Saturday, January 2, 2016

So Long 2015, Hello 2016: A Retrospective and a Look Ahead

Hello, and Happy New Year to you all. I thought I'd take the opportunity, here at the end of one year and the start of another, to depart a bit from my standard format of news and beer reviews for a few meditations on the current state of play in Alaska's craft beer scene, as well as some thoughts on the coming year.

Looking back at 2015, you'd have to say that by any objective measure, it was a great year for craft brewing in Alaska. We had a total of five new breweries open: Resolution Brewing, Odd Man Rush Brewing, Icy Strait Brewing, Gakona Brewing, and Bearpaw River Brewing. That's a huge number, something like a 20% increase in the number of breweries in the state. We also saw some well-established breweries move into new, custom-built locations. Gabe Fletcher moved out of Gary Klopfer's basement into Anchorage Brewing's gorgeous new brewery. Paul Wheeler of Haines Brewing departed his tiny Dalton City location for an improved and expanded new home on Haines' Main Street, one with an actual tap room. Doug Hogue of Kenai River Brewing started construction on a new brewery in Soldotna, which will be much larger than the place he's currently leasing, have an outdoor patio, and is easily visible from the Sterling Highway. Other breweries, like Alaskan and Denali, completed expansions at their current sites. Total beer production is up statewide.

Taken at Denali BC back in September. This new packaging hall is complete now.

2015 wasn't just a good year for production, however. Numerous beers produced on the Last Frontier won national and international awards, including a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver (49 State Brewing's Smoked Marzen). A new annual beer festival, the Frozen River Fest, held outdoors in February at Soldotna Creek Park, began. Beer tourism in Alaska continued to grow, both via locally-based Big Swig Tours and out-of-state companies. The Brewers Guild of Alaska took a huge leap forward by hiring its first paid employee, Executive Director Ryan Makinster. Some politicians like US Senator Lisa Murkowski have even taken notice of the industry's growth and started making some efforts to support it. Even I got into the act, with the first professionally published history of brewing in Alaska, Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Anyway you slice it, 2015 was a great year for craft beer in Alaska, and 2016 shows tremendous promise as well.

Shameless plug of my book

Still, everything isn't necessary beer and skittles for the beer business in Alaska. At the very end of 2015, the news that Denali Visions 3000, the corporate owner of 49th State Brewing, was purchasing the Snow Goose/Sleeping Lady in Anchorage surprised many. In many ways, it can be viewed as a positive development. Sleeping Lady clearly has plenty of excess brewing capacity and floor space (as demonstrated by its ability to serve for several years as the home for Anchorage Brewing Company). 49th State Brewing clearly needed more production and packaging capacity, and locating it in Anchorage, rather than in remote Healy was clearly a smart move, so this deal is the sort of "win-win" that they always teach you to look for in business school. However, it does raise implications for some other long-established breweries in Alaska.

Gone but not forgotten...

Gary Klopfer has stated that he was ready to take a step back from operating his brewery, and had hoped to pass it along to his daughter, but she was not interested, so he had to look elsewhere. This issue of succession planning continues to loom large for long-established craft breweries across the country. In Alaska, the obvious brewery to wonder about is the granddaddy of them all, Alaskan Brewing Company. Alaskan will celebrate its 30th Anniversary in 2016. How much longer will Geoff and Marcy Larson want to handle the daily grind and how will they extricate themselves? I'm sure this is something they are already working on; the rest of us will just have to wait to see what they come up with. We can only hope that whatever they decide, it will preserve the distinctive character of the brewery (and hopefully not involve a certain Brazilian-Belgian corporation which shall not be named). While further down the road, the same question will come up for all the long-established breweries in our state.

Geoff and Marcy Larson

Besides succession questions, the other big issue on the horizon for 2016 is the Legislature's proposed rewrite of Title IV, the section of our state laws which governs alcohol sales, distribution, and production. The current SB 99 that is before the legislature would represent a truly significant change in the licensing structure for the state. A good bill could unleash even more entrepreneurial activity, while a bad one could stifle any further growth in the craft beer business in Alaska. Indeed, many of the recent spate of opening could be interpreted as folks wanting to get their breweries and brewpubs open before any changes are enacted, in order to ensure that they will be grandfathered in, and so avoid being permanently excluded. How will this all play out? I have no idea, but when you're dealing with the Alaska Legislature, it pays to remember the words of the immortal Mark Twain: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."

What are they going to do this session? Who knows...

Still, all is not gloom and doom for the coming year. At a minimum, three more new breweries should open before the start of the summer tourist season: Quake Brewing in Eagle River, Grace Ridge Brewing in Homer, and Cynosure Brewing in Anchorage. Kenai River Brewing's new location should also be open by May. There is serious talk of a brewery in Girdwood, and likely other locations I haven't heard about. Frankly, I've been scratching my head for years, wondering why no one has opened a brewpub in Fairbanks or Juneau; if Seward can support one (albeit seasonally), I can't understand why these much larger towns couldn't. Perhaps 2016 will be the year someone takes the plunge. Best of all, regardless of what new breweries come along, I see no reason we shouldn't be able to look forward to enjoying a plethora of great beers from our existing breweries, even if we have to pay more for them, thanks to Governor Walker's new taxes.

Photo courtesy of Cynosure Brewing

So may we all have a prosperous and happy new year, one filled with lots of friendship and excellent, locally-brewed beer. I hope you have enjoyed this departure from my usual blogging style; it's something I may do again from time to time. However, next week I'll be back with news and reviews, as beer-lovers across the state begin ramping up for Alaska Beer Week and the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

1 comment:

Tommy Jones said...

Is wondering that which you favorite beer is actually. In a deal that certain might consider “a small tricky” King associated with Beers.