This year’s false summer was a doozy. We get a false summer every year, but it’s worse this year. We had the typical run of gorgeous weather that fakes me into washing my truck prematurely, but this year, once it hit, it stuck around. So far we’ve had the warmest spring on record. That all changed on Wednesday morning when I woke to snow on the ground as Old Man Winter wants to slap us around a little bit more.
Regardless, with a warmer than average spring, our bruins will be coming out of hibernation a little early and for sure, it means Alaska’s hibernating breweries are waking up too. Although there are more, two breweries warrant an early spring road trip.
Not all Alaska breweries are open year-round. That’s because in some of our smaller communities, although tourism sustains brewing operations in the summer, when our thirsty visitors leave the state in the fall, the remaining population isn’t big enough to keep the breweries profitable and the beer flowing.
I first noticed this phenomenon when 49th State Brewing Company in Healy shut down after the busy summer season. The brewery that actually tried to remain open through the winter during their first year of operation. And, although they had excellent community support, there just wasn’t enough of a surrounding community on the lonely stretch of highway just 13 miles out of Denali Village, a place that rolls up the sidewalks after tourist season. With 49th State Brewing Company opening in Anchorage, demand for beer exploded and now the brewery operates in the winter, but not the adjacent restaurant, so the place becomes a production only facility.
“It’s only like a dozen brews,” says brewer Vincent LaRochelle of 49th in Healy. “In the past, we completely shut down and had beers in the tanks over the winter. We have a couple like that this year, but demand in Anchorage keeps us producing beer.”
This is not without its challenges. As LaRochelle is fond of saying “If you can brew in Healy, you can brew anywhere in the world.”
Once the brewery has the close out party at the end of every year, the restaurant space next door turns into our storage space,” says LaRochelle. “We use the drain in the restaurant to keep it from freezing. We can’t mill the grain in the day before because the system would freeze up. Our auger has frozen up in the past; we’ve had to bang ice out of it to start the brew. We can’t leave the kegs outside, they’d freeze solid,” he says of complicated winter beer manufacture.
49th State closed last September but has a soft opening on April 26th and the big opening celebration on Saturday, April 27 this year. According to the marketing department, anyone who makes a reservation to visit on Opentable gets 25% off on the visit. On the 27th, the first 49 people in the door get a voucher for a free famous 49th State pretzel. Marc Brown and the Blues Crew kick off the season that night.
According to Brewmaster David Short in Anchorage, those of us awaiting the hibernating beers, “and yes, on the Hibernation Beer Series beer! We’ll have four Hibernation beers on tap: Hibernator Dopplebock, Port Barrel Aged -12 below Quad, Whiskey Barrel Aged Seward’s folly and Imperial Sumatra.”
Can you scream “Road Trip!”? I can’t think of a better reason to head out of town to Healy as spring really gets in gear in the interior.
Seward Brewing Company is another hibernating brewery. “Having to be closed in the winter is pure economics says owner Erik Slater. “We closed in mid September. If I could figure out a way to stay open a little longer I would. Every year I come up with a new game plan to try to extend the season, but we run into speed bumps that don’t allow it.”
Unlike 49th State in Healy, Seward Brewing Company doesn’t distribute which limits the market to the small town of Seward. “The seasonality of the town, well it’s tough in Seward,” says Slater. “We’re in a big, old building that requires a lot of heat and it’s too expensive to run it in the winter time. We’re based on visitation in Seward and not a lot of people come down here in the winter.”
Being closed in the winter isn’t all bad for Seward Brewing Company. For one, it fits Slater’s lifestyle as he likes to travel in the winter and take a break from the non-stop operation when people pour into the small community in the summer.
As important as that, it gives the crew time to do more serious repairs and upgrades to the massive three story building. “There’s definitely an upside,” says Slater. It’s a big, old building and things break, crack and drip. We can put a band aid on these things in the summer, but can’t stop operations to really do what needs to be done. Closing down allows for bigger repairs, modifications and upgrades.”
Seward Brewing is indeed popular in the summer and Slater reinvests in the facility in the off season. “We just did a huge upgrade on the flooring,” he says. “We put in new carpet, new subflooring here and there and new flooring around the bar and put in an all new kitchen floor which required yanking the whole kitchen out; something that definitely can’t happen in the winter,” says Slater of a number of upgrades to the facility and systems that run the place.
Seward Brewing Company opens May 1st this year. Brewer Jeff Nye from Glacier Brewhouse will become the head brewer. This is significant because Glacier Brewhouse Brewer Kevin Burton, now with Matanuska Brewing Company was instrumental in getting Seward Brewing up and going when it moved from a smaller location to the historic bank building where it is now.
“He’s got that commercial experience for one,” says Slater of the new talent addition. “He worked under Kevin for a long time and since Kevin helped set this place up with the former owner back in the day, we have mostly the same processes. He was able to walk in, look around and say ‘oh yeah, this is how we do it at Glacier,’ and was very familiar with our system right off the bat.”
Don’t expect a huge seasonal grand opening; it doesn’t work that way in Seward where the locals get to be the first to drink fresh suds in the spring. “There’s no big fanfare with our opening this year. We’re just going to quietly open and the locals already know about it and are anticipating it,” says Slater. “We like to ease into the season,” he says.
“This year we’ll emerge with our flagship beers because that’s what are locals are used to and they always come to us first,” says Slater. Expect the tried and true like Pinbone IPA, Inked Out Stout, Rockfish Red, Marathon Summer Ale, Pilot Pilsner and the ever popular El Jefeweize, a roasted Anaheim Chili beer that’s captured local fame for being flavorful but not hot.
More will come. “Jeff’s got some ideas for new beers this year like a new coconut blonde, and some others” says Slater. Every year Seward Brewing collaborates to make a beer with Bleeding Heart Brewing Company in Palmer that will work into a fundraiser with beer donations toward helping Seward Pride Alliance get a new building to name a couple of ideas in the kettle.
Need to get out of town for something fresh this spring? Head north to Healy or South to Seward to celebrate Alaska’s coming out of hibernation this year. There are many other breweries along the way, so make it a multi-day road trip.