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JUNE/JULY 2005 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC NW

Aurora Beerialis
By Jim "Dr. Fermento" Roberts

The brewing industry in Alaska is like a healthy set of lungs; it breathes in and out, expanding in the summer months to sustain visitors and contracting in the off-season to provide sustenance to our core group of craft-beer drinkers. Thus we enjoy the creative spoils of our brewers’ less hectic brewing schedules, which allow for experimentation and diversity beyond flagship beers. Still, the net effect is growth, as evidenced by both the longevity and the physical plant expansion of some of the state’s more successful brewing operations.

Alaska’s biggest brewery, Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, despite isolation-driven elevated shipping and receiving costs, is experiencing double-digit growth due primarily to enhanced brand “exports” to expanding markets in Southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas, in addition to the thriving markets that dot the rest of the country and even a few accounts in Europe. This necessitated the recent addition of two 1,300-barrel vessels to their already well-populated tank farm.

Glacier BrewHouse can hardly keep up with demand, especially in the summer, and just installed a new 30-barrel conditioning tank to augment its already overworked tanks under the brewery floor. “We could use a bunch more,” is all brewer Kevin Burton said about the recent acquisition. This is Glacier’s second 30-barrel addition in two years.

We enjoy the creative spoils of our brewers’ less hectic brewing schedules, which allow for experimentation and diversity beyond flagship beers.

But it’s Midnight Sun Brewing Company that has the most to be happy about, since it celebrated its 10th anniversary in May. Perhaps as a gift to itself, in April the brewery upgraded from three 15-barrel open fermenters to three 30-barrel unitanks. The advantages of closed fermentation, dual use (fermentation and conditioning) and ease of cleaning and maintenance, not to mention 45 barrels of extra capacity, all are positives for Midnight Sun, which is positioning itself for growth.

The new tanks will allow the brewery to move from about 2,000 barrels a year to around 3,200.
Midnight Sun has had its share of trials and tribulations on the way to success, just like any other emergent craft brewery back in the mid-1990s, but they’re damned happy to be where they are today, especially in light of Alaska’s tumultuous, highly competitive and often thankless brewing scene.

There was a time when co-owners Mark Staples and Barb Miller wanted to sell out. This happened at year seven, when Miller says they “got the itch.” Anyone who has been involved in commercial brewing knows very well how all-consuming, financially risky and difficult making beer for a living can be. It was never about money for Staples and Miller; they just got burned out.

I’m proud to say that I was around when they first got started. I actually almost ran a screw through my thumb helping install sheetrock at the soon-to-be brewery. I remember the enthusiasm and the excitement back then. I also remember the dark days when the brewery operated in the red and they couldn’t keep a good set of employees on board to create any smoothness or consistency in their operations. The brewery’s had a bad batch of beer or two, but what brewery hasn’t? No matter what, I always came back to their good beer. So did their loyal fans, followers and increasingly steady retail accounts. Staples and Miller stuck with it, and the brewery prevailed.

Barb, better known to most as La Femme de Marketing, remembers when trying to balance another job, raise a family and run a brewery was taking its toll. She has always been the creative inspiration for the brewery, and that’s part of the reason she got into the industry in the first place. She also credits her crew with some of the reason she and Mark rode it out. “It was really our crew,” she said, that made it all worthwhile.

Hiring a general manager (Gary Busse) also eased the pressure, and as recently as this April, the brewery took another step forward and hired a brand representative (Matt Bailey) to represent the brewery and make sure Midnight Sun’s face smiled in all corners of the city and wherever their products are sold, which now includes key locations in the lower 48 states. Barb says Bailey is the brewery’s beer evangelist — the friendly face in the market. The brewery’s already reaped successes from this wise business move; MSBC tap handles are becoming more common around town. These days, the folks at Midnight Sun are looking ahead with smiles.

Naturally, the brewery threw some parties this spring to celebrate its decade milestone. The first was a private, invite-only gig that took place on May 5. Industry luminaries including yours truly were in attendance. On Friday, May 6, the brewery conducted its normal Friday night brewery tour in conjunction with one of its fairly regular brew debuts, but this time the beer was incredibly special. Back in August of 2004, Midnight Sun’s beer-o-meter clicked over the 1,000th batch mark.

Thinking ahead, with brewer Gabe Fletcher at the helm, they quietly brewed M, a Belgian-style barley wine that weighed in at a hefty 12% abv. They brewed it, conditioned it and tossed it on oak until it was anniversary time. They bottled the entire batch of this extra gnarly, seven-barley brew that, in the glass, was layer after layer of huge, intense flavors, including the base malts, Belgian yeast clove and phenolics and the added bourbonesque complexity from the oak. Bottles were sold at the brewery and at the key retail accounts that have supported the brewery for many years.

The big blowout event took place on Saturday, May 14, at Café Amsterdam’s Belgian-style café in midtown. Of course, M was around knocking knees, as were quite a few other Midnight Sun specialty draught selections. After that, M showed up at Humpy’s, subZero and Yukon Spirits, where the rare stuff moved quickly from shelves to crawl spaces, including a case in my own.

Midnight Sun is shining ahead with bold plans and a different product mix that has dropped the original Wolf Spirit Pale Ale and Fireweed Honey Ale in deference to bigger, bolder, more distinctive brews that match Alaska’s rapidly maturing palate. The Kodiak Nut Brown Ale remains steadfast and the market’s continued favorite. The brewery is aging a lot more beer in oak and making beers that require more time in the tank and time in the barrel. It’s not that the brewery is struggling for identity; it knows what it is. It has just recently gained the wherewithal and horsepower to realize some dreams.

Wish upon a northern star and bid the Midnight Sun brew crew best wishes, should your paths cross. They’re steppin’ out quite a bit more these days, and you’re apt to see them at increasingly diverse festivals, competitions and locations.

James Roberts is the weekly beer columnist for the Anchorage Press and is known by his alter ego, “Dr. Fermento.” E-mail him at james.roberts@gci.net for specific information or traveling tips.

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