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James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

In two more days we’ll celebrate our country’s 244th birthday. There’s a lot to be said about that I suppose. This isn’t the same world that I entered over 60 years ago and grew up in, but why focus on the negative when the Fourth of July weekend celebrates another birthday for me, too?

No, I’m not getting another year older, but given that I started writing this beer column for the Anchorage Press on this weekend in 1997, this is my 23rd year of cranking out my foamy drivel for the same thirsty masses that love the same locally produced craft beer that I do.

No, not all of my just shy of 1,200 beer columns have featured and celebrated local beer, but without patting myself on the back, I feel I’ve been committed to seeing that our dedicated brewers and our high quality beer up here gets the nod as far as my written word can reach.

Lots has changed since I wrote my first Budweiser-bashing beer column for the Press back then. Eleven breweries were open when I took over the beer column from who was then the second beer columnist for the paper since its inception as the Anchorage Bypass in 1992.

I can’t tell you if the paper had a beer column from the get-go; I’ve outlasted at least 16 editors in my tenure and two publishers; the original – Nick Coltman – having returned a number of years ago. As for the history of the beer column and when it started, no one seems to remember. Or, maybe I just haven’t asked. Regardless, I was pretty proud to get the gig and see my position as one of honor rather than profit. I’m here for the beer, always have been and always will be “unless my fingers fall off or my liver shits the bed,” as I’ve been so fond of saying during all of the years.

When I first put my fingers on the keyboard for the Press, there were 11 operating breweries. Three more — Prinz Brau in Anchorage, Raven’s Ridge in Fairbanks and Yukon Brewing and Bottling also in Anchorage - had already dissolved. There are probably some I don’t know about. I’m not a historian or beer expert, after all, but rather just a self-professed beer drinker with a writing problem.

Today, with some degree of accuracy, I count 47 operating breweries spread out across this vast and increasingly craft-beer thirsty state with three more on the cusp of opening (Growler Bay Brewing Company in Valdez, Latitude 62 in Fairbanks and Cooper Landing Brewing Company just south of us) and at least two more in the planning stages. Between when I started writing and today, I’ve seen 12 breweries close down for good. We love our beer up here; there’s no doubt about that.

Aside from demographics, the beer landscape has changed significantly in the last 20 years. Craft beer’s explosive popularity in the mid 1980’s, and perhaps a little later up here, fueled a lot of quick upstarts with an “anything goes” attitude, and a theme that seemed to be “I can make anything you can make, and if I can make it better, I’ll gobble more market share.” Then, having a core lineup of solid, high quality beers is what mattered. That’s no longer true.

The high-quality, non-variable of that equation stands as firm as ever. Entrants today can’t pull taps that dispense even mediocre suds, let alone some of the crap I tolerated in the early days. The market is painful and unforgiving and there are too many other choices out there. Distributors, publicans and consumers are “assaulted” with untold variety, and it’s too easy today to push one beer aside without much thought in deference to another because it shines better for some, even minute, reason.

Alaskans are individualists and there were always those that stand out by differentiation, and today, it’s differentiation and variety that matter.

I’m a good case study. When I shop for beer, I don’t shop for brand or style, I shop for what’s new, both in Alaska and outside. I have my favorites in both beer and brewery, but that’s not my focus. I drink in fear of missing something, and so much beer is flying by these days, the risk is constant.

I proved that between November of last year and the year before by drinking three new beers – including beers I’d never had but might not have been new – every single day for a year. Was that a challenge? You bet. Oh, there was no problem sourcing three new beers a day; I just had a problem keeping up with it. I’m guessing that if I’d had the wherewithal, I could have sampled four new brews a day without much more effort.

What does that prove? No, I’m not a raging alcoholic, but if I were one of today’s emergent, very beer-curious budding craft beer aficionados, the tapestry out there’s a lot richer and more colorful than the one I wrapped myself in when I got started. Just in local craft beer, I can reasonably expect anymore that I might see at least one, if not two new releases right here in Anchorage every day or every other day. Hey; I’m a professional beer drinker, and if I can’t keep up with the market, I can’t imagine what it feels like for someone not as well immersed.

Brewery footprints are getting smaller, too. With little exception, our local brewers aren’t chasing global markets and planning oceans-full of beer volume, instead focusing on the market at home, and sometimes that market isn’t any bigger than a neighborhood. Brewers don’t need a huge footprint if the focus is on providing dedicated denizens what they want and not much more. If a small, local brewery can make year-round devotees to their brand, who needs tourism to keep them afloat?

I have to quote Karen Berger of Homer Brewing Company – one of Alaska’s true heritage breweries having been established in 1996 and defining in beer on our Kenai Peninsula – when she says, “I don’t need to bring our beer to Anchorage to make you people happy; it’s my neighbors down here that live here all year long that keep my doors open.”

I don’t know what the years ahead mean for craft beer in Alaska, but I predict we’ll see more new breweries – we’re far from saturation, even here in Anchorage — although COVID tried to dash that notion — and those breweries will stand out in their own ways, but they will stand out rather than chasing market share by making more of the same. With that comes great, fascinating high-quality variety, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. That’s something I’m forever happy to write.

I tried to give this “beer drinker with a writing problem,” gig up throughout the years. When I accepted Coltman’s offer to become the contributing beer columnist way back then, I swallowed hard and thought “well, if they don’t like me, they’ll run me off, and if I get tired of this, I’ll quit.”

My five-year milestone, then the ten year mark made me think maybe enough is enough, and I was convinced I was hanging up my wig at year 20. So much for that

One more time: as long as my fingers don’t fall off and my liver doesn’t shit the bed, look for my piece next week and the week after; I love beer lovers as much as I love the local beer they support.

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