Alaskan Brewing Company

Born, raised and currently living in Juneau, Alaska, I guess it makes sense that my first real post would be about the only local brewery in town. Alaskan Brewing has been instrumental to the growth of the community and local economy not only because of the people they employ but for the businesses that have grown around them (particularly shipping), their support and sponsorship of local arts and activities, the money they help raise for various local charities and non-profit organizations, and their environmental stewardship through programs such as Coastal Code.

 In celebration of their 25th Anniversary, they opened the doors to the general public Dec. 15 for the rare chance to go beyond the tasting room and tour inside the brewhouse. Besides a yearly two week shutdown each December, the brewery operates around the clock so they don’t often provide a full tour that allows you to peek beyond a few glass windows. I acquired some time off work and rushed over to the brewery to secure my spot on the first tour of the night. With some time to kill before myself and the first wave of ten got to enter, I tried a sample of the barley wine (samples are free) which was good, but I was really hoping for a sample of the new beer I heard they were releasing soon.

Anyway, short digression, local history lesson. For the most part, Juneau has only been notable for two things: mining and the capital of that state 1/3 the size of Texas in the left corner of the map (next to Hawaii) whose city name you had to memorize in elementary school. In 1880, led by a Tlingit Chief, two men (Harris and Juneau) found what sparked the first gold rush in Alaska. Eventually Juneau became the main hub as thousands flocked to Southeast Alaska in search of gold and steady work in the mines. Nearby Sitka became less important and Juneau replaced it as capital. At the turn of the century the Juneau-Douglas area had five breweries (the state had around 50 I believe) and even had two cigar manufacturers. One brewery in particular was the Douglas City Brewing Company whose Czech brewmaster crafted an ale fermented on the colder side with prized Saaz hops that was popular with the miners who wanted a flavorful beer after a long, hard day at work. Prohibition destroyed Alaska’s brewing heritage (Alaska actually went dry a couple years before the nation) and after repeal a few breweries over the years attempted to operate but none lasted very long.

In the early 1980’s, 100 years after the beginning of the Gold Rush, the state and local economy were in recession and Geoff Larson lost his job when the gold mine he worked at as a Chemical Engineer closed. Many people couldn’t find work and were walking away from homes (I grew up in one someone walked away from) or moving out of town to find work, but Geoff, with the support of his employed wife, Marcy, decided to take his passion for homebrewing to the commercial level. With the help of information they gathered from the historical society, they began diving into Juneau’s past and decided they wanted to recreate that popular beer produced by Douglas City. Within a couple years with a little luck and 88 lucky investors, they built a 10 barrel brewery and reproduced that beer in December 1986 which became Chinook Alaskan‘s flagship beer, Amber, becoming the first brewery in Juneau since prohibition and the only one operating in Alaska at the time. They later dropped Chinook from the title becoming simply Alaskan as trademark issues arose when looking to distribute to Washington. You occasionally see a few proud beer drinkers sporting the old Chinook shirts around town today. Inspired by history, they’ve made several beers whose inspiration has come from Alaska. If you’re interested in hearing more about that, check out this audio presentation by Geoff Larson at the Great American Beer Festival recorded by The Brewing Network.

The tour started with that original 10bbl brewhouse which now is used for experimental beers such as those in the Rough Draft Series. These beers are offered locally and to various accounts in Alaska and sometimes the lower 48 states to gauge reception for future releases and give beer drinkers something new to try.

Opposite the 10 barrel setup is a 1 barrel pilot system installed in 2000 used to test and tweak experiments before stepping it up to the 10bbl batches. The tour guide explained that with this setup they try to get everyone involved in the brewing process. From HR and gift shop employees, to sales, mechanics, packagers, etc., everyone gets a chance to brew a beer they help design which goes on tap in the break room. Many of the beers that have been added in the regular lineup are the result of beers created by those not employed as brewers.

And across the hallway, the original fermentors.

From there we walked upstairs to where the current full production brewhouse is. The 100 barrel system was installed in 1995 alleviating much of the brewery’s growing pains. To keep up with demand, some weeks they had been brewing up to 6 times a day with a record of 42 in a week!

Since there are no farms in Juneau to unload the grain off on for cattle feed like most breweries, spent grain had to be shipped down to Washington. Due to it’s wet nature and propensity to mold, it must be dried first. Out of necessity they built and use the only self sustaining grain drier in the country which runs off 50% of their spent grain, which I also understood some of the byproduct energy is using to power their steam jacketed brewhouse. Personally I wish they would revive Juneau’s historic dairy industry and produce some nice cheese to compliment their beer with some of that, but yeah, I know, that’s probably not very feasible. Maybe you, good reader, should do that.

To further increase efficiency a few years ago they became the first craft brewer to install a mash filter press.

After 8 months of testing and tweaking they felt comfortable using it for full production and decommissioned the lauter tun. Unlike a traditional setup with a lauter tun which separates the liquid wort leaving behind spent grain by using a false bottom with slots to drain through, the mash filter press squeezes the liquid wort out of the grain through a series of bladders. This not only allows them to use 6% less malt and use less hops, but they save over 1 million gallons of water per year and over 65,000 gallons of diesel. To top it all off, they’re able to produce a larger amount of beer per batch. The spent grain also comes out drier, allowing less energy to dry. In November, the USDA gave Alaskan Brewing a grant for nearly a half million dollars to finance a quarter of the production costs for a steam boiler that will power the brewhouse entirely off spent grain. Apparently this would reduce the brewery’s usage of diesel by 80%!

We then walked past the heat exchanger which cools the hot wort before fermentation. They run it around 100 gallons/minute… Alaskan has been looking for a new site for the brewery as they have been running out of space and they fear with more big companies coming in from down south the real estate will dry up when the time to expand comes.  They would actually like to get a spot next to the water so they can just directly pump cool water in for chilling.

And then the fermentation alley. I think she said they have 26 fermentors, but don’t quote me on that. Sizes range from 10bbl to newer 1300bbl tanks. Many are outdoors so they have to be heated with glycol to keep the fermentation temp stable as opposed to most breweries who have to cool the fermentations.

Each fermentor in the hallway has a nifty little access panel.

 Alaskan was also the first craft brewery to install a CO2 reclamation system until Sierra Nevada did so a decade later in 2008. Due to reliability issues getting carbon dioxide gas shipped into town, they decided to build a recovery system that captures carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of fermentation, scrubs it clean for use downstream in the packaging process to purge bottles and kegs of oxygen.

We then made our way towards the packaging area, the only area that was running that day.

Hey, what’s that?

A little Q&A among the packaging tanks and we were set free into the gift shop for more free beer samples.

I asked the bartender why they weren’t pouring the new beer and he said they had too many wintery specialty beers on right now (Smoked Porter, Barley Wine, Winter Ale) so they were going to wait a little bit. I decided to go with the Winter Ale for my next sample since I hadn’t had any yet this year. Barkeep said many around the brewery think it’s the best one they’ve made in 5 or more years… I don’t know if there was some placebo like effect going on, but I’m inclined to agree, at least that batch that was tapped. Tasted a lot better than I recall having at the bar last year. I decided to snag one more sample (IPA) before hitting the road as it was starting to get packed with everyone looking for a tour.

So I guess you’re wondering what that new beer is… well, by now I’m sure you’ve heard about it:

 

Black IPA. They released an Double version last year as part of the Pilot Series at around 8.5% ABV, but this is a new Spring Seasonal beer about 2% lower in alcohol and uses Calypso hops in the dry hop in addition to the Cascade/Centennial combo of old. It comes out on Jan. 1st (though you can now try samples and buy six packs at the brewery, released early in time for Winter Solstice) so I’m not sure why it’s a spring beer, but that’s just me. You can view a scan of the label here. I don’t know if the label is a nod to Romeo, a lone black wolf that hung out near the Mendenhall Glacier and was illegally hunted last year, but it’s a nice label.

It’s hard to relay the importance the brewery is to the community and it’s pretty amazing how far they’ve come over time. It’s even more amazing when you look at the odds against them like that there are no roads out of Juneau so everything must be flown or ferried in and out, the highest excise taxes in the country, and the limited population from which they got their start. Of the top 50 producing breweries in the country, Milton, Delaware (Dogfish Head – Fun fact: Juneau is larger in area than the state of Delaware) and Galesburg, Michigan (Bell’s) might be smaller towns, but the surrounding areas are several times larger Juneau (even the entire Southeastern Alaska) and they have easier access to other markets (the closest city with a population over 30,000 is nearly 1,000 miles away).  Alaskan has grown from one beer and 1500 barrels in 1987 brewery into the 12th largest craft brewery in the country with over 117,000 barrels last year in 12 states (New Mexico and Texas coming in 2012!) and over 12 beers throughout the year by innovation, ingenuity, perseverance and most importantly, high quality beer.

They’ve made Juneau notable for a third thing, to which everyone here is grateful. Here’s to another 25 years!

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