By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
These days, the big topic of discussion in Juneau seems to be what must be done to stimulate economic growth in Alaska. Will cutting taxes encourage more oil exploration, or is that just a big giveaway to the oil companies? Given the heated atmosphere surrounding this debate, it’s nice to take a moment to step back and contemplate one industry that’s still booming in this state — craft brewing.
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. In 2011, the brewing industry contributed a minimum of 1,340 jobs to Alaska’s economy and generated more than $125 million in economic activity through direct spending and the multiplier effect of that spending in the state.
Not only does the industry bring money into the state from the export of its product outside Alaska, our brewers also provide a product to meet statewide demand that would otherwise have to be imported, thus reducing the amount of money leaving Alaska. Added to that, Alaska’s breweries and brewpubs paid over $27.5 million dollars in state and local taxes and fees in 2011.
Note that those numbers are from 2011. Since then, two more breweries have opened, the Seward Brewing Company and HooDoo Brewing in Fairbanks, and more are in the planning stage. While craft brewing will never replace oil and gas in Alaska’s economy, it still represents a not inconsiderable addition to the overall economic health of our state.
Here on the Kenai, we’re seeing this same sustained, steady growth continue. Besides the new brewpub in Seward mentioned above, Kenai River Brewing in Soldotna has just expanded its production capacity again.
If you’re not a brewer, you may not realize that the bottleneck in the operation of a brewery is usually not the actual “brewhouse.”
The brewhouse is the name for the mash tun and brew kettle combination, which determines the maximum size of each batch of beer. After all, you can brew a batch of beer in under six hours, so brewing two batches in a day is fairly typical, and even three is well within the realm of the possible, given sufficient manpower.
Instead, the production bottleneck is often the volume of fermentation tank space available.
You may be able to brew a batch in a few hours, but yeast works at its own pace, and will require at least a week, give or take, to turn the sugars you have made into alcohol. Once all your fermenters are full, your brewhouse has no choice but to sit idle until one of them is emptied.
Given this limitation, it makes sense that Kenai River Brewing just added a third 20-barrel conical fermenter to its tank farm. Now they have three 20-barrel tanks, plus 50 barrels worth of smaller, open fermenters, allowing them to ferment a total of 110 barrels at one time. Since their brewhouse produces 10 barrels per batch, a typical double batch brew day will fill one of these fermenters, making for efficient brewhouse utilization.
Obviously if you are going to be so efficient at filling them, you’re going to have to be equally efficient at emptying those fermenters on the other end, once the yeast has done its work and the beer is ready for packaging. Kegs are relatively easy to fill, other than the need to clean them, but what about cans?
Kenai River has been using a manual two-head canning system. With it, three experienced workers can empty a 20-barrel fermenter in about 18 hours work, producing about 6,600 cans or 275 cases of beer. That makes for a pretty long day of canning beer to empty one 20-barrel fermenter.
At the end of February, Kenai River took delivery of a brand-new automated three-head canning line. Empty cans are fed into the machine and full cans emerge, needing only to be snapped into the six-pack holders and stacked in their cardboard flats. Brewer/owner Doug Hogue estimates that the new machine will allow them to can 20 barrels of beer in only about six hours, rather than 18, making emptying a fermenter into cans just a typical day’s work.
What’s driving Kenai River to invest in this new equipment? Two words — increased demand. In the case of this particular brewery, it’s demand for their Peninsula Brewers Reserve, which they will be adding to their can lineup in early summer.
But this sustained increased demand is certainly not limited to Kenai River Brewing Company. Breweries all across the state are experiencing the same thing — Alaskans like good beer and they are willing to pay a little extra to get it, especially if it’s made right here in Alaska.
So the next time you see a report on TV about the latest oil tax debate in Juneau, do what I do, open a nice Alaska-brewed craft beer and give yourself a pat on the back for boosting our state’s economy.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.