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.