“We’ve done a real 180 in the last two months business-wise, now that occupancy and seating capacity have gone back up,” says Midnight Sun Brewing Company (MSBC) President Lee Ellis, who is also the Board President of the Brewers’ Guild of Alaska (BGA). Ellis is of course talking about the recent easing of some COVID-driven restrictions limiting a brewery’s ability to get product over the counter to customers.
Midnight Sun celebrates its 26 years this month, with the actual Anniversary having been on Wednesday, May 5th. Who would have thought that one of the biggest threats to a brewery’s existence in the last quarter of a century would have been a global pandemic?
Lee’s been with MSBC for 12 years, starting out as a packager, or the guy that gets the suds in bottles and cans, and gets those boxed up and ready for shipment. That’s what he was doing at Mac & Jacks Brewery in Washington before he came to Alaska in 2009 and worked at Bean’s Café as an unpaid volunteer for a year before landing at Midnight Sun. In fact, he’s the single remaining current employee that worked at the brewery’s original location on Arctic Boulevard, next to a taxidermist and across the lot from an animal crematorium. Lee’s come a long way since then and so has Midnight Sun.
In my interview with him, I thought Ellis and I would go way back and re-live and laugh about the escapades in the early days, when craft beer was fighting for a foothold in Alaska, and MSBC quickly became one of our state’s heritage and defining breweries shortly after opening in May of 1995. I was there then, and actually “there” before that, trading time for beer by helping construct the guts of the brewery in the communal fashion that cobbles social icons together in their formative phases.
We didn’t laugh and lament about the past; Ellis is a very focused, brilliant, and future driven industry figurehead, and with the tumultuous last two years of COVID-driven havoc, most of our breweries have become nervously vigilant of where the next threat might come from. All is good, Ellis assures me, although threats remain.
“We survived COVID, and that’s the most important thing,” says Ellis. “It’s not over yet, but we are getting back to normal, and we’re certainly luckier than some of the rest of the breweries out there.”
MSBC’s evolution into the future reflects distinct changes in the industry, and most importantly, beer consumer preferences and consumption habits.
“The culture of craft beer drinking has really changed dramatically over the last 10 years,” says Ellis. You and I started tuning our palates even before that with recognizable, traditional styles of beer. The younger generation has a much different set of expectations,” he explains.
“In the cheesiest fashion, it’s about wonderment,” explains Ellis. “Now, it’s like people walk in expect to see a mix of barrel aged beers, sour beers, six different hazy IPAs and some double IPAs on tap. Those were unheard of in our formative years, but this is what this curious generation expects, and they expect an ever-changing line up of it.”
Ellis and I both agree that the continued infatuation with “anything IPA” is tiresome. What’s next in the most rapidly evolving style in the history of beer? What else can brewers throw in with a hoppy, hazy beer and make it taste different so it sells?
“Brewers and retailers are discussing this new culture in craft beer. Concerning trends include stuff like pastry stouts and milkshake IPA’s and stuff that’s moving further and further away from what beer tastes like,” says Ellis.
I agree. I drink every new beer I can pour over my gums, whether I care for the style or not, and my first judgment criteria is that it has to taste like a beer first. Then, perhaps that kumquat, cucumber, or whatever other adjunct the brewer tossed in as part of the beer’s manufacture emerges, but just as an interesting, or balancing addition. Fully half the time with these gimmicky beers, I can’t tell I’m even drinking one.
“We’ve gotten some flak because we only put out eight or 10 hazy IPA’s in the last five years, and that’s not sufficient for this market in this day and age, or so it seems,” says Ellis.
“When I look at the future of craft beer and I see the gimmicks fading away, I see the rise of the lagers and more delicate styles, and the resurgence of more traditional beers,” he says. If you want to know where craft beer is going to go, look at Europe, look at what they’re drinking. The beer is extremely well executed. It’s simpler, and it might not have that crazy bouquet of flavors everyone over he’s become accustomed to, but it’s done incredibly well. The future for MSBC is doing every style of beer extraordinary well. We’re avoiding chasing trends,” says Ellis. I welcome those words.
Like Ellis, I’m hoping to see more of the basics in local brewer lineups. “If you look at doing specific styles and doing them very well, that’s commendable, and so is making the best hazy IPA, I guess. I’m a little bit of a German brewer and I want to operate in the Rheinheitsgabot, a little bit more,” says Ellis.
Reinheitsgebot is the 1516 German Purity Law that says only four ingredients – malt, hops, water and yeast – go into beer. “The whole idea of craft beer is that you can make really cool and interesting flavors with just a couple of ingredients rather than throwing in everything imaginable. Brewers today are gravitating toward using adjuncts rather than letting the diverse yeast cultures out there to their thing in shaping a beer’s flavor outcome,” says Ellis.
How is all of this driving change at the brewery? Some of its subtle and some is pretty impacting.
“Here are a few things we’re focusing on,” says Ellis. “We’re coming out with four packs of 12 ounce bottles including Fallen Angel, Arctic Devil, Monk’s Mistress, Berserker, Berserker South of the Border and Termination Dust, to name a few. This will include some mix packs that allow people to drink some and cellar some of these bigger beers”
“Puffin Pale Ale will be available in six packs year-round,” continues Ellis. This reflects MSBC’s notion that a lighter beer in the lineup that’s not as hoppy as other beers, and is sweeter and a bit more malt forward, it could serve as a crossover for drinkers of mass produced beers into the craft beer realm.
Ellis also revealed that Hop Dog IPA is being replaced by a new double IPA this summer, one that’s been proven over the last couple of years, and uses the Kveik yeast strain, which “imparts a kind of a farmhouse, fruity flavor and provides a great flavor profile that works well with a lot of different hop varieties,” he says.
Sockeye and Pleasure Town will stay the same and “Meltdown isn’t going anywhere; it’s like our crown jewel, and so is CoHoHo,” he says.
On a bigger scale, “we’re teaming up with Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines to package canned craft cocktails. We’re in the process of obtaining a distillery permit. We have the federal permit and are working on the state permit, so we may have distilling in our future,” says Ellis.
Midnight Sun’s actual Anniversary was on Wednesday the 5th, but celebrations continue through the weekend. Check social media and the brewery’s web page for specifics, but of note, don’t miss out on the special anniversary beer, The Curse. It’s on tap only at the brewery, now, and as long as it lasts.
The Curse is a collaboration beer with some outside grog shops including Seattle’s Full Throttle Bottles, Puyallup’s Rainier Growlers and CaskCades and Peaks and Pints Craft Beer Store, Taproom & eatery in Tacoma, Washington.
“It weighs in at a hefty 12 percent alcohol by volume. It’s a Belgian style barleywine, that’s not American, or English, but stands out on its own. It’s a very big, malty beer, not quite a Belgian quad. It doesn’t have the fruity profile like a quad, it’s not as big on the esters, and it’s a little bit more chocolaty. Barrel aging has a lot to do with the incredible flavors,” says Ellis.
Long time brewery followers will recall the famous Midnight Sun “M,” which is of the same unique style. Unlike M, drink The Curse now instead of cellaring it.
“The beer had no name in the beginning. It was such an effort to get everyone together to get it made, and everything got terrible after we made it. That’s right when COIVID hit, for one. It was like some sort of curse. We’re asking people not to cellar it, but drink it immediately to end the curse,” says Ellis.
“What do I want people to know about Midnight Sun in the next 10 years? I don’t know if I want people to know anything. Just come down and drink what we’re making; it’s always good and it’s forever interesting. That’s the difference,” says Ellis
That’s why I’ve been a regular for the last 26 years, and look forward to more.