Alaskan Brewing Co.: Influenced by Climate and Traditions

The capital of Alaska, Juneau, resides at the base of 3,800-foot mountain peaks on a small strip of land on the waterfront of the Gastineau Channel. Between the ice fields and glaciers, Juneau houses Alaskan Brewing Co., the eighth-largest craft brewer and 19th overall brewing company, according to 2006 sales as tabulated by the Brewers Association.
This year, Alaskan Brewing expects to grow to nearly 120,000 barrels, up from the 106,000 barrels the company brewed in 2006, says Geoff Larson, founder, Alaskan’s brewmaster and co-owner along with his wife Marcy Larson. Next year, Alaskan Brewing expects to grow to 150,000 barrels.
While Juneau offers Alaskan Brewing water aged 10,000 years from snow, glacier and ice fields and the ease of natural cold fermentation, it also creates a logistical challenge. The town of 30,000 people is only accessible by air and sea, with no road connections.
“We’re in a city in the middle of the fifth-largest ice field in North America,” Geoff says. “We’re on a fjord. It’s picturesque. It’s beautiful. But we only get shipments to the plant once a week.”
One thing Alaskan Brewing embraced from the beginning was the need to plan very carefully, whether it was receiving raw materials or shipping products.
“Part of our success is passion,” Geoff says. “We love what we do, but I think grounding it with a little bit of reality is that we know we just can’t do it tomorrow. We have to make sure we have everything planned out.”
Celebrating its 21st year in business, the brewer knew since its founding that it wasn’t going to be producing beer just for its neighbors, but for long-range distances, Geoff says. From Juneau, Alaskan Brewing’s next largest markets are 800 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, and Seattle.
“We knew we had to make a beer that would be able to travel, would be consistent and would be good in either of those locations as well as here at home,” Geoff says. “That set the tone for how we were producing. We are very well known for our consistency and our dependability. When you grab a bottle of our beer you can count on what it’s going to taste like.”
Alaskan Brewing first met the distribution challenge of transporting to Anchorage and Seattle, and expanded continuously down the Pacific Coast in a pattern that helped them efficiently handle freight costs, Marcy says.
The brewer now distributes in nine states, including Alaska, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Wyoming and its newest market, Arizona.
In addition to Alaska’s landscape, the state’s heritage has influenced the brewing of its eight beers. Educated as a chemical engineer, Geoff’s engineering background encouraged his investigation of flavors in his homebrewing. When the idea formulated to turn Geoff’s hobby into a profession, Marcy embarked on researching old breweries in Alaska. The couple found records from Douglas City Brewing Co., one of the five local breweries that existed before Prohibition in the Juneau and nearby Douglas Island area, dating from 1907 that inspired them to brew the company’s flagship Alaskan Amber.
“We were able to match the history, which we really love Alaska and its colorful history, and match that with the beers that we make,” Marcy says. “It’s a really good endeavor for us.”
With its cold-fermentation process, Alaskan Amber takes longer to ferment than a traditional ale would, which makes it smoother than most ales, Geoff says. “It’s almost a lager of ales,” he says.
And the Amber is clearly influenced by its environment. “Cold fermentation is a heck of a lot easier up here in Alaska than it is anywhere else,” Marcy explains. “It’s natural.”
The introduction of the Alaskan Amber into the Seattle market as well as its first medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1987 really helped the brewery grow. Alaskan Brewing added Alaskan Pale Ale the next year.
Also directly influenced by its Alaskan environment, the brewer’s lineup includes the award-winning Alaskan Smoked Porter, a dark beer inspired by the smoky nature of foods and brewing of more than 200 years ago. Prior to brewing, selected malts are smoked in small batches under controlled conditions in a commercial food smoker using local alder wood. History also roused the creation of Alaskan Winter Ale, which is brewed in the style of an English old ale, and balances the sweet heady aroma of Sitka spruce tips and hops.
This year, Alaskan Brewing launched its first beer since 2002 with the introduction of Alaskan IPA. The India Pale Ale was created in a series of R&D batches, which in this case stands for rough draft batches, for its mini test market of Juneau. Alaskan Brewing encourages employees from different departments to collaborate to investigate certain beer styles.
“We will start the investigation on a one-barrel level and go up to 10 barrels, and it might go up to 100 barrels,” Geoff says. “Rough draft really became the precursor of the testing grounds for products that may become commercially available year-round, and IPA was one of those.”
Alaskan IPA’s label takes it cues from a surfing culture of Yakutat, Alaska. One percent of proceeds from Alaskan IPA will go to improve the health of the Pacific Ocean and coastlines in an initiative called the Coastal CODE (Clean Oceans Depend on Everyone).
Alaskan Brewing rounds out its lineup with Alaskan Stout, ESB and Summer Ale. “The lineup we have can appeal to the people who are interested in some of the more esoteric styles to people who are for the first time venturing into the craft category and wanting to try a product,” Geoff says.
Because the logistics of transportation to the lower 48 states creates a large financial hurdle for the company and wholesalers, Alaskan Brewing ales fall on the high end of the craft beer category.
“The wholesaler needs to have a comfort level with that and understand the story,” Geoff says.
With the craft beer category continuing its upward trend, the Larsons see it as a sign that consumers are eager to venture outside traditional brands.
“For $1 or $2 more a six-pack, they can buy a world-class beverage,” Geoff says. “And it has an amazing spectrum of flavors that maybe isn’t what people would have expected. The consumer can’t say that with wine; can’t say that in spirits … The long term is extremely exciting for the category.”