Years ago while visiting friends in Talkeetna, they suggested we get dinner at a new brewpub in town. The food and the beer were both outstanding, they promised me. They were right.
Fast forward a decade, and Talkeetna’s Denali Brewing Company is now one of the most successful breweries in Alaska. Their beers can be found on tap and in package stores across the state. But, cofounder and owner Sassan Mossanen told me, it all started with a sense of community, a value still central to his business model. “I think every town should have a butcher, a baker, a brewer, and a building supply store,” Mossanen said. “I call them the Bs of a community.”
Mossanen’s brewery is one of the most prominent in Alaska, but it’s part of a larger trend. Over the past two decades, craft breweries have been popping up in many of the state’s smaller towns, often seeking to do nothing more than serve local customers and whoever happens to be passing through.
“I call it the bakery model,” Ben Millstein said, echoing Mossanen. Just as the local bakery is making bread for the community, not for wider distribution, he explained, many of Alaska’s breweries are following the same principle.
Millstein, who opened Kodiak Island Brewing Company in 2003, told me, “The idea is, you’re not trying to capture business from all over the state, or the world, or the country, or something. Just the local community.”
A craft beer boom in Alaska
In 1990, I wandered up to Alaska thinking it was just for a summer. I’d spent the previous three years in Seattle, at the time the epicenter of what was then known as microbrewing, beers crafted in small batches intended to taste good rather than just deliver a shot of alcohol. At the time, finding decent beer wasn’t easy. Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company was the only serious contender in the state, and often the only microbrew found on tap or in shops.
As the decade progressed and I settled into Alaska for the long haul, a number of new breweries opened, but the market for their products seemed limited, and several disappeared as quickly as I learned of them.
Then, around the turn of the millennium, craft breweries suddenly exploded across the landscape. Anchorage led the revolution. During the aughts, so many new breweries arrived on the scene that visitors could be forgiven for thinking beer was the city’s primary manufacturing product. And the beers are good.
“I do feel there are some beers brewed in our state that are world class,” Anchorage’s Brian Hall said. Hall is a homebrewer who has spent most of his life in Alaska, with a few years Outside in the craft beer hub of Maine. Last winter he launched the Alaska Craft Beer Podcast, where he interviews Alaskan brewers. He told me Alaska’s beer renaissance stems from the do-it-yourself ethic that is gaining popularity nationwide, and has long characterized Alaskans. “I think this current generation is definitely in a maker phase,” Hall said. “People like being where things are created. And a brewery offers that for a beverage that a lot of people like to drink.”
Craft beer is a source of local pride
Bill Howell is author of Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun, a lively history of beer in the far north. He said the geographic isolation of Alaska and local pride shared between brewers and customers have helped fuel the popularity of small-town establishments. “People have their local breweries. They may drink other beer also, but they like and support their local stuff.”
Skagway Brewing Company is a name that figures prominently in Howell’s book. It was the name of a brewery that lasted from 1897 to 1902 during the Gold Rush boom in that tiny southeast Alaska town. At least one other brewer once operated under the name as well. But Mike Healy has been the one who turned it into an ongoing success. In 2007, Healy opened his doors with a restaurant and brewpub that has proven wildly popular. Asked why local breweries have taken off in Alaska, he speculated that, “Maybe it’s because a lot of these communities don’t have much else in the way of gathering spots. But the brewery seems to serve as that.”
Zach Henry, who launched St. Elias Brewing Company in the Kenai Peninsula town of Soldotna in 2008, agrees. He said that while tourist dollars are important, “The locals here, they’re our bread and butter.”
Henry, like other brewers, is deeply enmeshed in his community, frequently donating kegs and other means of support to local events and causes. It’s something that, one way or another, most of the local brewers do. Stephanie Haskins, one of the owners of Black Spruce Brewing Company in Fairbanks, said she and her two business partners made a conscious decision to support community activities and be involved with quality-of-life issues being debated in the town.
Haskins also hit on a key factor that both inhibits and enables local breweries. “Certainly it’s no mystery that conducting any sort of business in Alaska presents unique challenges compared to elsewhere in the world,” she said.
The hurdles of brewing in Alaska
Shipping costs to Alaska are high, and supply chains can be disrupted by stormy seas. This makes thoughts of expanding distribution out of state prohibitive for many brewers. Then there are convoluted alcohol distribution and licensing laws that were written before small breweries became popular, and that prevent some of them from selling beer anywhere but in-house.
Regulatory reform seems perpetually on the brink of passing the legislature, but never quite makes it, Howell said. But Skagway Brewing’s Healy noted that the things that keep breweries small also boost their local profiles. “I think a lot of these smaller communities take a lot of pride in the fact that they have a brewery in town.”
Like a lot of Alaskan craft breweries, Skagway incorporates local ingredients in specialty beers. Healy is especially proud of his Spruce Tip Blonde Ale, for which, he said, “We hand-pick hundreds of pounds of spruce tips every spring and early summer.”
That willingness to innovate is part of why craft brewers have done so well in Alaska, James Roberts said. “A lot of breweries are turning out upwards of two new beers a week.”
For 24 years, Roberts has written a weekly column in the Anchorage Press under the name Dr. Fermento, documenting what has become an almost dizzying array of choices Alaskan beer drinkers now find. “These are the things that bring people in,” Roberts said of the constant experimentation the state’s brewers have come to be known for. “Something that’s new, something that’s exciting. Because Alaskans live a very new, very quick, very robust, very adventurous lifestyle. Complacency doesn’t normally work.”
Complacency isn’t something Denali’s Mossanen falls into. “I’m the founder of the brewery, but I’m one of the cogs in the wheel,” he said, summarizing how he and other brewers view their roles as employers and community members. “The craft beer scene in Alaska is robust, it’s healthy, and it’s full of people that have a lot of integrity with regard to the quality of the product they put out.”