By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
Summertime in Alaska means time spent outdoors. No doubt it’s the long, cold months of winter that give us all such an appreciation for being able to get out and enjoy the beautiful outdoors during the short months when we can do so. And if you’re like me, you appreciate the outdoors even more when you’ve got a beer in your hand!
This desire to be able to easily enjoy craft beers in remote or difficult places is one of the driving forces behind the continuing growth in the number of beers being offered in cans by the craft breweries of Alaska. Forget the reputation that cans had decades ago, for holding cheap, metallic-tasting beer. Today’s cans are fully lined, so that the contents never contact the can itself, and provide much better protection from light and oxygen (the two big enemies of beer freshness) to the beer inside than even the best bottle. If you add the fact that cans are unbreakable, easily recyclable and much lighter than glass, it becomes easy to see why cans are so popular with Alaskans on their hiking, camping and boating adventures. There’s nothing like a broken beer bottle in the bottom of the boat to put a damper on the fun of fishing.
Moving into canning represents a significant capital investment for a craft brewery. Besides the expense of the canning machine itself, the typical minimum can order is in the neighborhood of 144,000 cans, enough to fill a semitrailer. Since cans typically come with their labels printed on them, a given production run can only be used for one beer — unlike bottles, which only require that a different label be attached when shifting between beers. The commitment involved in purchasing (and storing) that many containers for a single beer is quite daunting for a small brewing operation.
Yet cans are so clearly superior, especially in Alaska, that more and more of our local craft brewers are taking the plunge. By my count, there are currently six different breweries in our state — Denali Brewing Co., Broken Tooth Brewing Co., Midnight Sun Brewing Co., King Street Brewing Co., Alaskan Brewing Co. and our very own Kenai River Brewing Co. — that are already canning their beers, with a seventh, Baranof Island Brewing Co., only waiting on the delivery of its cans so it can start.
When Baranof Island does start canning, it will do so utilizing a manual, two-head canning machine purchased used from Kenai River Brewing. It became available when Kenai River upgraded to its current automatic canning line. These seven breweries will be offering some 21 different beers in cans, which translate to a truly exceptional range of choices for us, the consumers.
In keeping with the idea of offering more consumer choice, two of these breweries have teamed up to offer something never before seen in Alaska — a mixed six-pack of cans. The two breweries are Kenai River Brewing in Soldotna and Midnight Sun Brewing in Anchorage. The former is contributing three cans of its Sunken Isle IPA to each pack, while the latter is supplying three cans of its Sockeye Red IPA. This project was made possible by the fact that both breweries share a common distributor, Specialty Imports. The good folks at Specialty arranged all the transport required to make this offering a reality.
King Street Brewing in Anchorage also is offering something unique — it is now packaging its IPA in 16-ounce “tall boy” cans. This is the first beer in Alaska to be so canned. Besides the larger size, the new cans also sport what is known as a “360 end,” meaning that the entire top of the can comes off when it is opened, creating a tasting experience much more like drinking from a glass than the one you typically get drinking from a standard can. The folks at King Street believe these new cans do a much better job at showcasing the delicious hop aroma of their excellent IPA.
Before I close, I would like to make a correction to my column from last month. The full name for the new craft distillery in Haines is the Port Chilkoot Distillery. I apologize for improperly truncating it in a couple of places. Also, all the craft distillers in Alaska are still waiting for Gov. Parnell to sign HB 309, which I discussed in detail last month. In particular, it will allow them to offer samples and to sell their products to retail customers. So if you’re interested in visiting High Mark Distillery, in Sterling, or any of the four other distilleries around the state, you might consider contacting the governor’s office and asking him to hurry up and do his job!
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 authored “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska,” available via Amazon.