Drinking on the Last Frontier: Craft beer brewing booms economically

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Devin Wagner, new brewer at Kenai River Brewing Co., stands with the brewery’s new fermenter.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Devin Wagner, new brewer at Kenai River Brewing Co., stands with the brewery’s new fermenter.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

The number of craft breweries in the U.S. continues to grow, as does their economic importance. According to a new analysis by the Brewers Association — the nonprofit trade association that represents the majority of U.S. breweries — small and independent American craft brewers contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012.

During this time frame, craft brewers sold an estimated 13,235,917 barrels of beer, with a retail dollar value estimated at $11.9 billion. The industry also provided more than 360,000 jobs, with 108,440 jobs directly at breweries and brewpubs, including serving staff at brewpubs. There are now more than 2,400 craft breweries and brewpubs out there, spread across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, plus hundreds more in the planning stage.

If we narrow our focus and look just at Alaska, our local breweries and brewpubs have the equivalent of 1,288 full-time employees, pay over $52 million in wages and generate over $150 million in total impact to our state’s economy. This works out to $293.57 for every 21-and-older adult in the entire state. In this statistic Alaska ranks a very respectable sixth in the nation, behind only Oregon ($448.50), Colorado ($436.50), Vermont ($418.57), Maine ($324.36) and Montana ($315.37). Alaska’s beer economy is almost twice the national average of $149.56 per capita.

I have speculated in past columns as to why Alaska “punches above its weight” so consistently when it comes to craft beer, so I won’t revisit that. However, if anyone out there needs more data in addition to the economic numbers above to convince them that this is indeed the case, I would have invited them to attend Alaska Beer Week, which was held Jan. 9 through Jan. 19 this year.

While this 10-day celebration of craft beer is still primarily a local affair (and I hope it always remains so!), it is also attended by craft beer lovers from all across the U.S. The reputation of Alaska’s brewers is such that people think nothing of flying up to Anchorage in the dead of winter from places like North Carolina, Georgia, California and Colorado just to have a chance to meet them face to face and sample their beers.

One of the breweries whose beers are so sought after by these visitors from Outside is Soldotna’s very own Kenai River Brewing Co. Doug Hogue and the rest of his merry band have established a real reputation for excellence, especially for some of their more unusual offerings, such as their infamous Gummi Bear Tripel.

This beer is in a style made famous by the Trappist monk brewers of Belgium — the tripel. Tripels are top-fermented golden beers with fruity notes produced by the Belgian yeast strains used to make them. They are light in body but typically have more than 8 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to the addition of Belgian candi sugar during the boil. However, as you might have gathered from the name, besides 20 pounds of candi sugar, the Kenai River version of this beer also uses 15 pounds of the classic children’s candy. That’s 7,425 gummy bears, by the way. The end result is a 9.2 percent ABV brew with lots of great flavor that is highly sought after by craft beer aficionados.

With such in-demand products like Gummi Bear Tripel, it comes as no surprise that Kenai River Brewing has just expanded again. In January they took delivery of two new 40-barrel conical closed fermenters from Premier Stainless Systems. These new tanks replaced a 20-barrel fermenter and 10-barrel one, both open cylindrical models, for a net increase of 50 barrels of fermentation capacity.

Hogue explains that the brewery plans to retain the old 10-barrel fermenter to serve as a hot liquor tank, something the brewery has always lacked.

“Having a dedicated hot liquor tank available will allow us to brew three shifts a day, instead of just two, which will aid in meeting our peak summer demand,” Hogue said.

The used 20-barrel open fermenter will likely be purchased by another brewery in Alaska.

Brewing three shifts each day means that Kenai River’s 10-barrel brewhouse would produce 30 barrels in a 24-hour period. However, such intensive brewing doesn’t just require the right equipment, you also have to have the right people in place. When Kenai River was limited to two shifts per day, the brewing duties were divided between Hogue and his assistant brewer, Joe Gilman. Now, a third shift calls for a third brewer, and to that end Kenai River Brewing has hired Devin Wagner.

Wagner is an experienced homebrewer and former Soldotna resident who was most recently working as the brewer for Geyser Brewing Company in Cody, Wyo. He has returned to Alaska and joined the team at Kenai River Brewing. Next time you stop by the brewery, be sure to tell him hello.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a homebrewer, 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.

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