“It’s all fun,” says Harbor Mountain Brewing Company’s owner, general manager and head brewer Zach Anderson. I haven’t heard too many other brewery owners on approach to pouring suds call opening a brewery as “all fun,” but Anderson’s in a unique situation in a unique location and had some of the way is already paved for him. Anderson’s transformed the last vestiges of what used to be Baranof Island Brewing Company in Sitka into something lively, fit for purpose and new. He’s using the existing craft beer market in Sitka to showcase his brand new suds.
Make no mistake that Anderson didn’t just strip off the old Baranof Island brand and paste on a Harbor Mountain one; the brewery just happens to sit in the same building, and that’s where the similarity ends.
Anderson’s experience at Alaskan Brewing Company and Devil’s Club Brewing Company put him in a good position to re-energize the Sitka craft beer scene when he discovered Baranof Island’s demise and researched the remaining local interest in what was left of it. Anderson’s always dreamed of having his own brewery. Most aspiring brewers that start somewhere else do too, but few make the quantum leap to making that a reality and fewer still describe it as fun.
“I was brewing beer in Juneau and heard that Baranof had shut down. I jumped over to Sitka for a basketball tournament, was visiting my girlfriend’s family and all of that, and was touring around actually looking for a space,” says Anderson. “A friend of mine knew a contact that had some information and had actually acquired the Baranof asset and was wondering what to do with it.”
Maybe things get cobbled together a little quicker in our more remote areas than they do here, but it didn’t take long for Anderson to start realizing his dream. “There were a lot of unknowns, but I met with the investors and shared my dream. It’s a lot different than the Baranof model, but we matched up and in the end, they said ‘if you want to take it on, we can make it happen,’ and we got a team of investors together and we did it,” he says.
Anderson bought a brewing system – a small one - from a bankrupt brewery in New York.
“It’s small and very standard for a reason,” says Anderson. “I’m going to be doing more of the farmhouse styles. I’m getting a few ‘clean beers’ up there that are dry hopped, yeast forward and in recognized styles to get things started,” he says.
He’s not making Baranof copycat beers. Not at all. Over time, Anderson intends to delve into an all-wood brewing format, meaning that the stainless system would become secondary for his “clean” beers and wood fermentation and higher end experimental beers using non-traditional processes, fermentation and yeasts and would become primary.
Anderson’s inspiration comes – in part - from Deep Dark Woods Brewing Company in Whitehorse. This brewery specializes in small batch, mixed culture, barrel fermented beers. Sitka’s maybe not ready for that yet, but Anderson knows that the best way to a drinker’s heart is to connect the land and the area to the beer, and the best way to do that is to source local ingredients and get a little bit of Sitka and southeastern Alaska into everything he makes.
“In the Tongass, the berries, the fruit, the kelp, the spruce tips and other local flavors help define us. At the same time, Sitka is one of the more beautiful places to be in Alaska. The esoteric, philosophical part of me is driving me to focus my skill in brewing to get the local flavors and the feeling and the beauty of this place reflected in unique beers served in a unique community environment where people gather, hang out, talk and connect. If I can connect the flavor, place and people together in one location, it will differentiate Harbor Mountain and help me achieve my vision.”
Anderson acknowledges some of the “wet concrete” that Baranof Island Brewing Company left behind in terms of building the foundation for a strong local craft beer culture in Sitka. But he also knows he has a community palate to shape and realizes that’s going to take time.
“I appreciate what Baranof did. Baranof’s closure left a void. People really liked local beer being around. Baranof made good, clean basic beers and that’s what people are used to here. They did the grunt work of shaping the palate somewhat, but the standards aren’t huge. Remember, having fresh beer out here is very hard to do, even at the stores, so my stuff is going to stand out. There’s already a lot of energy behind craft beer in Sitka, and I’m going to keep working on that,” says Anderson.
“I’ll be working the community through some gateway beers like my Grizette, and a saison that’s dry, clean, and on the simpler side. Oh, and of course, Sitka already loves spruce and fruit beers. In general, my viewpoint is that gradual is better than shock treatment. I’ll get people behind that and grow trust in what I’m making to pave the way for the more esoteric stuff like slightly tart beers, then downright sour ales and the other stuff I want to make on the wild side. I have to be patient and see what the reaction is out there,” he says.
“Every demographic is different,” says Anderson. “I have a lot of boomers and the older demographic coming in and they want to know that they always have ‘their’ beer on tap to go to. Ultimately, I want to end up with two production beers and rotate the rest.”
Necessity is the mother of invention and foraging comes natural for Anderson for ingredients to use in specialty beer, but Sitka’s remoteness combined with Alaska’s shitty logistical and shipping challenges actually drive some creativity too.
“Like many other remote breweries up here, I have to buy ingredients by the shipping container load size. It’s always a first-in-first-out inventory methodology, but I always have to consider what to do with ingredients that are left over. There’s a lot of combining of various in ingredients and that pushes my creativity a little bit. I’m really looking forward to being out here,” he says enthusiastically.
Anderson’s in a good position. Despite COVID, a new hospital is under construction and the Coast Guard is growing a bigger presence in the small southeastern community. Still, Anderson doesn’t have global aspirations for his beer.
“We’ll be canning beer, of course. Much of my “clean” beers will go into cans and I’ll be bottling the higher end, more esoteric stuff,” says Anderson.
In the meantime, crowler and growler service is available at the brewery that’s cranking out a Grisette (instead of a more traditional very light beer), a west coast IPA, an oatmeal stout, an apricot pale ale and a New England IPA, among others he’s tinkering with every day.
“In general, it might be the opposite approach of what Baranof was doing. We want to feed Sitka and do the best we can here, then expand from there. I could see us hitting some other southeast towns in the next couple of years, but I’m not in a huge hurry. I hope someday maybe you’ll see some of my stuff on the growler bar at La Bodega,” he hinted.
OK I can see where there’s probably a lot of fun in integrating into a community. I think Anderson’s model is going to work great and I can’t wait to see some of his beer wader up our way.