Story last updated at 6/19/2014 - 2:31 pm
Anchorage Brewing Company's Gabe Fletcher rocked the beer world in 2010 when he started creating all-oak fermented, all-oak aged and all-brettanomyces-infused high-end beers in a space in the Snow Goose Restaurant complex and underneath the Sleeping Lady Brewing Company.
With a rock-solid global beer reputation thanks to 13 years at Midnight Sun Brewing Company - and some out-of-the-box business savvy - Fletcher was poised for success. Before he had a firm business plan, a place to brew or any equipment to brew with, global beer distributor Shelton Brothers told Fletcher, "we'll buy anything and everything you make and we'll distribute it globally."
Breweries with 10 times the tenure and 10 times the stature only dream of such an arrangement.
Fletcher came up with a plan to use the Sleeping Lady Brewing Company Brewery on 3rd Street in Anchorage to make his beer, then gravity feed it through the floor to a downstairs fermentation area where hungry oak casks of various shapes and sizes waited.
It was then inoculated with yeast and special strains of a weird "bug" called brettanomyces to add a unique flavor. The beers snoozed in oak, then were used to fill high-end cork and bail bottles. The arrangement worked out great.
Fletcher's plans called for brewing a leisurely six batches of beer every year. Fletcher felt this was sustaining and fitting with what he hoped would be a more laid-back lifestyle. It's funny how success gets in the way.
Fletcher fired up the brewkettle again and again, and it wasn't long before he was procuring new oak barrels by the truckload and found he was running out of space. So much for six batches a year.
I've learned a lot of oak techno-jargon from Fletcher since he started filling barrels four years ago. For example, a foudre is a very large oak tank. In comparison, a standard oak barrel holds about 59 gallons of liquid.
Doing the math, a foudre holds between 1,860 gallons and 3,410 gallons. Fletcher's got a whole bunch of them. He's also got a number of puncheons - which hold about 119 gallons. He's got gobs of those too. Last year, he brought in two 110-barrel oak tanks, two 50-barrel foudres and four 60-barrel foudres.
Oak barrels are "expensive" in terms of space. Although the smaller standard barrels and puncheons are stacked on top of each other in special racks, the foudres are standalone. In particular, the 110-barrel foudres are cylindrical and tall, so they can't fit in the main brewery on 3rd Street.
To get around this, Fletcher secured some nearby warehouse space, then even more space in a location off Arctic Boulevard. This turned out to be a short-term fix and Fletcher found himself out of space again.
I chided Fletcher about his "six beers a year" plan. He laughed. "I think it's still a viable plan, but I think I would get bored with just six beers a year," he said.
Staying in the 3rd Street location forever was never part of his plan.
Although I've known about Fletcher's plans to build his own brewery for quite some time, I was sworn to secrecy. Now that ground is being broken in south Anchorage on King Street, a robust, rapidly growing area, I've been told I can tell the world. I'm pretty darned excited about the world-class facility Fletcher's designed.
"Of course it was always the plan; I couldn't stay at the Snow Goose forever. I just wasn't sure when it was going to happen," he said.
The timing is right now. "I'm working with an incredible property owner who's also the general contractor. He has his own construction business and he's had this land for a long time and is finally ready to put some buildings on it. He's ready to start," Fletcher said.
Fletcher designed the space from the dirt up. "I designed it and specked everything out. It's going to be 7,800 feet with 26-foot ceilings, and a tasting room will be part of the brewery itself."
Fletcher plans to integrate a stylish tasting area in the same area where the massive oak tanks will sit. "All of the foudres will be in the tasting room. We'll have a beer garden with a big roll-up glass door connected to the tasting room with great southern exposure," he said.
A new brewhouse is in order, too. One of the slick moves Fletcher pulled off when he got started was using the graciousness of the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company to brew his beer. This way, Fletcher didn't need the cash outlay for a brewing system of his own. "Owner Gary Klopfer was incredibly good to me. He went out on a limb. It's not every day you can walk into someone's brewery and say, 'can I use your brewhouse to make my beer?'"
Before Fletcher broke the news of the plans to move, he made him a special beer called Thank You that puts a brettanomyces twist on Klopfer's favorite style: a German hefeweizen. "He's totally supportive. He's told me there's no rush to get out of there and to just get the project done and keep brewing here until you're ready," he said.
Now that Fletcher needs his own equipment, he's sparing no expense. "The new brewhouse is made by Newlands of Canada. It's a really nice system; it has all the bells and whistles including a push-button mash-out," he said.
One of the most laborious parts of brewing is getting the spent (used) grain out of one of the mash tun. This typically involves hand-shoveling wet, messy sticky grain out of a small opening in the bottom of a tank. It's then typically put in totes and donated to farmers that pick it up for animal feed.
Fletcher is taking a short cut. "Automated rakes in the bottom of the tank push the stuff to waiting pumps and the stuff goes right outside for me. I don't even have to touch it. I'm trying to think of ways to make the job easier and less labor-intensive," Fletcher said.
Despite the addition of a special storage house that will hold up to 700 oak barrels, Fletcher's plans don't include making more beer. "Once we get in there, we're not going to really boost our production. I don't want to start hiring a bunch of people; I want to stay with a 2-3 man crew," he said.
Fletcher's tight business plan has always kept overhead - especially labor - to a minimum.
Don't fire up the jalopy and run down to King Street just yet. "We hope to be moving ... to have the building up by September. It's a big step with a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of stuff going on," Fletcher said. "We hope to be pushing beer across the bar by November."
Instead, plan on attending the July 2 special tapping of Thank You at the Snow Goose Restaurant at 7 p.m. to celebrate Fletcher's success and thank Klopfer for his support.
If you've had Fletcher's beer and you're as smitten as I am, you're probably just as excited to see this plan come to fruition. With the wonderful lineup I expect to see, Fletcher's going to be brewing more than six beers a year. With success like this, I know he's looking forward, not back.