Story last updated at 4/30/2014 - 7:07 pm
Alaskan Brewing Company's humble beginning stretches as far back as 1986, when Geoff and Marci Larson - inspired by a dream of making local beer steeped in history and tradition - opened their humble brewery in the improbable location of Juneau.
Opening a brewery in the capital city involved more risk than it would have elsewhere in the state. There are fewer people in Juneau than Anchorage or Fairbanks, and sourcing raw materials for brewing came at a significantly higher cost. Other than water, none of the raw materials used in brewing are produced in Alaska.
Malt, hops, bottles, caps, packaging and everything else it takes to make beer wanders up here by boat or plane.
Against some pretty formidable odds, Alaskan became successful, not only because it makes great beer, but because Alaskan became a nurturing steward of the city and environment where the brewery is situated. Like most breweries in smaller communities, Alaskan became interwoven into the fabric of the community.
Success has come at a cost. The brewery is situated in an industrial area, and expansions over the years have created some interesting logistical challenges. There's not a whole lot of wide-open, suitable real estate for a bigger brewery.
Many of Alaska's smaller breweries ease growing pains by relocation. These breweries find a new location and either build or retrofit, then move the brewery to it. Not Alaskan.
I've always chuckled at Alaskan's particular situation because I describe its growth as akin to a double-wide mobile home where this attachment is bolted on to that attachment and this building is connected to that one in a seemingly hodgepodge fashion.
Alaskan's plant in Lemon Creek has slowly grown, bit by bit. When you're smashed up against a mountain in an area that's as much rain forest as anything else, your options are limited.
This type of expansion has come as Alaskan has become more successful and its beer is distributed in more states.
The brewery started out with a 10-barrel brewhouse. For perspective, 10 barrels is 310 gallons of beer. That represents the size of a batch of beer a brewery can make. (The standard keg you'd see at your typical frat house kegger is actually a half-barrel, or a 15.5-gallon keg.)
When Alaskan started, it could make 10 barrels of beer in a single brewing. Fast-forward to today, and you'll find Alaskan churning out beer from a 100-barrel brewhouse.
There's more to a brewery than how much it can brew at a time. It's not like the brewery cranks out 100 barrels, waits for it to all ferment out, condition and get packaged before starting another batch.
All manner of complicated stuff backs up the brewery's capacity, which makes a 10-fold expansion significant indeed.
All along the way, Alaskan hass expanded with sustainability in mind. In 1998, a C02 recovery system was installed that captures a natural byproduct of fermentation for re-use in the packaging process.
In 1995, Alaskan became the only craft brewery of its size in the United States with a system that uses spent grain from the brewing process to fire up a spent grain dryer to dry and stabilize waste grain for cattle feed in Washington state.
A state-of-the-art mash press was installed in 2008 to increase the efficiency of the brewing process and cut waste.
According to Alaskan's Andy Kline, "there were a number of expansions, all emanating from the original footprint. Going towards the back of our property, we have incrementally added tanks and grain silos. Working toward the east of our facility, we have added packaging and warehouse space."
Well, Alaskan's at it again. On April 17, Alaskan formally announced yet another expansion. South Dakota and Michigan will soon get Alaskan beer. According to Alaskan's sales operations manager Jon Blakely in a recent press release, "we've been working on getting into these states for quite a while now, and we couldn't be happier about our new distributor partners."
To meet the demand for new beer, Alaskan's two-phase expansion plan will connect two disparate buildings and make more room for both warehouse and production space. Eventually, a bigger retail space, gift shop and tasting room will be built.
There's more: Alaskan is finally getting into the canned beer business.
Alaskan's not the first brewery in the state to realize the benefits of beer wrapped in aluminum, but it's always been held back by lack of space. It's that old problem of just where to stuff a serpentine bottling line into an already crowded brewery.
The upcoming two-phase expansion will facilitate a full-blown canning line.
"With our small warehouse and the addition of a new can line, it's so tight in our packaging areas right now that we are only going to be able to produce a limited amount of cans and will only be putting out Alaskan Amber and Freeride APA for our local Alaska market to start with," said plant manager Curtis Holmes.
Once the first phase of construction is buttoned up, the canning line will be moved into the new building. With this increased breathing room, Alaskan will then be able to service all of its markets with canned products in the 17 states where Alaskan beer is available.
So, if you happen to be visiting the brewery, perhaps chasing down a growler of your favorite Alaskan Brewing Company suds or chasing down the Friday release of Alaskan's legendary Raspberry Wheat Ale (a month early and only in Alaska), and you have to wiggle around some construction-related stuff or hear the banging and clanging of construction, have a little patience.
Remember, growth is good, and trust as you've always been able to that Alaskan's doing it the right way and with the beer lover's best interests in mind.
James "Dr. Fermento" Roberts is a drinker with a writing problem and contributing columnist to the Capitol City Weekly, Anchorage Press and Celebrator Beer News. Fermento is also the executive director of the Alaska Brewer's Guild and welcomes your feedback and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.