Story last updated at 11/14/2013 - 5:20 pm
SITKA — When Rick and Suzan Armstrong started the Baranof Island Brewing Company in 2010, their brewing operations were small, but they didn’t stay the same size for long.
The couple started out brewing 10-gallon batches in a building across the street from their current location. They couldn’t keep up with demand. Then they upgraded, and their 55-gallon system also couldn’t keep up.
They got economic development financing through Ted Stevens for an upgrade to a 210 gallon-per-batch system, which is what they’re using now. And though they want to remain a community brewery, they hope to expand one more time: they still can’t keep up with demand.
Rick is originally from Montana, and Suzan is originally from Kansas. They moved to Sitka in the late 1990s, meeting by the waterfront.
Rick went to school in Missoula, Mont., where he was surrounded by microbreweries. After they met, they’d visit different micro-breweries while traveling for work training (Rick worked in medical equipment maintenance, and Suzan worked as a speech and language pathologist. She still does, sometimes.)
They wanted to open a business and be self-employed, and in the brewery, they found something that is constantly interesting and fun, Suzan said.
“I think we’ve always been beer lovers,” she said.
The community is a big part of their success so far: in Sitka, even people that don’t drink beer are supportive of the idea of a community brewery, Suzan said. That’s a sense of support they try to return.
“If we’re going to be a community brewery, we want to try to support as many people in the community as we can,” she said. They donate used grain to those that might use it to feed their chickens, for example, and they donate when they can.
“It’s something that’s really important to us, but it does get lost sometimes in the shuffle of running a business,” Suzan said.
On a recent day, Suzan looked through cards they received from Girl Scouts who visited the brewery to collect spent grain the scouts will use to make bread. The Girl Scouts also thanked the Armstrongs for the root beer they drank while there — Ben’s Brew, named after Rick and Suzan’s 10-year-old son.
Another reason for their success: “We do make damn good beer, too,” Suzan said, laughing.
They use water from Sitka’s Blue Lake, and most of their grain comes from the Northwest.
There are thousands of varieties and styles of hops, Rick said. When they’re added at the beginning of the boil early in the process, it contributes to taste; towards the end, it contributes to aroma, he said.
Once the process has reached an end, they hand-bottle the beer themselves. They average around 1,000 bottles in four hours, between three people.
The business does have challenges. Grain and glass are heavy and expensive to ship. So is their final product.
“Shipping is what shipping is. I’m not saying they’re gouging us. It’s just — it’s expensive. It’s part of being here,” Suzan said.
Because of their location, they also have longer lag time than many breweries in getting kegs back, so they have to keep more on hand.
State laws for breweries are also challenging. They’re not allowed to sell alcohol past 8 p.m. at night, and they’re limited to serving 36 ounces per person per day. They’re not allowed to have entertainment in the brewery, either.
“The state laws make it really difficult compared to what’s going on down South,” Rick said.
And, of course, there’s the fortunate challenge: the need to meet demand.
This summer, they were able to ship about half of what Juneau ordered, and none to Anchorage. Increasing the size of their brew-batches will help even out business over the year.
“We don’t want to be the next big giant regional brewery, but we need enough business to keep through the winter,” Rick said.
One winter event is already scheduled in Juneau: Baranof Island Brewing Company’s beer will be featured in a dinner at The Rookery on Dec. 11, they said.
Find out more about the company at baranofislandbrewing.com.
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