Beginning in the 1970s, the seeds of coffee culture in Alaska were planted. They took root in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and today have blossomed into a full-fledged mania. From Ketchikan and Juneau to Anchorage and Fairbanks, local roasters satisfy the discriminating tastes of Alaska’s coffee drinkers. Because even in the face of a pandemic, everybody still needs a good cup of Joe.
The reason for coffee’s popularity in Alaska is easy to understand, according to Amy Knight, President and CEO of Heritage Coffee Roasting Company. “The climate in Alaska is probably the greatest contributing factor to our state’s obsession with coffee. With cold, dark winters stretching out for nearly half the year, it is only natural for Alaskans to seek out comfort in a hot caffeinated treat to keep them going.” Knight should know: Heritage is one of Alaska’s true coffee pioneers, with a history that dates back to 1974. The company operates seven retail locations in Juneau, and its coffee is served in hundreds of hotels, coffee shops, and restaurants throughout the state.
The arrival of coffee culture in Alaska was a natural outgrowth of developments in the Pacific Northwest, adds Michele Parkhurst, Vice President of Development for Kaladi Brothers Coffee. Kaladi has grown from a single cart in 1984—the first espresso cart in Alaska—to a chain of 17 locations in Anchorage, Soldotna, Wasilla, and Seattle. “The popularity for coffee up here steadily followed the trends that were taking place in Seattle a few decades ago with the birth of Starbucks and really took off in the 1980s here in Alaska, when we started opening up cafes and creating spaces in the community where people could meet. Ultimately, I think both here and across the world, coffee has become so popular because it has the ability to create an inviting community space where people can be brought together to connect and socialize.”
Community is the glue
Community is what binds Alaska’s coffee lovers, agrees Judy Burkhart, COO of Raven’s Brew Coffee, which began in a Ketchikan garage in 1992 and is distributed statewide and in the Lower 48. “I believe that coffee creates community all on its own. It’s part of the reason we like it so much. When we’re interviewing folks who are thinking of joining our little crew, one of the questions we often ask is: What do you like best about coffee? We only want true coffee enthusiasts to work at Raven’s Brew! Nearly everyone includes something about community in their response. Coffee brings people together, lifts our spirits, and gives us energy to face the day.”
This dynamic is on full display at the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company in Fairbanks (there’s another location in Miami), which, in addition to coffee, features a full bakery producing made-from-scratch pastries and pizzas. “Coffee is the linchpin, but we’re not just a cafe—we’re a lot of different elements at the end of the day,” says owner Michael Gesser, who opened the cafe in 1994. “Both our cafes are pretty vibrant,” he reports, even amidst the pandemic. “Cafes are about people and interacting with people. That’s a good formula.”
Beans are critical
When coffee is front and center, not just any beans will do. Globally sourced and organically grown whenever possible, beans are picked at the peak of ripeness and shipped while still green. “We have direct trade relationships with many of the farms we have been working with for decades,” Knight says, “and we make it a priority to only purchase specialty grade green beans from farms that follow strict traceability standards, focus on sustainable farming practices, and provide a healthy working environment for their employees at every level of the process.” Occasionally, she adds, Heritage representatives will travel to the source farms—both as a reward for long-term employees and to make sure these standards are being upheld.
To extend their reach, some roasters have gone beyond traditional channels. Alaska Coffee Roasting has branched out into the world of big-time motorsports, sponsoring American race car driver Alexander Rossi, who won the Indy 500 in 2016. Raven’s Brew is known for the artwork by Alaskan artist Ray Troll that adorns not only its labels but t-shirts and other gear. Kaladi Brothers sends its signature red coffee truck to hundreds of public events around Anchorage each summer, serving free drinks to thousands of people.
And while the pandemic has put a damper on many in-person events, Alaska’s roasters have gotten creative in finding contactless ways to connect. Raven’s Brew has “leaned in to our online social media presence,” Burkhart says. “We’ve had great fun this year engaging with fans on Facebook and Instagram.” Kaladi is producing videos to bring its Barista Academy educational classes online, while Heritage has used Zoom to host virtual coffee tastings.
Of course, you don’t need to be in Alaska to enjoy a fresh cup of Alaskan-roasted gourmet coffee. Your favorite beans can be ordered online and enjoyed at home any time, wherever you are, and you, too, can be part of Alaska’s coffee community.