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Tony Hand has held nearly every conceivable position at the Alaskan Brewery since 1988, his beer expertise formed through a keen sense of smell. A few weeks from retirement, he's still telling stories and expanding taste buds.
Last Call 091510 NEWS 1 For the Capital City Weekly Tony Hand has held nearly every conceivable position at the Alaskan Brewery since 1988, his beer expertise formed through a keen sense of smell. A few weeks from retirement, he's still telling stories and expanding taste buds.

Courtesy Alaskan Brewing Company

Tony Hand has held nearly every conceivable position at the Alaskan Brewery Company since he started his tenure in 1988. Hand chats with visitors at the tasting bar last week. Since 2002, when arthritis forced him out of the cold brewery and into the relative warmth of the tasting bar, he has been the public face of the brewery. Hand is retiring Oct. 2, and the Brewery has re-released his signature creation, Alaskan Coffee Stout, in his honor.


Courtesy Alaskan Brewing Company

Tony Hand has held nearly every conceivable position at the Alaskan Brewery Company since he started his tenure in 1988. Hand is shown kegging beer in 1995. Since 2002, when arthritis forced him out of the cold brewery and into the relative warmth of the tasting bar, he has been the public face of the brewery. Hand is retiring Oct. 2, and the Brewery has re-released his signature creation, Alaskan Coffee Stout, in his honor.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Story last updated at 9/15/2010 - 1:26 pm

Last Call

It was 11:05 a.m., literally minutes after the Alaskan Brewery opened its doors, and already several people were gathered at the tasting bar debating last Wednesday's Question of the Day:

If rain fell in flavors, what should it be?

"Chocolate," someone said.

"Vanilla," someone else said.

"Whatever this is," said a middle-aged man wearing a fanny pack and pants with zip-off legs. He drained the last of his six-ounce Double Black IPA while a woman I took to be his wife demurred.

"I think I'd like rain to taste like rain," the woman said, eyeing her full glass. "Anyway, I'm more of a wine person."

Alaskan Brewing Company jack-of-all-trades/resident storyteller Tony Hand had just been describing this exact scenario - customers who think they don't enjoy craft beer, especially the darker varieties. When he's at the taps, Hand explained, he tells them straight: "Don't be afraid of the dark."

Even though it was his day off - he was only at the Brewery to talk with me and only in the taproom to show me the Question of the Day (his brainchild) - Hand couldn't resist.

"Smell the floral aroma," he said, gently nudging the glass back in her direction. "Coriander, lemon peel - right?"

Then he asked her what she was into. She said cooking. Just like that they were talking recipes. In a little while, he had the reticent wife drinking Smoked Porter. (Hand credits it with starting his Alaskan Brewery tenure back in 1988 - "I figured, if they can make a beer that good, I needed to be working there.")

Since 1988, Hand's interpersonal skills have become legend among fellow employees and customers alike. While he has held every conceivable position at the Brewery - from bottling to brewing and "even accounting for a while, but they got someone else to handle that" - in 2002, arthritis forced him out of the cold brewery and into the relative warmth of the tasting bar. Tony Hand has been the public face of the Alaskan Brewery ever since.

Now that face is retiring.

"I ran away from home twenty years ago," is how Hand puts his decision to return from whence he came, in this case Sheffield, Illinois. "Now it's time to run back."

In another time, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Tony Hand as a Klondike gold prospector. At 57, he still boasts an impressive head of long, curly mostly chestnut hair. His eight-inch-long shock of graying beard sort of makes him look like one of those wooden soldier nutcrackers, especially when his mouth is working.

This seems to be frequently.

Within the first five minutes of meeting him, it became obvious I wouldn't need any prepared questions. Jumping from topic to topic, and growing progressively animated at each step, he held forth on the brewing process, then how to recycle leftover biomass, then how back in the old days, they used to package six-packs on the second flood and throw them over a rail to someone who'd catch them on the first floor.

Oh, and he'd also recently lost 100 pounds, which he credits mostly to a strict morning regimen of Wii Fit.

When I asked him if altering his beer consumption also contributed, I learned the most interesting thing about Tony Hand - he quit drinking in 1992. He hasn't tasted any of the beer varieties he pours, or any that he's brewed. Not that he considers it a hindrance.

"Bakers don't eat every loaf of bread they bake," he said, explaining that he relies on his sense of smell, which has grown so keen that co-workers use him to sniff out beers at large festivals. "Besides, there's plenty of other people willing to do the tasting for me."

Still, imagining the resolve it takes for a reformed drinker to work at a brewery, day in and day out, for decades, seems difficult.

"It that's not will power, I don't know what is," said Brewery co-owner/co-founder Marcy Larson. "He's become an expert in beer without needing to drink a pint - that takes skill."

"When I find something I like, I just want to keep doing it - and I love my job," says Hand of his decision to immerse himself in beer year after year. "I'm a bartender who never has to settle any tabs."

Still, family - a mother, a sister and assorted nieces and nephews - calls Tony Hand back to small-town Illinois, where he has few future plans aside from watching the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

"Nothing compares to a game at Wrigley," says Hand, a lifelong fan who's made a yearly habit of attending spring training in Arizona. "Whatever else I wind up doing, it'll be an adventure."

In honor of Tony Hand's retirement, the Brewery will re-release his signatu re creation, Alaskan Coffee Stout - affectionately referred to as Tony's "Get Out" Stout. An Irish stout brewed with Raven's Brew Coffee's house blend, Hand originally conceived the brew in 1999 as part of the Brewery's Rough Draft series. It will be available on draft around Juneau and at the Brewery starting September 27.

If you feel like taking Tony's Hand's advice regarding fear of the dark, Oct. 2 is his last day. You've got until then to raise a glass with him.

Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his website at www.geoffkirsch.com.