By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
People sometimes ask me, “Since you love beer so much, why don’t you start a craft brewery of your own?” To which I reply, “Because I know just how much hard work being a brewer entails. Drinking beer and writing about it is much easier!”
Fortunately, not everyone is as work-averse as I am, so there are plenty of folks out there willing to take a chance and open a craft brewery. In 2010, Gabe Fletcher, who had been the head brewer at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. for over a decade, came to the conclusion that he was ready to make a leap of faith and open his own brewery, the Anchorage Brewing Co.
When he decided to strike out on his own, Fletcher made two unusual (and, in hindsight, very smart) choices. First, rather than just focus on the local beer market in Anchorage or even Alaska, he negotiated with Shelton Brothers Distributors to purchase three-quarters of his production and distribute it across the country and even internationally. Fletcher’s reputation in the beer world after his stint at Midnight Sun was such that they were happy to agree, even before he’d brewed his first batch.
Second, rather than purchase his own brewhouse, Fletcher rented time on the existing brewhouse at the Sleeping Lady Brewing Co., as well as space in its basement for his fermenters, barrels and bottling line. To be clear, this was not contract brewing, as Fletcher did all the brewing himself. He simply bought time on Sleeping Lady’s equipment.
These two decisions allowed Fletcher to focus his startup capital on what would make his beers unique — huge wooden vats called foudres for his primary fermentation, a forest of used wine and spirits barrels for secondary fermentation and a state-of-art Italian bottling line to fill his 750-ml corked and caged bottles.
His success over the last four years is testament to the farsightedness of these two decisions. Anchorage Brewing Co. beers have won numerous awards and are known and sought after around the world, as beer aficionados everywhere are eager to experience Fletcher’s singular vision of what a craft beer can be.
As beneficial as the arrangement with Sleeping Lady was for both parties, it was never intended to be permanent. Fletcher has always planned to acquire his own standalone brewery when the time (and money) was right. Earlier this year, he announced publicly that construction had begun on the new home for Anchorage Brewing Co.
The new brewery will be on King Street in South Anchorage, just north of West 92nd Ave. “I’m working with an incredible property owner who’s also the general contractor. He has his own construction business and he’s had this land for a long time and is finally ready to put some buildings on it. He’s ready to start,” Fletcher said.
The 7,800-square-foot space has been designed by Fletcher from scratch and will include a stylish tasting room that will encompass his massive oak foudres under a 26-foot ceiling.
“All of the foudres will be in the tasting room. We’ll have a beer garden with a big rollup glass door connected to the tasting room with great southern exposure,” he said.
Since he doesn’t currently own a brewhouse of his own, Fletcher will need to purchase one of those, as well.
“The new brewhouse is made by Newlands of Canada. It’s a really nice system. It has all the bells and whistles, including a push-button mash-out,” he said. This new system will also eliminate one of the least enjoyable brewing chores — shoveling the spent grain out of the mash tun. “Automated rakes in the bottom of the tank push the stuff to waiting pumps and the stuff goes right outside for me. I don’t even have to touch it. I’m trying to think of ways to make the job easier and less labor-intensive.”
With this new equipment and a facility capable of housing up to 700 oak barrels, you might assume that Fletcher plans to expand his annual production. Not so.
“Once we get in there, we’re not going to really boost our production. I don’t want to start hiring a bunch of people. I want to stay with a two- to three-man crew,” he said.
So when will the new brewery be online? Construction seems to be on schedule, with the roof having been completed Sept. 13. Current plans are for a November opening, but whenever it opens, this new brewery will be a showpiece for quality craft beer from Alaska.
In closing, I’d like to strike a personal note. This column represents my fifth anniversary writing for the Redoubt Reporter. I’d like to thank my editor, Jenny Neyman, and each and every one of you readers out there for all the support, and I’m looking forward to the next five years!
(Editor’s note: Neyman counts Howell’s statement of enthusiasm to keep writing as legally binding. Here’s to the next five, Bill!)
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.