Seward Brewing Company is one of Alaska’s craft breweries that hibernates during the winter. This isn’t uncommon for breweries in outlying, remote communities that rely heavily on the tourist trade to keep the taps open and don’t have a big enough local population to sustain them in the winter months.
There’s a delicate balance between brewery size and demand. If a brewery’s too small in a tourist-rich environment, keeping the taps full during the summer months is a challenge, but there might be enough local thirst to sustain them in the lesser months. Seward Brewing Company’s explosive popularity over the last five years commanded a bigger brewery, but operating the massive complex during the winter just doesn’t pencil out.
49th State Brewing Company in Healy hibernates every year. 49th in Healy closed on Sunday, September 23, filling the brewery’s tanks with long, heady overwintering beers for next season.
The large complex out there is in the same situation as Seward Brewing Company. Situated 13 miles north of Denali Village, the place is literally overrun in the summer, not only by tourists, but the migrant support staff that works the hospitality industry while tourists and locals alike come to gawk at North America’s tallest mountain. In the winter, the lonely stretch of highway north of the Village is just a way to get between Anchorage and Fairbanks and people don’t even blink at the brewpub as they fly by in temperatures that can dip to 40 below. 49th State’s Anchorage location remains open year round; it’s one of Alaska’s hottest beer and dining destinations and locals enjoy a little more breathing room in the winter months.
Homer Brewing Company – another example of a small community brewery – is perfectly right-sized. The brewery is robust enough to support year-round operations and depends less on the swarming tourists in the summer than the locals that support the place year-round. Haines and Skagway Brewing Companies are the same, although being open year round is a newer business model for Skagway. Gakona Brewing Company doesn’t depend on tourists at all, although the couple of tap handles at the nearby Gakona Roadhouse see a lot more pulls in the summer.
Seward Brewing Company poured its final beer this year on September 10. Brewer/owner Erik Slater isn’t necessarily relieved, but his business model affords him the time to do other things while sustaining the massive brewery-pub operation south of Anchorage.
“The tourism slows down, the locals are a small core group, and we don’t distribute,” says Slater. “It’s a matter of economics.”
Closing down in the winter affords Slater the opportunity to make improvements in the massive building that houses the operations and at the same time, Slater can breathe a little, focus on his other operation, Chinooks Waterfront Restaurant and get some snowboarding in, one of the primary activities Slater came to Alaska to enjoy before settling down in the unlikely spot of Seward.
“In 1996 I owned a snowboard shop in Washington I was between 21 and 24. I found myself not snowbarding as much as I wanted to. I read an article about Alaska where people were both salmon fishing and snowbarding all day and drinking beer on the beach at night. I told myself that I need to go do that, so I sold my partnership and bought a one way ticket to Alaska,” says Slater.
Slater’s one of those guys who – like me – landed in Alaska and never looked back. “I fell in love with Alaska right away. I stayed in Anchorage a couple of years, I lived in Girdwood, Juneau and Skweentna,” says Slater of his initial exposure to the state.
Slater always loved craft beer. “I saw Glacier brewhouse open, the Goose, and Midnight Sun. Railway Brewing Company was still open and Bird Creek was still going back then. I sat on the original couch in the corner of Moose’s Tooth back then. It was great to be here in the start of the brewing explosion in Alaska.”
Slater’s been a chef and has a real passion for good food and beer. “My favorite food has always been a burger and a beer as a chef. I always look for that in a good restaurant,” he says. I agree. I hate it when people say “you can’t fuck up a burger,” because that’s simply not true. Making a great burger is an art and Slater and I agree on that premise when we search out venues that pride themselves on a good patty and it’s condiments and enclosure.
Slater took over Seward Brewing Company from the original owner, Gene Minden, and immediately had to get a signature burger on the menu. . “We do one burger at the brewery and one burger only. The beef comes from Snake River Farms. The cheese is from Beecher’s in Seattle – their signature original cheese. We make our own brew sauce make in house, and the burger is char broiled. These simple ingredients work. It’s simple; we call it ‘The Burger.’”
“We are all about beer and we’re all about the food and we try to make the best out there. We concentrate on both equally. Some places concentrate on the beer really hard and some the food, but we pay equal attention to each and we try to cook with the beer too,” says Slater.
Slater pulls 12 taps in the three level building that houses the brewery and a restaurant-style affair downstairs and a more laid back pub atmosphere upstairs. The downstairs eatery is wait and seat; the upstairs pub – with incredible views of Resurrection Bay and walls appointed with an incredible collection of vintage and new snowboards and skateboards in the walls – is counter service with a smaller but distinct menu. Seward Brewing makes the only wood fired pizza in town, so it’s popular for that. Then, there’s The Burger.
Slater serves six of his own beers and features six guest taps of all local Alaska beer. He’s as much about featuring other local beer as he is his own. “The beers have evolved over the last five years,” says Slater. “Pinbone IPA is our flagship. I went to Japan last year to go snowboarding and was inspired by some of the beer over there. I came back and we brewed a Japanese rice-style beer, cooking 200 pounds of rice in our steam fired mash tun,” he says. “We called it Jpow, which is the Japanese name for powder, the good stuff when it comes to snowboarding.”
Slater also collaborates with Bleeding Heart Brewery of Palmer. “We got together and used a lot of local ingredients from the Valley including strawberries, rhubarb, mint and fireweed. I went out beyond the bay and into the Gulf to get seawater from out there, some of which I distilled down to salt for the brew,” he says of another one of this year’s specialty pours.
As for the guest beer lineup, “I try to promote the other local breweries. Tourists come in here and they aren’t always able to get up to Anchorage or beyond or anywhere else to sample some of Alaska’s incredible beers,” says Slater.
Winter is the time Slater and his wife Hillery can make improvements in the brewpub. It’s the time they can get away and snowboard and chase good beer and food outside of Alaska. Like me, Slater’s forever chasing that best burger and that best brew. “When we travel, it’s always about food and beer. I have a trip to Asheville coming up to check out the breweries and the pub and food scene back there. I was a chef and now I have a brewery and I like to go places and bring ideas back up here. Every time we go on vacation it revolves around beer,” he says.
Are you thirsty and hungry yet? Pencil the beginning of May in as the next time you can get down to Seward to enjoy a Pinbone and a burger.” “We’re shooting for May First next year, which is a slightly earlier start than last year,” says Slater. I know where my first beer spring fling will be next year.