with Geoff and Marcy Larson
Alaskan Brewing Company
Congratulations on this anniversary! What’s the most surprising thing to you about the fact that you’re sitting there in Juneau, observing the 25th anniversary of your brewery?
Marcy: It went by so fast—in some ways. It seems like forever ago that we were first were trying to raise the money and all that, but on the other hand, it’s a fast 25 years when you look back.
Geoff: It’s also amazing, boy, what the industry’s gone through, what was believed to be the course to success 25 years ago. That really was a different era.
What would be the major differences?
Geoff: There wasn’t an awareness of craft beer, beyond a small eclectic few.
Marcy: “Craft beer” meant dark beer. Everyone said, “Oh, you must be making dark beer.”
Geoff: And the idea that if it’s gonna be made locally, it’s gonna be cheap: cheap ingredients, cheap manufacturing, cheap flavor. There were very few breweries when we started, and today it’s a different world.
Even among that unusual group of people who opened microbreweries back then, you choose a remarkably challenging location. You knew from the start that everything but the water would have to be brought in from outside.
Marcy: We did. We actually did several iterations of our business plan until we were really convinced that this could work.
How did it all begin?
Geoff: This is Marcy’s story, but she’s losing her voice. Our background is eclectic: her training was in photo-journalism, but she had a real knack with numbers, like accounting and bookkeeping. My background was engineering. We both enjoyed working: we took our jobs home. And then, we also enjoyed beer.
The idea came up in ‘80 or ‘81, about starting a brewery in Alaska. Marcy had a full-time job in the Department of Revenue and I had a job working at a gold mine. When the mine shut its doors, we made a decision that this was the time to start pursuing what it would take to start a brewing business.
Neither one of you is from Alaska originally. Had you experienced the beginnings of craft brewing culture elsewhere in the country?
Geoff: Not at all.
So what was your model?
Geoff: Initially, we just started getting magazines, any magazine that had to do with beer. Modern Brewery Age was one of the first ones. What I was looking for was production.
We finally started realizing that there were other breweries. In one of the first editions of the Brewers Digest I saw an article about DeBakker. It was like, wow, this is not unusual. Soon after, there was an article about Sierra Nevada.
I had lots of friends in engineering jobs; one worked for Foxboro, and he sent me their book on brewery control systems. Talk about a humbling experience! But I was homebrewing, so the structural components of making beer were obvious to me.
I ended up going to the Great American Beer Festival for the first time—that was in ’84. There were only 100 beers in the hall and I tried ‘em all…the first night. Second night, I narrowed the list down to 10, and focused on them.
At that point, you could go to the GABF and meet everybody in the business.
Geoff: Absolutely. I met Bert Grant, Paul Shipman; Bill Newman was there from Albany, and Matthew Reich from Manhattan. It was small. You probably met everybody that attended. I came back with stars in my eyes, going “Wow, this is amazing!”
The people that influenced me personally were those I searched out and touched base with. I went to Utica, New York and literally spent an entire day with F.X. Matt [Matt Brewing Co., brewer of the Saranac line of beers]. I took the tour, a beautiful tour with a tour guide in period dress through the old time brewing industry.
Then unbeknownst to me, F.X. Matt wrote to Fritz Maytag, so as I was actually heading to Alaska, I stopped off at Anchor. This was the day before Thanksgiving, and he took me around the brewery and talked about beer. I got inspired from these two people talking about this industry, and telling me, if you make beer, make the best you can because you reflect on all small brewers.
I know that you turned to Alaska’s history for inspiration.
Geoff: Marcy looked at getting some fun things about beer and Alaska to put in the gift shop and hospitality room. Before long, she was involved with some of the historical society folk and—lo and behold—there was actually a fair amount of resources available.
The historic part of Alaska is so close to modern times. In 1867, we were purchased from Russia. In Juneau, 1898 was really the first white man explosion because they found gold here. My goodness, that’s not that far removed. We started getting some historical information, and some of it was from people that knew about it.
So there were still old timers around who still had personal knowledge of that history?
Geoff: Correct. It became kind of a connection to the experience of having a beer in Juneau today; we could talk about its relevance and its place in history.
There were over 50 breweries in Alaska before Prohibition. There were five breweries in Juneau, operating concurrently during the heyday of the mines. Mining in Juneau was a big deal: three of the five largest mines in the world operated concurrently in Juneau. Anybody who knew anything about mining knew about Juneau.
A lot of the brewing traditions of other regions, other countries, were brought along by the miners. So you read the ads in the old papers and people are talking about kolsches, porters and stouts.
People would call us and say, “I hear you’re starting a brewery. I have a whole bunch of memorabilia you might want to take a look at.” Some of it was fun trinkets and trash, marketing stuff; others were old invoices, raw material orders for all the old breweries. We started reconstructing one particular recipe, Alaskan Amber from the Douglas City Brewing Co., because a collector, Nick Nichols, had this information.
There was an article in the paper in regards to a specific interview with the brewer back in 1907. He was describing the challenges with the mechanics of making beer in Alaska. He was making an ale, but he was having a hard time keeping things warm enough in the brewhouse, because it was so cold. That gave me a lot of information as regards production: here’s a guy who’s barely able to keep the ale happy, so it’s a cool fermentation with an ale yeast.
He also had a hard time with his raw materials because he could only order the hops from Bohemia—now that’s in the Czech Republic, but back then it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had to use the hops just to balance the malt, so his hopping rates were fairly low.
So the profile of the beer was dictated in part by the availability of ingredients.
Geoff: The availability and the environment. It’s classic: that’s what happened in Plzen; that’s what happened in Burton.
Some of the fun anecdotes were told to me by a person by the name of Bob DeArmond. He was in his nineties when I got here in 1980. In territorial days, alcohol sales were only allowed for medicinal, mechanical and scientific purposes. He said you could get a beer and a sandwich for 25 cents, but they couldn’t sell the beer. But if you didn’t eat the sandwich, you could give it them back to them for 20 cents.
Marcy: Lord help you if you ever ate that sandwich.
How did the history of the area figure in the formulation of Smoked Porter?
Geoff: Most of the breweries at the turn of the century were brewing and malting companies. I’m sure they were forced to be innovative. You’re at the end of the supply chain here in Alaska, you’ve got a booming work force—the miners are working six days a week, 10 hours a day. These same malt houses were invariably making some of the more powerful beers—porters and stouts. One particular brewery really talked about their porters.
In the early 1800s, on the East Coast porters were very popular. The blond beers from Europe started dominating the East Coast, but the West Coast was behind. So in 1900 there were lot of dark beers being made in Alaska.
Here we are: we’re in Alaska, there are dark beers, there are malting facilities, and the only hard wood around here is alder. This was a frontier town; everybody was using wood for cooking and for heat. If you walked down the streets of Juneau in 1907, what you smelled was smoke. In a town where smoke is everywhere, it’s probably in the beer. It wasn’t out of place.
So there’s no particular connection to Bamberg, which we associate with the remaining smoked beers. This is something you arrived at through a different route.
Geoff: Right. Across the street a friend of ours had a fish-smoking operation. We’d get together routinely on a Friday afternoon. He’d bring over some of the products he had, we’d have our beer, and we’d commiserate.
There was a point when we thought, boy, it would be great to make a beer touching on the history of Alaska and the fact that to get these dark roasted malts, the old maltsters were having to really crank up the heat, invariably resulting in some smoke. And here we are finding smoke is a perfectly legitimate flavor in both beer and this fish.
It was an interesting investigation: he knew smoke, and we knew beer and malt, so we collaborated in making part of our grain bill that would impart smoke character.
With smoke, there’s a real balance if it is to appeal. Cross that line, and it becomes objectionable. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. But in subtle uses, it adds a dimension that is very, very enjoyable.
Back 200-300 years ago, everything was filled with smoke. When smoke was referred to, it was almost always in a negative way because there was no such thing as a smokeless environment: if you had heat, you had smoke. So there was never any reference to smoke in a positive way. If there wasn’t any reference to smoke, it wasn’t because the smoke wasn’t there; it was just at a level that was acceptable.
Does the recipe change substantially from year to year or are the differences purely the influence of time?
Geoff: I would say 90-plus percent is purely the impact of time. Obviously, we are brewing the Smoked Porter just one time for that year, so there are probably some nuances that change, but we really strive to make the same beer every single time.
Of course you have hop crops that are a little different, malts that are a little different—the typical beer variants. And even though we have a computer-controlled smokehouse, you still have humidity differences in a year. But I would say that the changes you taste truly are time’s effect on the beer.
How did you devise the recipe for Perseverance, your 25th anniversary beer?
Marcy: The whole crew that helped out with that one, because it represented our 25th year, which the whole brewery is proud of.
Geoff: We have a little system, the Rough Draft system with one-barrel batches being made pretty frequently. We’ve developed a real culture of teams to have fun, experiment, explore flavors, explore concepts and try to make them manifest in the beer that comes out of that single-barrel system.
So that’s the backdrop. Marcy said, OK, let’s get an anniversary committee together. They started talking conceptually about what they wanted in the beer. We’re 25 years old: what defines us as a brewery? Who are we? How can we make this beer representative?
Our heritage here is Russia, so something Russian was appropriate. A 25th anniversary beer is something we’d want to be able to lay down for the future, so something big and strong. We also love to use local ingredients: we have birch syrup from the interior of Alaska—it’s analogous to maple syrup, but there are some differences in its flavor.
Then raw fireweed honey. For those of us in the southeast of Alaska, fireweed is the flower that tells us about the advance of fall. It’s a beautiful flower, and it makes extraordinary honey. And we used a little smoked malt from our operation.
Marcy: There were several iterations of test brews over a period of six months.
Geoff: I have to admit that those last few tasting panels were…wow. You closed your eyes, and the play of flavors, the development of the layers of experience after you swallowed. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to celebrate.
When I toured this summer, I heard a lot about sustainability. How does that play out in the brewery today?
Geoff: When you’re camping in certain fragile environments, you look back on your footprints and think, “Oh, man, I’m making an impact.” In Alaska, this is kind of typical: where you’re harvesting from the land—fishing, hunting—your connection with that give-and-take is pretty important.
The need to be constantly looking at how you do things made us wonder: here’s the way other people do things, but it’s not necessarily how we have to do things. For example, traditionally, you would sell kegged beers, then sell bottles. Since this was Alaska, I could picture our kegs going up to the Bering Sea and becoming crab floats. Regrettably, we were faced with a one-way container situation if we wanted to get our beer up north, so we bottled for the first two years. We didn’t do any kegs.
I’d love to say that we were always on the forefront, doing things efficiently, but much of what we did was to do things with what we had.
Marcy: Like the CO2 recycling plant we put in. It’s not cheap to get CO2 up here; it’s dirt cheap to get it down south, so nobody thinks about reusing CO2. But in the process of making beer, you’re making plenty of CO2.
Geoff: And the most common source for bought CO2 is burning fossil fuels. Our CO2 comes from the grain that captured that CO2 originally from the atmosphere. We have more control over our ingredients, since our CO2 has no possibility of fuel tainting. We’ve increased our CO2 recovery by 400 percent over the past 13 years.
Marcy: And we put in the mash press, the one that squeezes the grain.
Geoff: Kind of like the espresso machine of beer making, instead of drip coffee. It’s an appropriate analogy: the drip coffee makers of the world are the lauter tuns, which are beautiful prices of equipment; but for us, this reduces our impact on our community because we can more fully utilize malt.
Part of living in Juneau is that this is a small community. Truly, it’s not like you can hop on your motorcycle and ride away if you get tired of Juneau.
We went out of our way to talk to the people who might be against us, like the health and social services and alcohol treatment people. When we talked to them, you could read the body language, and it was a little tentative, a little defensive or hostile. But by the end of the conversation they realized all we wanted to do was make good quality beer.
I went to the water and sewer department before we even started. Every five years, I go talk to them again. Now that we’re 25 years old, we’re fairly large. Our staff knows if we ever have a beer spill, the first people to call are the sewer guys: “Hey, got some beer coming your way, and it ain’t in a sixpack.” Those are unusual circumstances.
We’re very aware of our connectivity to the land, to our social fabric in Juneau. For example, there’s only one time of year when fish are running, and there might be refrigeration issues. We try to make sure we have well-stocked wholesalers during the peak salmon runs, because we have to pay attention to our community’s needs.
Living in Alaska, you look at things a little differently.