Drinking on the Last Frontier: Cheers to new home — Kenai River Co. building brewery

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Doug Houge, one of the owners of Kenai River Brewing Co., kicks back at what will be the site of the new brewery near the “Y” in Soldotna. The expanded facility should open next May.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Doug Houge, one of the owners of Kenai River Brewing Co., kicks back at what will be the site of the new brewery near the “Y” in Soldotna. The expanded facility should open next May.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

The growth of craft brewing, both in Alaska and across the U.S., continues to amaze. The Brewers Association has published the 2014 statistics for American craft beer, and the numbers are staggering. Craft beer sales now make up 11 percent of all beer sales nationwide by volume (up from just 5 percent in 2010) and 19.3 percent by dollars spent (up 22 percent since just last year). More than 22 million barrels of craft beer were produced last year, by 3,418 craft breweries. The number of craft breweries has doubled since 2010, with 615 opening last year, while only 46 went out of business. Small brewers employed more than 115,000 people in 2014. While sales of AB-InBev and MillerCoors products are stagnant or dropping, craft beer sales continue to grow at a rapid pace. By every standard, the future of craft brewing in the U.S. is bright.

Here in Alaska, we’ve seen much the same trends. Established companies like Alaskan Brewing and Anchorage Brewing have completed major expansion projects. Haines Brewing Co. just broke ground on a new brewery. Resolution Brewing opened in Anchorage and several other new breweries in various locations across the state seemed poised to join the ranks of the Brewers Guild of Alaska and begin supplying their communities will fresh, locally produced craft beer. And now Soldotna is joining in the brewery construction boom.

As is obvious to anyone who has visited it recently, Kenai River Brewing Co. outgrew its current location quite some time ago. When it opened in May 2006, the brewery occupied only half its building. In early 2012, it expanded to occupy the entire building and opened its current taproom. However, space is still at a premium, with several storage containers located behind the building holding cans waiting to be filled, and no room remaining on the brewery floor for any additional fermentation vessels or expanded equipment. For the brewery to continue to grow, it is obvious that it needs new quarters. The management of Kenai River has been searching for a new location for several months, and it now appears that a suitable one has been found.

Doug Hogue, one of the owners of Kenai River Brewing Co., has announced the purchase of a 1.4-acre parcel in Soldotna, where KRB will build a standalone brewery. The lot is at the corner of 47th and Homestead Streets, behind the new Walgreens being constructed at the intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways. The new building should be easily visible from the Sterling Highway with a sightline between the new drug store and the existing Auto Zone.

Now that the purchase of the land has been finalized, Hogue said that the brewery hopes to break ground in August.

“We are currently working with a design firm to finalize plans,” he said. “Our goal is to preserve as many of the existing trees as possible, especially on the south (river) side of the site. We want a brewery that can be nestled in our new, wooded location overlooking the scenic Kenai River.”

As part of the new building, Kenai River plans to purchase a new, 20-barrel brewhouse to replace its current 10-barrel system, along with additional fermentation tanks. The brewery taproom will have a fireplace and an adjoining patio area, which will be covered and heated to allow patrons to enjoy their beers in a scenic outdoor setting from early spring through late fall, depending on the weather. There also are plans to establish hiking/biking trails on the property, tying in with the local trail system. The target date for opening is May 2016.

The growth and success of Kenai River Brewing Co., and all the other breweries and brewpubs on the Kenai Peninsula and across Alaska, is testament not only to the skill and tenacity of their owners and brewers, but also to the good people of this state, who are willing to pay a little bit more for a quality product from a local industry. Well done, my fellow Alaskans!

On a personal note, my newest book, “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” will be released May 11. It is being published by The History Press as part of its “American Palate” series of books. This book focuses on the history of brewing in Alaska from the earliest days of Russian settlement through the Gold Rush, Prohibition and right up to today’s explosive growth of craft brewing. You can preorder it on Amazon.com right now, but if you are willing to wait a few days, it will also be available in several local locations. I hope you find it interesting and informative — I certainly learned a great deal in researching and writing it!

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell has been an avid craft beer drinker and homebrewer since 1988. Upon retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2004, Howell moved to Alaska, where he blogs about the Alaskan craft brewing scene at alaskanbeer.blogspot.com. In 2007 he created a beer appreciation course titled “The Art and History of Brewing,” which he teaches annually at Kenai Peninsula College. He is the founder of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society and serves as a media consultant to the Brewers Guild of Alaska.

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Filed under beer, business, Drinking on the Last Frontier

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