There are no roads leading to Juneau, Alaska. The region has little flat land and can’t grow grain or hops. Most resources must be shipped in and out by barge. Nevertheless, the city of 30,000 people is home to Alaskan Brewing Co., the biggest brewery in the state and the 17th-largest craft brewery in the country in 2013, according to the Brewers Association. Founded in 1986 by husband-and-wife team Geoff and Marcy Larson, Alaskan Brewing Co. has thrived despite—and sometimes because of—the difficulties of its location. The company embraces its regional advantages, brewing beers that are rooted in Alaskan history and tradition. “We try to put a bit of Alaska in the bottle,” Geoff Larson says.
The Larsons started their brewery in Alaska’s remote capital for a simple reason: their passion for the area. “We fell totally in love with this region and wanted to make a living here,” Marcy Larson says. “Geoff was a home brewer and a chemical engineer, and I was doing bookkeeping and accounting work. We put the skills together and came up with the brewery idea.” At the time, the craft beer industry was still in its infancy. “There were fewer than a hundred breweries in the country back then,” Geoff Larson says, adding that their brewery got its start thanks to a group of 80 investors, all from Alaska.
In 1986, Alaskan Brewing Co. was the only brewery in the state—but it wasn’t the first. “Before Prohibition, during the gold mining days, there were more than 40 breweries in Alaska,” Geoff Larson says. “In fact, our Alaskan Amber is modeled after a Gold Rush-era beer that was produced here in Juneau. It’s based on a 1907 recipe.” Using old shipping invoices, bills of lading and historical interviews with the brewmaster, the Larsons were able to recreate his recipe for their original flagship brew, which is made using cold fermentation. “It was a very cold environment back then,” Geoff Larson explains. “The brewmaster’s challenge was keeping his yeast active.” Made in the style of a German altbier, Alaskan Amber uses hops for spice and balance, rather than as the base flavor. “It was the old way of making ales before lager took over,” he adds.
The brewery often taps local ingredients, such as Juneau’s glacial water and Sitka spruce tips, which are used in the Alaskan Winter ale. “When Captain James Cook was looking for the Northwest Passage in 1778, he used local plants to eliminate scurvy,” Marcy Larson says. “Up here, he used the new shoots of the spruce trees.” The pine tips, a local specialty often used in jellies and syrups, are harvested in late spring and add a sweet, tart and fruity character to the beer. “The first rush of sap in the spruce is sweet like maple syrup,” Geoff Larson notes.
The company’s most lauded beer, Alaskan Smoked porter, is also rooted in 19th-century Juneau. “At the turn of the century, porters were common,” Geoff Larson explains. “But back then, there was no such thing as indirect heating.” Brewers roasted their malt directly over fire, which added some smoke flavor to the malt. “Everything had a smoked character to it,” he says, noting that smoke isn’t typically associated with beer today. “But 100 or 200 years ago, it was common.” First introduced in 1987, the vintage-dated Smoked porter (around $10 a 22-ounce bottle) recreates the style. “It’s a pretty labor-intensive product,” Marcy Larson adds. “We smoke the malt ourselves.” The smoke in the beer also acts as a preservative, allowing the brew to develop and age in bottle for years. “Since 1993, we haven’t filtered the beer and we’ve left a little yeast in the bottle,” Geoff Larson says, adding that the Smoked porter has won more awards at the Great American Beer Festival than any other beer in the event’s history.
Alaskan Brewing Co. has grown every year since it debuted, and its beers are now available in 17 states. The company produced more than 160,000 barrels in 2014, up from 147,000 barrels in 2013. Its biggest market has always been Alaska, which comprises 40 percent to 50 percent of volume, followed by Washington. “The relationship between those two states has been close ever since the Gold Rush,” Geoff Larson says, adding that the Juneau location helps increase exposure outside Alaska. “We have easy recognition because of our locale. Juneau gets a million visitors a year.” California, Texas and Minnesota are also top markets, and the company recently expanded to Michigan, the brewery’s easternmost market.
Alaskan Amber, the company’s top-selling offering (most beers are $7.99 to $9.99 a six-pack of bottles), hovers at around 50 percent of volume. “It’s such an approachable beer and pairs well with food,” Marcy Larson says. “It’s a great representative of Alaska.” The brewery’s White ale, a Belgian-style witbier, is tied with Freeride American pale ale for second place, followed by Icy Bay IPA. The seasonal portfolio—another top performer—comprises Summer ale, Winter ale, and various spring and fall offerings, which included Big Mountain pale ale and Pumpkin porter in 2014. “Pumpkin porter has gotten a great response, but we like to change it up and allow for a little variety in our seasonal portfolio,” Geoff Larson explains.
Hopothermia, a double IPA added to the core portfolio in 2013, has also been a success, which the team sees as evidence of the increasing sophistication of craft beer drinkers. “Ten years ago, a double IPA wouldn’t have been considered a core product,” Geoff Larson says. “Now it’s something a lot of breweries are doing.” The company’s Pilot Series features experimental offerings like Alaskan Double Black IPA and the Alaskan Imperial Red ale,
which is becoming a core expression this winter. The Rough Draft line includes small-batch beers—available only on draft and only in Alaska—that any brewery employee can help create in the company’s original one-barrel brewhouse. In addition, the company releases its Smoked porter in limited quantities on November 1st every year. “It’s less than 1 percent of our total sales as far as volume goes,” Geoff Larson notes. In late 2014, the company also released its first Smoked porter vintage pack ($29.99), which is designed for vertical tastings and includes the 2008 and 2013 vintages, as well as two tasting glasses.
The brewery recently added a small canning line, although canned offerings are currently only sold in Alaska. “Consumers here accept the image and quality of cans,” Geoff Larson says. “It’s a lifestyle issue—cans are more convenient for backpacking, flying to remote lodges and boating.” The company is considering introducing cans in its other markets this year.
Alaskan Brewing Co.’s location has always had a significant impact on operations, encouraging the company to develop unique environmental and logistical innovations. “Alaska is fraught with challenges,” Geoff Larson says. “Our locale and environment forces us to look at what we do with a different set of eyes. We’re pressed to be a little bit more innovative.”
The most daunting obstacle in Juneau is the lack of land transportation. “Most of our materials go in and out by barge,” Marcy Larson explains. The need for shipping has encouraged the brewery to produce materials locally whenever possible. In its early years, the company imported carbon dioxide, which is an important raw material that helps protect beer from oxidation. “For most breweries, shipping carbon dioxide in and out in a liquid form is cheap and pretty easy. For us, it was very expensive,” Geoff Larson says.
To reduce those costs, Alaskan Brewing built a carbon dioxide reclamation plant in 1998. “During fermentation, yeast puts off a lot of carbon dioxide—part of that’s held in the beer, which gives it effervescence, but the yeast makes a lot more than what’s needed,” says Geoff Larson, adding that most breweries blow the excess gas into the atmosphere. The recovery plant—the first in the craft beer industry—harnesses that extra gas, which is used to purge bottles and kegs and keep beer in an oxygen-free environment. “This year, we’re going to recover a million pounds of carbon dioxide that we would otherwise have to purchase from the fossil fuel industry,” he explains. “Instead, it comes from an essentially renewable resource—our malt.” The plant paid for itself in about three years, significantly ahead of schedule. The company later added a second reclamation plant that’s three times larger than the original, and the Larsons are considering a third in a few more years.
The need to dispose of waste products efficiently also inspired the brewery’s newest environmental push: a boiler that’s fueled by spent grain, which is a natural byproduct of the brewing process. Most breweries give away spent grain to local farmers, but that wasn’t an option in Juneau. “The necessity of dealing with spent grain forced us to solve the problem,” Geoff Larson says. “Our spent grain boiler is the first in the world, regardless of the size of the brewery.” The boiler burns spent grain as fuel, creating steam that helps power the brewery, and reduces the use of fuel oil in the brewhouse by up to 60 percent. “Spent grain is a very unusual feedstock for a boiler,” he explains. “It’s over 20-percent protein. It’s like throwing eggs into a wood stove. Other breweries have tried to use spent grain as fuel, but abandoned the project. We’re hoping to demonstrate that this idea is viable.”
In addition to their positive financial impact, Alaskan Brewing’s environmental innovations also improve beer quality. “Because we collect more carbon dioxide than we technically need, we can protect our beer better,” Geoff Larson says. The brewery’s mash filter press, which increases the output of the grain used to make beer by about 5 percent and reduces water use by a million gallons a year, also improves the beer’s consistency. In addition, the innovations reduce the company’s overall impact on the local area. “If you drew a black box around the brewery right now, we’re carbon neutral,” Geoff Larson says, admitting that that calculation doesn’t yet include the logistics of transportation and bottle and can manufacturing. “We’re making beer in a way that’s sensitive to the environment.”
In 2014, Alaskan Brewing Co.’s production reached its current maximum capacity of around 160,000 barrels, but the Larsons aren’t concerned. “When we grow, we always address our bottlenecks, so the capacity question is an interesting one,” Geoff Larson says. Last year, the company worked with the city to eliminate a road that divided the brewery’s two buildings. The newly combined facilities will offer more storage space, better warehousing ability and more efficient production. “It’s a game-changer,” Geoff Larson says. “Our capacity is really 300,000 to 500,000 barrels, ultimately. But that’s not right now.” The company also added around 19,000 square feet of warehousing and storage and roughly $7.5 million in plant equipment, and the Larsons expect continued growth in the future.
While the company plans to further expand its distribution footprint in both current markets and new ones, the Larsons ultimately see a limit. Many other growing breweries have built second facilities in other parts of the country, but that isn’t an option for Alaskan Brewing. “The idea of building another brewery outside of Alaska doesn’t feel like it’s in our future,” Geoff Larson says. “The challenge is figuring out how to get our beer out there with the highest quality at a price that makes sense, while keeping it authentic and keeping it Alaskan.”