Alaska is often referred to as the Last Frontier, and for good reason. Our northernmost state is not only far removed from the rest of the United States, it is also our most unspoiled state in terms of human development, with much of it still in its primitive, natural form. For this reason, we don’t often associate Alaska with major industries, but one business that is growing and thriving in the capital city of Juneau is Alaskan Brewing Company. This brewing operation was founded in 1986 and it continues to wow consumers with its delicious malt beverages and attention to detail.
Alaskan Brewing products just recently entered the Houston market and they have had a noticeable impact on the craft beer scene as Houstonians sample Alaskan Brewing White Ale, Amber, IPA, and others for the first time and discover their distinct taste and quality. I had the chance to converse with some Alaskan Brewing personell, one of whom spends his days combining ingredients, pitching yeast, and otherwise assuring that Alaskan Brewing is able to meet consumer demands and maintain its high level of quality. His name is Mike King, and he offered up some insightful responses to questions related to his brewery and the business of beer in general:
1. Craft beer continues to gain popularity and the number of breweries and brewpubs continue to increase. What do you see happening to craft beer over the next few years in terms of growth? What obstacles, if any, will need to be overcome? I think that the current growing popularity of craft beer revolves around the idea that the definition of “beer” is changing dramatically. People are realizing that what they used to think of as simply a refreshing beverage has now become an affordable luxury, a portion of something special to be shared with friends over a nice meal or conversation. This redefinition of beer’s taste and flavor identity I see continuing to grow. As for obstacles? Our main obstacle is keeping up with the demand.
2. Large brewers like Anheuser- Busch, Miller, Coors, and others continue to dominate the market, even though their total share has fallen. How will their size and influence affect the craft beer industry in the coming years? To be honest, I am more focused on brewing our beer the best we know how. I’ll leave the industry projections to the experts.
3. The number of craft breweries in the United States is approaching 2,000. With so many breweries and so many options, how does a craft brewer distinguish itself from its competition? I think a craft brewery distinguishes itself through flavor and identity. Geoff and Marcy Larson started establishing Alaskan’s identity over 25 years ago by brewing with local flavors of Alaska in a remote Southeast Alaska town. We stay true to that identity by continuing to use inspiration from our home in our products and operation.
4. What, specifically, has Alaskan Brewing done to make its products stand out in the craft beer crowd? I think Alaskan offers our consumers a small “taste” of our indigenous heritage through either historical recipes or brewing with local identifiable ingredients, from handpicked spruce tips to pure varietal fireweed honey.
5. What brought you to Alaskan Brewing? What do you like best about the art of brewing craft beer? It’s a funny story really or, as Bob Dylan would say, it was “a simple twist of fate”. I grew up in Southern California, but always felt drawn away and “hemmed in” by the big city. I came across a flyer for cannery work in Southeast Alaska during the summer as a seasonal job with lots of income potential. Without looking, I jumped straight in and took the inter-island ferry from Bellingham, WA to Petersburg AK, a three day journey spent in a sleeping bag on a lawn chair tied into the upper deck of the vessel. I worked as a “slimer” or salmon processor and then to vessel offloading 20 hours a day 7 days a week for the whole summer. During this time, by some miracle I managed to acquire a job as a deckhand and cook aboard a halibut long liner, and thus began my adventures in life as a commercial fisherman. Through my fishing travels mining out the briny deep, each time celebrating a successful voyage with a trip to the local bar at our port of destination, I became very familiar with Alaskan’s products, especially the Amber (still my favorite to this day). While delivering a load of halibut and sablefish to a local cannery and smokehouse in Juneau one spring, I saw an ad in the local paper for a job opening at the brewery, and immediately applied. The brewery called my skipper’s cell phone and I had my first interview during a meal break while on a halibut trip off the coast of Southeast Alaska. Luckily, I was offered a job as a packager and I leapt at the opportunity. The rest, as they say, is history. Now here I am 10 years later living the dream and a blessed life at that. I have the unique opportunity to professionally brew some of the world’s best craft beer and make a living doing so in the most beautiful place on earth.
As for what I love most about the art of brewing craft beer, it is the challenge to achieve consistent perfection while navigating through the hurdles of variability. This could be anything from diversity of raw material sourcing, increasing efficiency, the science itself of fermentation, to something as simple as a bent hose clamp. This challenge excites me, the process itself, the science, the manual labor. Thinking of this integration while being able to see, touch, and taste the finished product of those efforts AND being able to share them is amazing and very fulfilling.
6. Some states have unusual and often bizarre laws on the books restricting beer and craft breweries. Does Alaska have any such laws? Again, to be honest, I am not very familiar with Alaska state laws regarding alcohol and brewing.
7. In what U.S. states are Alaskan Brewing products currently sold? Is there a plan in place to expand to more states? Our products can be found in varying degrees in a number of states in the west, including AK, AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA & WY. We are slowly expanding to the Midwest (MN, WI, ND) and southwest, including Texas of course, and potentially New Mexico and South Dakota.
8. What special challenges does Alaskan Brewing face as it brews beer in its home state and then markets to the rest of the United States, all of which is very far from the home base? How is the company prepared to meet those challenges? By having to ship all of our raw materials in, and then turn around and ship our finished product out, innovation and sustainable thinking has taught us the looking beyond the traditional can lead to a better way of making beer. While operating costs rise; instead of sacrificing quality or consistency in our beer, at Alaskan we have found more innovative and efficient ways to maintain our growth. Since 1998, we have been reclaiming, compressing and storing our CO2 from fermentation. This means that we don’t have to purchase CO2 derived from fossil fuels. Also with the installation and integration of our Meura mash filter press, we can produce the same quality and quantity of beer with 6% less malt (barley), and last year alone used over one million fewer gallons of water then we would have used with a traditional lauter tun. More recently, we are integrating a spent grain biomass steam boiler that we will use to generate steam from our own raw material byproduct (spent grains). The steam generated will be used as process steam to heat our brewing vessels, and will significantly reduce our diesel fuel usage (natural gas is not available in our area of Alaska). We are also lucky enough to live in a town where 98% of our electricity is hydro-powered. Being remote has its challenges but we are on our way to closing the loop on materials and energy use and minimizing our carbon footprint while continuing to produce award-winning craft beer!
9. Alaskan Brewing already produces a nice, diverse lineup of products. Are there any plans to expand the products further and venture into extreme beer or some other market niche? We are constantly evolving through our recipe development programs. The process by which we derive new recipes is unique. I’d like to think of our beer lineup as “familial” through the fact that anyone interested from any department can team up with a brewer to share in the creativity and learn the brewing process by brewing an original recipe on our 1 bbl system. These 1 bbl “fun beers” stay in the brewery and are shared amongst our staff in our break room. Some very special beers have come from this process. The best of these beers can grow into a larger scale product that is shared locally, and we fondly refer to them as a “Rough Drafts.” These are generally around 10-30 bbls. It’s awesome how many of our award winning beers started this way. From a “Rough Draft” who knows where a beer may go; it could become an annual 12oz product, to one of our very limited “Pilot Series” releases. We’ll keep experimenting and sharing the best beers we come up with.
10. Winning awards is always rewarding for a brewer. Which Alaskan Brewing products have received awards and/or achieved some significant level of recognition? Although Alaskan has been awarded numerous awards and recognition, the most recognized is our Alaskan Smoked Porter. We are proud to say that it has earned the honor of being the most award-winning craft beer in GABF history. Beyond this, Smoked Porter has won a number of international awards, at the World Beer Cup, and the European Beer Star Awards and beyond. Rewarding? Yes of course, but more than this I have particular pride in being part of such a complex product and the unique EXPERIENCE that our Smoked Porter provides. Each vintage being its own living soul, changing through the years and bringing a unique experience to the consumer as years pass by. Today your bottle of 1998 smoked porter can be enjoyed, shared and experienced as what it is at that moment in time, and yet two years from now it can become something surprisingly different but equally delicious. A moment in time, all bottled up waiting to be opened and interpreted uniquely by each consumer.
Alaskan Brewing is certainly a business with a strong plan and solid outlook. The beer products speak for themselves and anyone who has sampled Alaskan Brewing beer will tell you that the beer has a taste and distinction all its own. This is particularly true of Alaskan Smoked Porter, but it holds true for other beer products as well.
Alaska may be known as the Last Frontier, but Alaskan Brewing has shown that modernity has not entirely escaped our largest state. This forward- thinking brewery is a company on the move and with its award- winning portfolio of beers and millions of satisfied consumers, it is well on its way to becoming a household name. Look for Alaskan Brewing products in a store or restaurant near you and enjoy the great taste of beer from this growing operation.
Article orginally posted at Examiner.com