Story last updated at 7/13/2010 - 3:51 pm
SITKA - Walk into Sitka's Baranof Island Brewing Company on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and you will find a lot of people excited about beer. Stop in on a rainy Friday and you will meet even more. Wait until Saturday to drop by, and you might be out of luck.
With a half-barrel brewing system and an eager response from the people of Sitka, brewer Sam Scotchmer can't keep up with demand.
"We can brew two batches a day, ten gallons each, but it's not enough," he said. "Eighty gallons a week goes pretty fast."
This is more impressive considering the company hasn't run any advertisements or even had their grand opening (it's planned for July 31). Locals keep updated on news and beer availability through the brewery's Facebook page. "It's insane," said owner Suzan Hess. "Social networking has changed the world."
Fortunate for both the brewers and consumers, Hess and co-owner Rick Armstrong expect delivery this week of equipment to upgrade to a one and three-quarter-barrel system. This will allow Scotchmer to produce bigger batches with close to the same amount of effort.
Armstrong and Hess dreamt of starting a brewery since they bought the building, then a combination of storage and apartment units, in 2006. The couple said they loved visiting microbreweries when they traveled, naming the Haines Brewing Company and the Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence, Kansas (Hess's home state) as two of their favorites.
This spring, after a year and a half of applying for permits and licenses and with construction completed, they were ready to hire a brewer. Amid 30 applications from website www.probrewer.com, they found Scotchmer.
"His really stuck out," said Hess. In addition to home brewing since age 18, Scotchmer worked as head brewer at the Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg for a year and a half.
"He worked at a brewery there that was a startup," Armstrong said. "He brewed beer all day and ran the tap room by himself - basically exactly what we're doing here."
They interviewed Scotchmer by phone as he was working in South America. Once hired, he arrived in Sitka with free rein to brew. "It was a little bit intimidating," Scotchmer said, "but I think it's going all right."
Sitkans appear to agree, routinely clearing out the stock of his six current brews: Lord Baranov's Dark Ale, Peril Strait Pale Ale, Redoubt Red Ale, Baranof Brown Ale, Halibut Point Hefeweizen and Silver Bay IPA (the latter named by a group of girls, employed by Silver Bay Seafoods, who came beer tasting).
"It's a problem running out of beer," said Hess, "but it's a good problem to have." And it wasn't unexpected. "We wanted to start small and manageable ... and make sure it's something we can keep going."
"We couldn't start any smaller," added Armstrong. Self-described on their website (baranofislandbrewing.com) as "possibly Alaska's smallest brewery" and among friends as a "nanobrewery" working its way up to a microbrewery, Hess and Armstrong have left themselves room to grow.
The owners also work to maintain a Sitka focus, utilizing local tradespeople, taking their spent grain to a community compost site and recently donating kegs to a Longline Association fundraiser for the Sitka Sound Science Center.
"It's been this local collaborative effort to really get microbrew off the ground, said Hess. "And it's the locals that will support it and really make it work."
As building owners, Armstrong and Hess are able to expand the space as business grows. They also hope to have enough beer surplus soon to start supplying taps around town.
"The Larkspur [Café] has been asking since day one," said Armstrong. "They'll be the first ones when we can keep up here."
For now, people will keep filling their half-gallon growlers and drinking pints at the tap room on Smith Street.
Perhaps most essential to the success of the business, according to Hess, "Sitkans love their beer."
Cheers to that.
Jessie M. Waddell is a freelance writer (and beer lover) based in Sitka. To read more or contact her, please visit http://starboardport.com.