Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company

Anchorage Brewing Company’s owner/brewer Gabe Fletcher is having a coolship built, even though he already has one. Actually, it’s more than that. He’s building a special room for the coolship that he’s having built to realize a dream come true. Okay, back up even more. Fletcher’s adding 5,500 square feet to the existing South Anchorage facility in what he’s saying is the “end game” for the overall long-term development plan for the brewery. That’s probably a lie, because Fletcher is a thinker and a dreamer, and I don’t see him ever stopping with new ideas and the slow, protracted growth that’s made Anchorage Brewing Company the incredible institution that it is day. 

Regardless, the coolship gets its own 16-foot by 16-foot special enclosure on the roof of the new addition. There’s a reason for this. 

“I would say that technically, a coolship is a shallow, wide vat use to cool wort naturally. People also use a coolship to inoculate the wort with the wild yeast that’s always in the air wherever you are. The wider and more shallow the coolship is, the more surface area there is to collect more airborne yeast,” he started to explain. “The size is specific. Mine’s going to be eight feet wide by eight feet long and 14 inches deep,” says Fletcher of the dimensions of a special fermentation vessel that he’s having custom designed out of wood by Foudre Crafters, the outfit that makes a lot of Fletcher’s really cool wooden fermentation vessels. 

Wort is a funny name for unfermented beer. That’s simple enough. Modern “clean” brewing is typically accomplished in closed fermentation systems to keep the very wild yeast Fletcher is chasing out of beer because wild yeast is unpredictable. Clean beers rely on laboratory pure, isolated strains of yeast that perform predictably and consistently. Coolships were common before brewers even knew about yeast’s role in fermentation. In some of the most classic European breweries, even today, the wort is pumped from the ground level in the brewery to a coolship in the top of the brewery and most often in a special tower or room constructed to get the beer high enough so that opening the louvers in the enclosure results in cross-flow specifically designated to cool the wort and expose it to the wild yeast to make lambics and other spontaneously fermented beers. These styles are true favorite styles of mine. 

I did some studying and indeed, coolships capitalize on capturing the resident yeast in the local area. In Europe and especially in Belgium, breweries like the world renown Cantillon use them to create unique lambic beers. 

I always thought of Cantillon as a picturesque, sprawling brewing amongst the rolling hills on the outskirts of Brussels. I know Alaska’s got lots of it’s own unique biota, but when I thought of what might be floating around the middle of Anchorage that might be good to spontaneously ferment beer, I had my doubts.

“Cantillon is located in a middle eastern ghetto in Brussels with zero trees around. You don’t have to be on a farm or need to have some orchard or winery next door. There’s not a tree to be found over there; it’s all concrete and steel,” says Fletcher of the contrast. 

“Wild yeast is everywhere; not just in fruit fields. The thing that makes lambic and the flora alive is really more about the building that the coolship is in than it is the surrounding area,” says Fletcher. 

I guess the building grows character over time as the wood absorbs and adds to the culturing of some of the funk that individualizes a local flavor. Foudre Crafters is actually saving excess wood pieces from the cooperage so that the entire Anchorage Brewing coolship building can be lined with it. Let the fun begin.

Another departure in Fletcher’s system is the use of a wood coolship rather than the more traditional stainless steel or copper vessel, or even a copper lined wooden vessel. 

“There’s no real reason I chose wood, maybe only because I wanted to try something different. Yeah it would be easier to use stainless or copper up there, but Matt at Foudre Crafters pitched me with the idea, and I said ‘yeah, let’s do it.’ I was initially going to do a copper one, and I still have the stainless one I built years ago, but I wanted to see how wood would work. Likely we’ll be one of the first breweries to create full sized wooden coolship,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher isn’t dinking around on some short term whim project with the coolship. Using a coolship in the brewing process is expensive, time consuming and risky.

“Oh, it’s a very expensive project,” says Fletcher. “It’s not something I’m doing to make money with. It’s a passion project and one of my dreams. 

“Oh sure, we’ll produce some very traditional lambic style beers, but we’ll be using it for other projects including some open fermentation and using it as sort of a hop back and fill it up with, say, herbs, hops or dandelions for example and do some things that don’t produce a lambic beer but will make some really unique styles.”

Fletcher knows that the cooling aspect of a wooden coolship isn’t as efficient as a copper or stainless equivalent. Wood’s a natural insulator, after all. He’s worked with wood in brewing for so long, he also knows during the periods when the coolship wouldn’t be in use, it would have to be hydrated to keep the wood moist and to keep it from cracking or improperly aging. He also knows that not everything that flows through a coolship in part of the brewing process magically comes out right.

“The coolship beer we did before in my longer, skinnier and deeper steel coolship took two-and-a-half years to produce. It smelled like hot dog water in the beginning, but eventually the characters came together and it turned out great, but not all of it. Some of the barrels didn’t produce like others and we dumped two or three out of the eight barrels we made,” he says. “The thing is, you’re rolling the dice; there’s no doubt about that. But it’s been a dream of mine forever to have a dedicated coolship room.”

Fletcher didn’t need an additional 5,500 square feet to get his coolship ya-ya out; it’s part of an overall expansion plan that adds storage and cooler space, along with some amenities like a rooftop deck with gardens and planters and a small orchard on the ground level. 

“No, I didn’t need all of this for a coolship, I did need some space. But in the end, I want to create a beautiful space for people to come and enjoy not only my beer, but the things we have on the property that are purposeful and will invoke curiosity and conversation,” says Fletcher. 

The coolship is being built now while concrete started pouring for the foundation of the new building this week. “Basically, the entire project should be done by February and we look to brew the first spontaneous beer in March or April, says Fletcher. 

Coolships are definitely cool, and this spring you can expect a major addition to the Anchorage Brewing venue and get your first up-close look at open and spontaneous fermentation in action. 

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