Drinking on the Last Frontier: Alaska breweries reopen for summer season

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Seward Brewing Co. is open for the summer season.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Seward Brewing Co. is open for the summer season.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

In many ways, Alaska is a crazy place to try to operate a brewery. The logistics involved in just obtaining the necessary ingredients are challenging, since the only raw material for beer that Alaska has available locally is water.

The same logistics increase the cost of buying equipment and packaging, as well. Distributing the finished product any distance at all is equally expensive, given the distances involved and lack of infrastructure. Just to make things even more fun, Alaska has the second highest state beer excise tax in the country, at a whopping $1.07 per gallon of beer sold. Finally, the extreme seasonal nature of many of our communities drives extreme swings in beer demand for those locales.

To deal with the challenge of seasonality, different breweries have adopted different strategies. Some, like Soldotna’s St. Elias Brewing Co., are lucky enough to have sufficient local population to make operating year-round profitable. Others, like Skagway Brewing Company, significantly reduce their off-season hours in order to balance the books. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work. Denali Brewing Co. keeps its beer garden in downtown Talkeetna open all winter despite operating at a loss in order to both serve the community and retain its core staff. Then there is the final option — hibernation, i.e., close the brewery until the snow melts and the tourists return with the sun.

Currently, three breweries in Alaska follow this model. Each is relatively isolated and heavily dependent on the summer tourist trade. The 49th State Brewing Company in Healy caters to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Denali National Park each year. A couple of weeks after the park closes for the winter, so does 49th State, to reopen at the end of April the following year. Gold Rush Brewing, located a couple of miles north of Skagway, follows the same pattern. It comes to life each year just before the tourist-laden cruise ships begin arriving and goes to sleep shortly after the last one departs. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, we have the Seward Brewing Co., which just reopened for 2015 on May 1.

Seward Brewing first opened its doors in the summer of 2012, and is located downtown on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Washington Street. Originally a mercantile store with offices upstairs, the structure dates from the 1940s and boasts magnificent views of Resurrection Bay and the surrounding mountains. Its most recent incarnation, prior to being renovated as a brewpub, was as an Elks Lodge. The brewery and bar are on the ground floor, while upstairs there is a large dining room with wraparound windows.

The current owners are the husband and wife team of chef Erik Slater and general manager Hillary Bean. Slater spent 10 years as the executive chef at the Seward Windsong Lodge, while Bean was the bar manager at Ray’s Waterfront for 10 seasons. Given Slater’s background, it’s no surprise that he emphasizes dishes that highlight our wonderfully fresh Alaska seafood, though my personal favorite of the many menu choices is the lamb fries. It’s a plate of French fries smothered in lamb, lamb gravy and Beecher’s cheese curds, and is just as delicious as it sounds.

As good as its food is, Seward Brewing Co. does not neglect its beer. There are nearly half a dozen house beers, ranging from Lazy Otter Lager to Inked Out Stout, along with several other craft beers from around the state. Seward is also the first brewery in Alaska to begin offering its beers in crowlers, in addition to the standard 64-ounce glass growlers. Crowlers are 32-ounce cans, filled to order. This means you can take its beers anywhere in a sealed, unbreakable container that’s perfect both for the Alaskan heading out for fishing or hiking adventures, and for the tourist looking to take a souvenir home in their luggage.

With its fantastic food and excellent beers, complemented by a unique packaging method, visiting Seward Brewing Co. is a must. Just don’t wait too long — summers around here have a bad habit of flying by. It wouldn’t do to look up one day and realize you’ve missed your chance to experience this excellent brewpub until next year.

I’ve had several inquiries about my newest book, “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” with folks wondering when it will be available locally and if I will be doing any signing events. I can tell you that copies of the book finally arrived in Alaska on May 28, so they should be in local stores very soon, if they are not already. I currently have two signing events scheduled on the peninsula, at the Soldotna Wednesday Market on June 17, and at Kenai River Brewing Co. on June 19. I hope to schedule additional events in Seward and Homer soon, and all my events will be listed on my Amazon.com author page.

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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