larson, owners and operators of Alaskan Brewing Co., the Alaskan breweries are "a family of microbrewers competing against import premiums." The Larsons say today's beer consumers are shifting their tastes to include the high quality, more expensive brews that, until recently, could only be found in imported beers. Alaska beers provide an alternative to imports by offering the same superior quality.

The Alaskan Brewing Co., established in Juneau in March 1986, was originally named Chinook Alaskan Brewing and Bottling. It changed its name to Alaskan Brewing Co. when it was discovered that a winery in Washington already used the Chinook label. Geoff Larson, a former chemical engineer, made his own home-brews in the past and nursed a strong desire to manufacture beer on a commercial scale. He says that in the middle 1980s, when microbreweries were in the "infancy of the trend," the possibility of competing with the large-scale-production breweries made the brewing industry more attractive.

It was difficult to start this type of business, especially in Alaska, but Larson feels the network of support from the Juneau community made a difference. Alaskan Brewing Co. is operated by the Larsons, but there are over 80 Alaskans holding a limited partnership in the company.

From the beginning, the main goal of Alaskan Brewing Co. was to provide a quality beer. "The first 16 batches produced were tossed in order to compare consistency," says Marcy Larson. "We base our formula on an old recipe from the Douglas City Brewery Co., which operated on Douglas Island from 1899 to 1907." She adds that Alaskan uses the traditional Alt style, a method that allows beer to ferment in the cold for 21 days, longer than most breweries. Melting mountain and glacier waters are blended with American and Canadian malt and a mixture of hops from Czechoslovakia, which the Larsons feel are the best grains available.

The drive for perfection won the brewery top honors in 1987 and 1988 -- out of 160 contestants -- at The Great American Beer Festival in both professional judging and consumer-preference poll categories. Brewmaster Geoff Larson also won a gold medal in the Alt style category for Chinook Amber and a silver medal for Porter style at the 1988 festival.

At first, the beer was distributed only to the Juneau area, but because of their growing success, the Larsons decided to distribute it to other parts of the state. In 1991, they expanded to the Pacific Northwest. Since 1987, the first year of actual production, Alaskan Brewing Co. has become "seven times larger" adds Larson, growing 35 percent each year. But continued growth can sometimes make meeting the demand a problem.

"There are times when we have to scramble. We've had to cancel some shipments to Seattle," says Geoff Larson. "This obviously wreaked havoc on distributors."

Increased demand forced Alaskan Brewing Co. to consider expanding existing facilities. It is now in the process of doubling the size of its current operating facilities and increasing its full-time working staff from 16 to 30. With the acquisition of three new 6,500-gallon fermentation tanks, production is expected to rise from 7,000 barrels (or 217,000 gallons) in 1992 to 12,000 barrels in 1993. This expansion should be large enough to supply the company's retailers.

Marcy Larson says, "We're just simple folks. We just try to grow and leave our options for the future open."

Bird Creek Brewery: A Local Favorite.

Anchorage-based Bird Creek Brewery, producing its own version of pale ale labeled "Old 55," was established by Ike Kelly in December 1991. The brewery is named Bird Creek because the town of Bird Creek has been the long-time home of Kelly and his family. Kelly says the "Old 55" label was used because it was the year he and brewmaster Ray Hodge were born.

Bird Creek's brewing facilities are not the most modern, but Kelly insists on creating a first-rate beer. "All of the work is done by hand," he says. "The bottles are capped by our staff along with the labels for the bottles and the cartons. 'Old 55' is not pasteurized. We compare our beer to Sierra Nevada Brewery's pale ale."

Kelly mortgaged his house in 1991 to raise the money to begin brewing. He has invested over $100,000 and lots of time and work towards the production goal of 800 barrels (31 gallons to a barrel) for 1993. In Bird Creek's first year, the brewery produced 400 barrels.

Brewmaster Hodge learned how to brew beer in Homer, where he was involved in home-brewing contests. These beer-comparison jousts enabled him to perfect his recipes and develop new brewing styles.

Hodge and his crew -- including Kelly, sometimes Kelly's wife Mary, and five workers -- turn out 200 cases in four hours -- one work day.

Kelly says he hopes to open 20 new accounts this year. He also wants to break into the Pacific Northwest as well as the Japanese market. "Brewed in Alaska" has been recently added to the company's logo to prepare for the move to Outside markets.

"We are growing so fast that last summer was the fastest summer of my life," says Kelly. "This summer will probably be more of the same. We'll be pretty busy turning out orders to keep up with the demand."

"Old 55" was recently featured in an episode of "Northern Exposure." Kelly says the brewery sent the producers capped bottles of colored water for the show's characters to drink during a bar scene, and there was also a Bird Creek neon sign. Kelly feels the popularity of things Alaskan may help his beer to get more recognition.

Other modern breweries like Yukon Gold and Prince Brau have folded due to poor sales and inadequate marketing, but Alaskan Brewing Co. and Bird Creek Brewery have discovered the secret for success with today's style-conscience consumer. Go with the trend and change with the times -- it's quality that counts. It also doesn't hurt to be from Alaska, when all the world is thirsty for the taste of the "Last Frontier."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Musgrove, Michael
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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