Beer By James “Dr. Fermento” Roberts
I started making beer because I had a glass fetish. I was a serious beer drinker in the mid-1980s when I was invited over to a friend’s house to help him bottle a batch of beer he’d made. “GAK!” I thought to myself. “Homemade beer? Gross!” I envisioned strange coiled apparatuses and a bathtub full of bubbling beer.
Instead, I was greeted with a sterile environment – neat and orderly – just the way I like it. I assisted with pulling squeaky, sparkly-clean brown bottles from my friend’s dishwasher. I love nothing more than clean glass. I don’t know why.
After bottling the beer, it had to sit for a couple of weeks before we could sample the fruits of our labor. I can’t say I was smitten, but I was decidedly enamored of the process. After all, I was a process kind of guy, and the mixture of science, art, and alchemy that goes into making beer appealed to me. Especially the bottling part.
I was smitten and, within a week, had taken a homebrew lesson from then, the original Great Northern Brewers Homebrew Club president Randy Oldenberg. I was directed to one of the few places in Alaska where homebrew equipment and ingredients were available – Alaska Mill, Feed, and Garden. After plunking down what I considered a sizeable chunk of change, I had everything I needed to brew at home. I made my first batch of beer on an electric stove in my kitchen.
I instantly networked with other homebrewers, and we collectively grumbled about the scarcity of homebrew stuff in Alaska. To enhance our beer, we consistently ordered ingredients from outside. What was available through mail order matched the rapidly evolving proliferation of homebrew equipment and gadgets in step with the increasingly explosive popularity of making stuff at home. Making stuff at home is especially popular in Alaska, where, in many cases, it’s as much a necessity as a nicety. Unfortunately, when it came to homebrewing, Alaska was again behind the times, and as homebrewers, we felt left out.
A guy named Dave Snow was ahead of his time. He’d immigrated to Alaska with an agribusiness background and applied for a job at Mill and Feed. He was turned down, not that it matters, but during the process took note of the paltry, expensive homebrewing stuff on the shelves. Snow didn’t shrug it off with a “beggars can’t be choosers” and an “oh well,” like the rest of us. In 1992, Snow opened Alaska’s first homebrewing supply shop – Arctic Brewing Supply – in the little strip mall where the post office is on Lake Otis and Dowling.
Snow brought in anything and everything that was available in the Lower-48, and he brought in a lot of it! He offered grain and malt extract in bulk in addition to tin cans. I’d bring in my own jugs and containers and buy by the pound. He brought in the newest and freshest hop varieties, including whole flower hops, which were somewhat of a novelty back then.
Snow was an avid homebrewer and brought in another facet missing from Alaskan homebrew supply sales: knowledge, expertise, and personal customer service.
With this simple recipe, Snow brought in customers.
When I first started hanging out at Arctic Brewing, I was blown away at how many people frequented the store and how much merchandise was moving through it. I thought my circle of homebrewing buddies was all-encompassing. I thought I knew everyone that made beer. I’d underestimated the other half of homebrewing’s social structure. There are many people who make stuff that don’t necessarily like to rub elbows with other people and stick to themselves.
Like many lifelong patrons, I stuck with Arctic Brewing Supply. I was there to help Snow kick the wall out between his industrial space and a vacant space next door. The business was robust, and Snow expanded. I actually worked part-time at the store, not because I needed the money or a discount on homebrewing stuff, but because I loved the store, I loved Dave, and I loved the people that came in.
In May of 2001, Snow turned the business over to two aspiring, proficient homebrewers that shared the same love for the craft as Snow. Lisa Peltola and Pete Dohm took over on May 21 that year, and the transition was seamless. Everyone in the homebrewing scene had been brewing and partying with the duo for years already, so the progression was natural, and the business has been unwavering ever since.
“Pete’s a writer, and I’m a biologist,” says Peltola of the situation back then. “Dave offered the shop to us. We didn’t have work up here, and we were at the point of leaving the state. Dave wanted to see his business continue to be successful and thrive and saw that we had the passion for it. That’s why we’re still here. He made it happen for us, and we love every bit of this just like we always have,” she says during the business’s 30-year celebration days.
Homebrewing continued to grow in popularity. Despite expansions at the original location, Dohm and Peltola moved the business to its current location at 8401 Sandlewood Place, with the Long Branch Saloon just to the south of it.
Peltola and Dohm are as visionary as Snow was. Homebrewing is just one thing that self-sufficient, DIY Alaskans love. Arctic Brewingalso sells wine, mead, cider, and cheese-making supplies. Want to tinker with cold brew coffee? How about building a professional seltzer water draft system? Arctic Brewing’s got you covered.
In the 20 years since I’ve made beer, I’ve visited the store many times and can’t even name, let alone describe much of the homebrewing equipment anymore. Still, I’m as fascinated as the first day I laid eyes on those brown bottles in my friend’s dishwasher, and Pete and Lisa remain lifelong friends. It still feels like home.
“We had some rough times during the pandemic, but it’s been so inspiring that we came through this with the genuine help and support of the brewers in this community. These aren’t just our customers, they’re our friends, and we get through everything together,” says Peltola.
“What surprises me is how many people walk in here and say, ‘wow, I didn’t even know this existed; this is so cool,’” says Dohm.
Arctic Brewing has seen the return of people who support local and have moved off the internet to source supplies from small businesses. This isn’t just sustaining for Peltola and Dohm; it’s warming. “We often wondered what ever happened to the Buy Alaskan mantra. I think it came back,” says Peltola. “People come here for customer service and an engaging experience. That’s what we’re all about.”
Dohm summed it up the best. “When’s the last time the internet gave you a free beer?”
On Saturday, May 21, an open house at the store helped celebrate 30 years. Pete and Lisa dispensed homebrew, homemade wine, and homemade root beer to make floats for the kids.
Arctic Brewing’s not done celebrating. “We’ll be doing something bigger this fall,” says Peltola.
In the meantime, want to home-grow some new friends? Start making your own beer. Friends and homemade beer go hand in hand. Need a friend to help you get started? Go introduce yourself to Pete and Lisa at Arctic Brewing Supply. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll be back.