I was 36 years old. It would be four years before I started writing about beer for the Anchorage Press, but I was as excited as if I was scooping one of the most historical beer events to happen in Anchorage. I was in Air Force fatigues standing in line outside of Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse. It was 10 minutes to 11 in the morning and Humpy’s wasn’t open yet. In fact, Humpy’s had never opened yet. I was, indeed, poised for a historical moment.
When the doors finally swung upon, I was along for a life-hanging ride that I’m still cranking away on today. The line behind me was one deep; it was just me and my wife waiting to be the first customers in an epic new beer revolution that changed the way Alaska understood and enjoyed beer.
I’ve been chasing beer most of my adult life and back then, good beer was scant in Alaska. I’d hang out at Harry’s Restaurant on Benson and C Street because they – and Chilkoot Charlie’s in Spenard – had the only decent tap lines around. I was let in on a secret by the barkeep at Harry’s; Jim Maurer and his high school buddy Billy Opinsky were going to open the first real alehouse in Alaska on 6th Avenue across from the Performing Arts Center. I don’t know who was more excited, them or me.
“I’m sitting here looking at the old Anchorage Daily News article,” says Maurer as he was sitting outside on Humpy’s back patio when I talked to him about Humpy’s quarter-century of bringing the best beer to Anchorage. “It reads ‘Humpy’s to spawn downtown boom.”
I’ve long credited Humpy’s for blowing open the forlorn downtown corridor back then. When Maurer confided in me about opening the alehouse, I was almost aghast at the amount of risk involved in opening a place where the sidewalks rolled up at night. “Everyone thought we were crazy,” says Maurer, “but it seemed to have worked out pretty well, don’t you think?”
Maurer was 26 at the time. “I was going to leave Alaska and go look for work somewhere else. I was going to go to California. Billy reasoned with me. ‘You can’t stay here all winter and leave in the summer; that’s just crazy,’ he said. I told him that if I was going to stay, we’re going to open our own place. He was in,” says Maurer.
The pair sat around drinking Coors Light and started scheming.
“When Billy came up with the idea of Humpy’s, I said ‘no way, that’s to risqué,” says Maurer. But the name stuck and Maurer was satisfied as long as it was called Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse. “Back when phone books were around, it put our name right in front of the Great Alaskan Bush Company. That place was successful; let everyone see our name right before it.”
According to Maurer and Opinsky, they both knew downtown Anchorage was a great place to situate what would become a magnet for the beer-loving community and prove that other lively hot spots could thrive there. “Not only did we see the craft beer movement exploding in the Lower 48, downtown needed an injection of young fun. I was literally walking around downtown, and when I saw that the old municipal print shop was up for lease I had to call Billy immediately,” says Maurer. “I think I had to bum some change to make the call; I didn’t even have a quarter.”
“All we wanted to do was sell some beer and halibut,” says Maurer. “We opened on June 13th thinking we were opening a little bar and grill. I was going to flip burgers and Billy was going to tend bar and we were going to trade off.” I found myself riding my bicycle from Muldoon to the bar long before it opened, jumping in and helping out wherever I could. I was no carpenter, but I was plenty good for grunt labor and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
I knew the bar was going to be much bigger than some downtown bar and grill.
“The original design was for 18 taps,” says Opinsky. The tap lines came in groups of nine. We quickly changed that to 27, but that wasn’t uniform, so it ended up being 36. We wondered if we could keep that much beer on at one time.”
That’s never been a problem; not even from day one. When the doors swung open 25 years ago on the 13th, I was the first one in, rushed to the shiny new bar and marveled over what Billy and Jimbo had done and studied a makeshift menu realizing I was seeing the most beers on tap I’d ever seen at one place in my life.
Humpy’s is my Cheers. It always has been and always will be. I experienced many firsts there. I went to my first beer dinner there featuring Midnight Sun Brewing Company Beers. Midnight Sun’s Sockeye Red is a beer that was designed specifically for Humpy’s. It’s got the same staying power as what’s become an internationally famous beer hot spot up here. I had my first sour beer at Humpy’s. In fact, I’ve had so many first beers at Humpy’s over the years that I’d never imagined we’d see in Alaska, I can’t even remember them all.
That’s what Maurer and Opinsky wanted; a downtown experience that’s a mix of great food, beer and music. I discovered the Denali Cooks shortly after Humpy’s opened and I can thank Humpy’s for turning me into a life long groupie of that band.
There’s a lot more to the Humpy’s story, including the expansion into what used to be Lucero’s on F Street in the same building, then the duo opening Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse in Kona. Humpy’s took over the Stephan Fine Arts spot on the corner of 6th and F and turned it into Flattop Pizza and Pool. Humpy’s opened Williwaw in 2015 where the Covenant House used to be. That got them into some significant financial hot water, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s just a little blip on the Humpy’s foamy radar.
Humpy’s boasts 60 taps now with a combination of the main tap line and a series of coolers for one off specialty beers. You can be pretty well guaranteed that if a new beer shows up in town, you’ll find it on tap at Humpy’s first.
The anniversary celebration will be on the 22nd. Humpy’s has always celebrated anniversaries on Solstice. “We’re going to keep it mellow. We’re going to take over the little parking lot behind the bar, do a little salmon bake, serve some good beer and celebrate with some music. We’re just inviting everyone down. We want to see some old faces and new faces and talk about all of the crazy things that have happened here over the years. We’re just going to have some fun Humpy’s style and we’ll hump it up a little,” says Maurer. Expect some surprises and a special commemorative beer brewed by Midnight Sun to be a feature.
“We’re still here and we always will be,” says Opinsky.
“Humpy’s is back to where it used to be before our financial issues with the bankruptcy,” says Maurer. “This place suffered a little bit, but we’re bringing back the soul that’s always been us. We’re shouting from the rooftop that we’re still here. It’s been a fun ride, a bumpy one recently, but we’re looking forward to being around for another 25 years as the place for beer lovers, by beer lovers which has been our tag line all along.”