As editor for the Anchorage Press, a key attribute of Matt Hickman’s job is to notice stuff. I’m glad he loves beer because when Hickman notices standout beer, he always lets me know.

A couple of weeks ago, he sent me a screen shot. He was at Serrano’s on Northern Lights. The image captured part of the beer menu there, and I was impressed with what I saw. Serrano’s beer is mostly local, including three selections from Broken Tooth Brewing Company, one from Midnight Sun Brewing Company and one from Denali Brewing Company. Two rotating taps currently pour Midnight Sun’s Denial and Error and Double Shovel Cider Company’s Appalanche Cider.

No Mexican restaurant’s draft line would be complete without a couple of south of the border treats. Serrano’s pours Modelo Especial, Negra Modelo and Pacifica. Bottled selections add Dos Equis, Corona and Victoria, the Mexican beer lineup.

But what really caught my eye is the “Serrano’s Craft Beer” section, which is four beers made exclusively for the restaurant by south Anchorage’s Turnagain Brewing Company. These beers are only available at the Serrano’s on Northern Lights Boulevard and at Turnagain Brewing Company on King Street.

Look for Macho Mexican Ale, Tamarind Santanera Lager, Peach Lager and Pina Colada Sour. These are unique, exceptional beers brewed to the highest standard I’ve come to expect from Turnagain Brewing Company. These beers represent the brewery aptly and pair beautifully with Seranno’s unique, made from scratch fare.

I’m excited about this for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates that our breweries may have unforeseen opportunity in a relatively untapped market beyond getting their beers across the bar at multiple accounts. Second, such arrangements give craft beer more range in the market, and third, I love the idea of specialty, one off beers at my favorite restaurants. I love it that I have to go to just one place to get that special beer I’ve fallen in love with.

I’ve long wondered why more breweries don’t target restaurants with designer beers. It’s not a new concept, even here in Alaska, and some have. At the same time, I understand the challenges.

“Yes, we do beers for a few restaurants and liquor stores. Each is uniquely negotiated as far as exclusivity,” explains Turnagain Brewing Company’s owner/brewer Ted Rosenzweig. “We do the Serrano’s line for them and which we are permitted to pour it in our own brewery. We can bottle it with special permission.”

It’s a labor of love. Most hard working, production-oriented breweries welcome the diversion to make something new and exciting once in a while. “It’s a fun and challenging experience for us to develop beers for these projects,” says Rosenzweig, at the same time alluding to other relationships beyond Serrano’s.

This approach might not be feasible for every brewery. It creates logistical challenges including dedicating fermentation and conditioning space for small, one off batches. Maybe that’s not challenging now, but to consistently meet the demand for small batch beer in the busier summer months or at all for breweries with limited capacity when demand is at full throttle is indeed challenging.

“This is what I love to do the most; this is why I’m in the industry, says Rosenzweig. Someone comes along with a vision and wants a beer and wants to do it right. It’s so exciting to go through this process, and work with the client to create the perfect beer. Our company vision isn’t for eight flagship beers we do over and over again. A new beer every week is the current plan, and we’ve been good at that for the last year, every single week,” he says. The Serrano’s line obviously feeds that innovative passion at Turnagain Brewing Company and is worth the extra, exacting effort.

How did this all come about? “Shortly after we opened, Serrano’s approached us and wanted to collaborate one way or another. The owner is a really ambitious, aggressive businessperson, and told me he actually wanted to open a brewery of his own at one time,” says Rosenzweig.

“We agreed to brew a contract beer and brewed the Mexi-ale. It was a success and they wanted something more. Next came the Tamarind Lime which morphed into the Tamarind Lager. Then the Peach beer. The Pina Colada Sour originated as the winning beer from our brewery’s Turnagain Tart Side Challenge homebrew competition. Homebrewer Mike Cragen created the beer we ultimately made a big batch of it. Serrano’s loved it, and the sour beer with toasted coconut and pineapple is a hit at the restaurant today,” he says.

Rosenzweig brews specialty beers for more than just Serrano’s. His BiscBrau for the Brown Jug liquor store chain was a big hit a couple of months ago. “BiscBrau was a spiced holiday ale in the spirit of Biscoff Speculoos cookies,” explains Rosenzweig of a special beer I anticipated, then chased down at the Brown Jug Warehouse when the beer came out in bottles. “Nicole Pierce is the beer buyer at Brown Jug. She went into the kitchen and got into the cookie butter and said ‘wow, I wonder if you can make a cookie dough inspired beer?’ We’re small and nimble enough and we did a test batch. This is what we do with all of the contract beers,” he says.

“We make a test batch, play with the hops, fuss with the fermentation temperatures, and the most fun is bringing in the people we doing the beer for in to participate in the evaluation and even the brewing,” says Rosenzweig.

On Valentine’s Day, I had a dual date. I took Ms. Fermento to Rustic Goat for brunch, and at the same time courted Turnagain Brewing Company’s Hoppy Hooves, an exclusive for this west Anchorage upscale restaurant that boasts an outstanding, almost entirely local draft lineup.

“We’ve developed a good relationship with Rustic Goat. They have a very cool corporate culture. They try to keep everything as local as possible. They were pouring Deschutes Brewery’s Fresh Squeezed IPA and were unhappy with the consistency and wanted to replace it with something local anyway. They asked if we could provide a beer to fill that flavor niche. Heck yeah,” says Rosenzweig. “Why would you want to buy a beer from outside if you could buy a beer that’s as good or better here? It’s fresher here, the supply chain is shorter and the drinking public appreciates it. Its win, win, win. Everyone wins with these type of arrangements and they’re getting more and more popular.”

What’s next? Turnagain’s brewing a rare, challenging style of beer – perhaps the most challenging the brewery’s tinkered with so far – for Brown Jug. “Pierce approached me and said ‘let’s try a Finish sahti.’ It’s like a paleo ancient style that uses juniper, rye, some unmalted grains and is fermented with bread yeast. The beer’s only partially fermented, has a very short shelf life and is incredibly difficult to do right,” explains Rosenzweig of the beer that uses local white spruce boughs and juniper berries. The beer’s still in the development stage.

Rosenzweig’s brewing a dunkelweizen for Gold Rush Liquors. “Chris Carpenter over there got excited about what we did with Brown Jug and wanted to be hands on with us. He selected the name for it, we have a label going and we’re working the test batch and will select a recipe to become the big batch for him,” says Rosenzweig.

There’s definitely a lot of market out there for brewing designer beers. Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s Sockeye Red IPA originated as a designer beer for Humpy’s. King Street Brewing Company and Denali Brewing Company built designer beers for Humpy’s as well. The idea of a brewery building exclusive beers for a single account isn’t new, but it’s gaining momentum as we continue to support local products and drink closer to home. I expect to discover more one-offs and will support them with my palate as they emerge.

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