It’s about time. I started hearing rumors of a brewery starting in Valdez — another perfect and long overdue community for one — as far back as 2013. Growler Bay Brewing Company never materialized. “What a great name,” I thought when I interviewed Rhonda Langley about the prospects of becoming Valdez’s first post-prohibition brewery.
I kept up for a while then just wrote it off as another brewer’s lost dream. This isn’t the first time. What ever happened to Wheel Dog Brewing in Fairbanks? Silver Gulch was Fairbanks’ first brewery, followed by HooDoo Brewing Company and now Black Spruce Brewing Company is up and has been pouring beer since June of 2018. Midnite Mine Brewing Company opened this summer becoming Fairbanks’ fourth brewery.
I almost got involved with Alaska Pacific Brewing Company. It might still be out there somewhere, but I haven’t heard much lately. Easy Hooker Brewing Company was going to launch in Sitka years and years ago. Baranof Island Brewing Company’s been there since 2010; I guess the Easy Hooker got busted and drifted away.
Social media is a wonderful thing, and without it, I’d probably miss new and upcoming breweries. Surfing along on Facebook one day a while back, I chanced across Valdez Brewing Company’s page and scrolled through dozens of images of a new brewery in the making.
“Everyone keeps stopping in and asking when we’re going to be open,” says owner Tim Bouchard of the operation he and his wife Diana are working diligently to open in the former Prospector’s Outfitters building in Valdez. The duo hopes to be pouring beer by the beginning of November if things stay on schedule like they are today.
The community is supportive, they say. “It’s taking off through social media,” says Bouchard of his plan to do no major advertising in a small town where everything’s under a microscope anyway. “The locals keep demanding Instagram and Facebook updates every day. If I miss a day, they’ll stop me on the street and ask ‘what happened, I didn’t see a picture today?’”
“We know of Growler Bay and they’re in a building right down the street and planning to open too; they might even beat us to the taps,” says Bouchard of a tidbit I didn’t know about.
Back to Facebook. Sure enough, Growler Bay’s got a website with a projected opening in 2019. I sure live in a target-rich environment as a beer writer, if I could only keep up with it by staying on top of it.
“We haven’t been at this for that long,” says Bouchard of his commercial brewing aspirations with roots in a long history of homebrewing. “We were sort of just waiting for someone else to open a brewery in Valdez. We’ve been kicking it around and hoping someone would do it, but when that didn’t happen, we decided to launch our own.”
“Every community needs a hometown brewery. Most communities in Alaska are isolated and we kind of are and kind of aren’t. We’re on the road system of course and Valdez is a marine terminus with a good sized influx of tourism, but breweries in small towns build a lot of local excitement and that’s what we’re after,” says Bouchard.
“We had 38 cruise ship dockings scheduled this year. At last count, we had 90,000 visitors two years ago. That’s a reasonable amount. The nice thing is that since we’re at the end of a road, people that come in with cars and RV’s tend to stay for a couple of days, and more and more they’re asking ‘does Valdez have a brewery,’” says Bouchard of the ever-growing interest of visitors from outside thirsty for local suds.
It’s the local community that Valdez Brewing is being designed to serve, however. “We want to be a community brewery; that’s our entire aspiration. We’re even installing a separate half-barrel system that local homebrewers can come in and use to brew a commercial beer with us that we can feature as another local selection to augment the five core beers we plan on having on tap, along with some rotating seasonal selections when time permits and it inspires us,” says Bouchard. “We are designating a lot of our wall space to feature the work of local artists.”
Tim’s the brains and Diana is the visioneer, designer and “puts up with me fourteen hours a day,” says Bouchard. “Our brewmaster will more than likely be a local. He’s got a day job and we’ll do this through the winter and both keep our day jobs. We hope that changes quick when the business takes off, but until that, we’ll be cranking out weekend beers and beers at night after work. We’ll open in November when it’s mostly locals who are the really sustaining beer drinkers and will support us while we work the kinks out.”
“Our core beers will include a blonde, a pilsner, two IPAs and one stout. These are five mainstays that we like and are scaling up from our homebrew recipes,” says Bouchard, mentioning that he’s a hophead and loves IPAs like everyone else, but knows that they’re not for everyone.
I wondered about the relationship with Growler Bay Brewing Company; this smaller brewery is literally four buildings down from Valdez Brewing Company. Of course, I already knew the answer.
“When we announced we were opening a brewery, they reached out to us and said ‘hi’ and that it was great that we were on the same street. Opening a brewery is their lifelong dream too and there’s plenty of room for both of us here,” says Bouchard. “We talk about doing cross-promotional things together. Neither of us think of each other as a threat. We’re two different breweries with different feels, and that works well in communities.”
It does. Of all of the industries out there, the brewing industry is the most supportive and amicable of fellow brewers and breweries. I’ve seen it everywhere. There is some fierce competition, but that typically happens at bigger, regional breweries that scrap over market share and space. “All of the other brewers have been informative, supportive, giving and are out there to help each other. It’s the only industry I’ve ever been involved in that isn’t cutthroat. Since we said we were thinking about doing this in Valdez, we’ve been met with open arms good suggestions from the other brewers that shared what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong and what to capture and what to avoid. The outpouring of community support down here has been incredible,” says Bouchard.
Certainly Bouchard doesn’t have global distribution aspirations. “Oh yeah, every bar in this town has reached out to us about getting our beer on tap in their establishment. When the tourists come into their places they want to know where the local beer is. Our focus will be on our tap room and our locals. In the off season, the seiners came in and helped gut the former outfitter store; it was a big deconstruct, and with the help of the community, we and the workforce and went further much quicker than we originally planned on.”
“It’s been quite the adventure, for sure,” says Bouchard of the experience so far. “It’s gone a lot faster and a lot slower than we expected at the same time, if that makes sense. My goal is to get Valdez Brewing open, start pouring good beer and figure out what people really want to drink. It’s hard to judge what people are going to drink until you open and let them guide what you brew.”
In addition to surfing social media a little closer these days, I’m planning a fall or winter trip to Valdez to visit two new breweries in Alaska. Can you say “road trip?”