Drinking on the Last Frontier: Expansion a’brewin’ — New craft breweries opening all over Alaska

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Construction progresses at the new home of Kenai River Brewing Co. in Soldotna.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Construction progresses at the new home of Kenai River Brewing Co. in Soldotna.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

There has been a lot of excitement in the beer scene in Alaska over the last month. New breweries have been popping up and opening around the state like mushrooms after a good rain. I thought I’d use this month’s column to let you know about the breweries that have opened and the ones that are likely to be opening soon.

Icy Straits Brewing opened Aug. 15 in Hoonah in Southeast. In such an isolated location, it’s a small operation, with owners Todd Thingvall and Dan Kane hoping to produce 500 barrels a year, distributed strictly locally. The brewery and taproom are in a renovated, 100-year-old house built on pilings over the water.

The Gakona Brewing and Supply Co. received its final license from the state Sept. 15, and is currently fermenting its first two beers. Owner Ed Miner has been working for years to get approval to operate his half-barrel nanobrewery, and now he will finally be able to produce craft beers in Gakona. Initially, his brews will only be available at the Trapper’s Den Tavern in the historic Gakona Lodge. The tavern is open year-round, so if you are passing through Gakona, stop and have a beer. The first two offerings will be Berry Wheat Ale, made with raspberries, blueberries and black berries, and Killer Rabbit IPA.

Most recently, Odd Man Rush Brewing opened at 10930 Mausel St. in Eagle River on Sept. 25. Brian Swanson and his business partners, Reid McDonald and Ross Johnson, grew up playing hockey in Eagle River, so they decided to open a hockey-themed craft brewery. The brewery boasts the original scoreboard from the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center, the Eagle River sports complex that was recently remodeled, and its walls are made out of reclaimed wood from the Mac and old hockey sticks. There’s even the front end of a Zamboni and a sign from the historic Regal Eagle Brewing, the first brewpub in Alaska that operated out of the North Slope Restaurant in Eagle River from 1995 to 2003.

That’s three new craft breweries open for business in the last six weeks, bringing the total in the state to 27.

That number does not look to be accurate for long. Two breweries in the Mat-Su area are working hard to open soon — Bearpaw River Brewing in Wasilla and Bleeding Heart Brewery in Palmer. In Anchorage, Quake Brewing is looking to open on Tudor Road, while Cynosure Brewing on Potter Drive just took delivery of its brewhouse. Girdwood Brewing is coming to its namesake town, and Baleen Brewing will bring local beer back to Ketchikan. There are likely others out there on the drawing board that I just haven’t heard about yet. As I said, breweries and brewpubs are springing up like mushrooms all across our great state.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula, I’m not aware of any new breweries opening, but that doesn’t mean that exciting things aren’t happening. All you have to do is drive behind the new Walgreens in Soldotna to see what I mean. The foundation and floor are going in for the new home of Kenai River Brewing Co. The building is going to house an expanded brewery and a much larger taproom. With an opening scheduled for May, we should all be able to be enjoying beers from Kenai River on the covered patio next summer.

It truly is an exciting time for craft brewing in Alaska.

Now, if you don’t mind indulging me, I’d like to hit a few personal notes. First off, my column last month discussed a nearly forgotten beer style, East India Porter, in some detail. If reading it made you curious enough to want to sample one of these porters, a modern version brewed by Zach Henry with my assistance is now on tap at St. Elias Brewing Co., under the name H&H East India Porter. We are very pleased with the finished product, so I invite you all to give it a try.

Second, I’m very happy to report that on Sept. 26, my book, “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” took first place in the Best Beer Writing, Local/Regional Category at the 2015 North American Guild of Beer Writers Awards in Denver.

Third and last, I will be giving a presentation on the role of beer and brewing in Alaska history Thursday, Oct. 8, at Kenai Peninsula College. This KPC Showcase event will start at 6:30 p.m. and run about 45 minutes, after which I will be taking questions, as well as selling and signing copies of my books. I hope to see you there.

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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