Alaskan brewers have some inherent geographic disadvantages and in winter they are all amplified. Our friend James “Dr. Fermento” Roberts, president of the Brewers Guild of Alaska, gave us an inside look in our Better Know a Craft Guild series back in February. On a recent post on the Anchorage Press website, Roberts reports further on the obstacles involved in keeping alive a year-round brewing operation in Alaska.
Small brewery sustainability in Alaska is undoubtedly bolstered by heavy tourism traffic in the summer. But, to be a year-round operation, any brewery relies on local community support during the off season. This is especially true when it comes to brewing operations in remote areas. It’s a somewhat unique but understandable phenomenon here in Alaska when a few of our breweries go into hibernation during the long winter months.
I talked to Seward Brewing Company owner Gene Minden the other day about his plans for shutting down his operation for the winter. “Seward’s just dead in the winter. Heating this building would just cost too much,” he says of his announcement that the brewery’s last day of regular operation would be Sept. 22.
A sparse population with reduced tourism combined with skyrocketing heating bills, and it’s a tough equation for a brewing business to balance.
“We stayed open until December last year, and it cost over $1,000 a week to heat the place and it was still pretty cold in there,” he says. “It comes down to a matter of, ‘Do you want to work and lose money or shut it down and go play?’” Minden makes a relevant point. If the business isn’t there, why fight it? Minden’s not alone in the small community at the head of Resurrection Bay. “A lot of places are closing up in the next to weeks; at least four that I know of,” he says. And with them goes local support for his operation in his recently remodeled 14,000 square foot building that he says has been ‘underutilized’ since he started brewing operations two years ago.
But a closed brewery doesn’t have to mean a dormant brewery, as Roberts points out a couple examples of brewers using the downtime to work on new products:
Still, like some of the other hibernating brewing operations in the state, Minden will make good use of the brewery’s fermentation capacity over the long winter months. “We’re going to do a number of long-aging beers, such as barley wines and other high gravity beers,” he says of his plans to keep the beer flowing even though the massive three-story brewpub won’t be open for food service. “Oh, we’ll host parties and special events when they present themselves and will probably have the brewery open for an hour or two every week for growler fills and what not, if that works out.”
Be sure to head over to the Anchorage Press for a few more examples of how Alaskan brewers deal with such a difficult time.