Roberts

James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts





Alaska’s more than 40 craft breweries are all suffering as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. No business is spared during this time, but it’s going to be a rough year for our brewers, even as things are starting to open back up.

The Brewers Guild of Alaska (BGA) “is a non-profit trade association founded in 2000 by craft brewers in Alaska to promote the craft beer and brewing industry through consumer education, community events and legislative advocacy. BGA also provides a strong networking base for our brewers, their suppliers, retailers and others interested in understanding the expanding role the craft brewing industry plays in the Alaska economy,” according to the BGA website.

I’m entirely familiar with the BGA; I was president of the organization between 2010 and 2014. Although I didn’t shovel a whole lot of coal into the BGA engine back then, I have great respect for what the organization stands for, how far it’s come and for its dedication to our local craft brewers.

As for the impact on BGA member breweries, according to the BGA’s Development Coordinator Alex Vrabec, “everyone’s handling it differently; everyone’s taking a hit. Not one of our breweries hasn’t been adversely affected by this. Yeah, some more than others, but we’re all in this together. I’m worried about what next winter is going to look like,” she says.

All of our breweries depend on different revenue streams to stay afloat, prosper, flourish and grow. Some smaller breweries don’t package and distribute their beer and depend on pushing pints over the counter and selling growlers, crowlers and maybe five-gallon kegs. Bigger breweries depend on retail sales at bars and restaurants and maybe shipping beer off either near, far or both for sale.

I know I’m grossly oversimplifying this, but all of our breweries depend on one thing: people thirsty for good beer. The pandemic entirely took away our breweries ability to connect people with beer. Our craft beer artisans couldn’t get to work to make beer and people couldn’t get to the various markets to buy it. The whole industry stalled, and it’s far from over.

Although our breweries are “self-sustaining” from the standpoint that they don’t 100 percent depend on thirsty tourists to fill their coffers, tourism is undeniably one of the biggest economic boosts and helps breweries hedge against our long, lower-consumption winters. Well, tourism isn’t happening this year as far as we know, so it’s up to us locals to support our suds.

In these trying times, the BGA maintains the same industry supportive posture, but with a more intense focus on helping our breweries make it through this mess.

This costs money, too. Where does the BGA get funds? Although not all inclusive, brewery, industry and other membership fees, donations from industry entities and supporters, and beer festivals from which proceeds are earmarked for the Guild enable the Guild to be the “foremost organization in Alaska to advocate for craft manufacturers as we continue our work to stand for small business owners in the face of adversity at every level,” wrote BGA Board President Lee Ellis to members.

So far, there haven’t been any beer festivals that have survived this year. The Rare Beer Festival here in Anchorage and the Haines Beer Festival have already been cancelled with more casualties on the way. From the looks of things, even the nation’s biggest – the Great American Beer Festival in Denver in October – is on the brink of toppling into the COVID abyss. In between, I know of at least a dozen other local beer festivals that support the Guild that are at imminent risk.

Breweries and the Guild have had to get creative. There’s not one of our breweries that hasn’t had to restructure their business model. Thinking outside of the box is no longer a creative business differential strategy that sets breweries apart; it’s a matter of survival, and now more than ever, our breweries are all in this together.

I’ve seen some of the most creative and fascinating responses to what COVID’s done to the industry and am proud of the breweries and the Guild in their efforts to chin up through this whole thing because — one way or another — I’m getting my local craft beer fix between now and whenever the “new normal” brings us drinkers back together in public places in a bigger way.

I miss drinking beer with friends. I miss lively, bustling pubs and watching the publicans pull pints and slide them across the bar, hearing the chatter and laughter, and glasses clinking as people rejoice in good times. I miss the beer festivals too where me and a dozens if not thousands of my closest drinking buddies gather and drink the most local beer all under one roof.

What should we do in the meantime?

We can still support the Guild and our breweries and have a lot of fun at the same time. Plan on participating in SIP AK, a virtual beer tasting experience that takes place on May 14-15, 21-22 and 28-29, right from the comfort of your own socially distanced drinking spot. Here’s how it works.

This event is being put on by Peak 2 Peak Alaska; they’re the folks that bring us a lot of cool beer events, but this is the first for a virtual beer festival. According to Peak 2 Peak’s Darcy Kniefel, “SIP AK, which is short for Sip in Place,” is our way of working with the Guild to think outside of the box. Other places around the nation are having great success with virtual beer festivals; why can’t we?”

A $15 ticket gets you into all six sessions, and “we have more breweries that are wanting to participate, so we may add more sessions as part of the price,” says Kniefel.

For each session attendees will be issued access to virtual Facebook space for the festivities. Participating breweries will be featuring specific beers and attendees should get these in advance. Each session starts at 7 p.m. with the first one Thursday. Head out to sipalaska.com for your tickets. Once you’re “in” you’ll be provided with the “taste along” list of beers for the sessions.

What should you expect? “We’re figuring that each session will last for about an hour to an hour to an hour and a half,” says Kniefel. “You’ll pop into a virtual world with the beers you have with you. Participating brewers will have brewery tours, share in fun stories, have sipping sessions and talk about the beers they’ve chosen to feature. What a great way to drink beer with friends right from your own couch, right?”

Live music’s in the mix too, at least at the session that will take place at Turnagain Brewing Company. Brewer/owner Ted Rosenzweig’s band Last Train will be performing as part of that night’s lineup.

What a great way to support our local breweries and the Guild that’s doing so much to support them right now. Check out the SIP AK Facebook page, surf out and get your tickets and support the cause.

On the same website, you can donate more than just the $15 for the virtual fest. If you want to go above and beyond you can be a Terrific Taster donator for $10, a Fabulous Fan for $50, a Connoisseur Contributor for $100 or a Spry Sponsor for $250.

Beer’s done a lot for me in this state, so it’s time to do the right thing. Get signed up for SIP AK and I’ll share a beer with you from my couch or down in Hope where I hang out, socially isolate and drink beer on the weekends.

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