30 Years of Beer
A Toast to the Alaskan Brewing Company
If only all the world’s problems could be solved in an evening by people drinking good beer. It almost seems possible after spending time with Marcy and Geoff Larson, owners and founders of the Alaskan Brewing Company.
In a year where we’ve found ourselves publicly wondering “why can’t we all just get along,” there’s nothing lost by simply cracking open a frosty can of Icy Bay IPA with your neighbor and finding out if the answer might just be in that magic combination of pristine Juneau water, hops, yeast and barley.
Geoff and Marcy Larson, owners and founders of the Alaskan Brewing Company know a little something about bringing people together around beer. 2016 is their company’s 30th anniversary, and a perfect opportunity to look back at its storied history.
A TOAST TO THE PAST
Let’s go back to Juneau in the mid-1980s; those were bleak days for beer lovers, not just in Alaska, but all over the United States. It’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t go to a liquor store and find yourself debating between 3 different smoked porters, let alone visit a growler bar or pick up some to-go beer at your local brewery. Your “boutique beer” options (as they were known at the time) were solid—Sierra Nevada, Anchor Brewing—but limited in a world dominated by Coors, Michelob and Budweiser.
Meanwhile, in Juneau, the Larsons were scheming. Geoff, an avid home brewer, was tinkering with a recipe he had created using historical information that Marcy had dug up: a Gold Rush-era alt style ale that had been brewed by the Douglas City Brewing Company at the turn of the 20th century (and would become the brewery’s iconic Alaskan Amber). They saw it as a guide to a truly local concoction, highlighting the specific flavor profile of Juneau’s water, and meeting the needs of brewing in a colder climate (specifically, a mine shaft). Marcy describes the beer as “nourishing,” just the kind of quaff exhausted gold miners were looking for at the end of another day’s struggle with a pick axe and shovel.
With a beer recipe they both were excited about and a passion for entrepreneurship, the Larsons set about securing funding. In a world without Kickstarter, fundraising took on the form of a grass-roots political campaign. Geoff and Marcy crisscrossed the state, sleeping on couches and making pitches in Moose Lodges and backyards.
Geoff recounts, “We talked to thousands of people. We’d go to the chamber of commerce, knock on people’s doors. We had to introduce the idea of good beer. Beer at that time was pretty insipid, so when we’d start talking about beer, we’d start talking about flavor, we’d talk about process. That advocacy did a lot of seed-planting and built curiosity and interest.”
Their enthusiasm rallied Alaskans from all walks of life. Your political affiliation, your religion, your favorite football team—social categories were irrelevant. What mattered was your interest in helping fund a locally based project with potential. If you had the interest then you got the money together to buy in. If you didn’t have the money to buy in, then you rallied your friends and family until you came up with enough, like one group of local fishermen did. If you couldn’t come up with the money then you offered to paint walls or scrub floors.
“Beer is a wonderful connector,” Geoff notes. “The group of investors that we got was so diversified, it was wonderful because that represents Alaska… There’d be environmentalists, loggers, oil guys, all together and they didn’t agree on politics but they had no problem drinking the beer.”
By 1986 the Larsons had secured enough funding to launch the brewery. “We had 88 actual investors, but more than that we had lots of people talking about this crazy notion of a small brewery in Alaska,” Geoff says, including people rooting for the couple even if they couldn’t afford to invest.
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE
Looking back on those early days still seems to awe the Larsons. Remembering what it took to get through the first year, Marcy and Geoff agree that it was a combination of naivety, stubbornness, and forgetfulness. “Naivety because it’s hard work,” Geoff begins.
Marcy adds, “You really don’t want to know what it’s going to be like - you wouldn’t do it probably.”
Geoff continues, “Stubbornness because you’ve got to plow through it - that’s the perseverance part.”
“Then forgetfulness because you think the hard part is over.” Marcy finishes, laughing.
Marcy and Geoff work like that. Not always finishing each other’s sentences, but easily collaborating when called for. Which makes sense, considering that they’ve worked successfully together for 30 years.
That kind of intense partnership doesn’t work for everyone. Geoff remembers having some early concerns. “It was one of those things where you saw businesses driven apart by couples not being compatible.”
At the time he confided in a fellow brewer who had a home-brew shop that he ran with his wife. “I asked him, ‘what do you think about being in business with your partner?’ and he said, ‘I wouldn’t fear it. It’s going to happen either way... If you’re not going to be compatible the business will drive that incompatibility more quickly to fruition. But if you are compatible it will drive that compatibility more, because you’re going to be forced to communicate, you’re going to be forced to deal with things…’ So the trajectory is going to be the same, it’s just going to happen more quickly.”
Marcy adds, “I have to say that Geoff is very easy... We divided up what we were going to be doing, so I never brewed and he never did the books. Of course he’d be helpful, I’d ask for help and he’d ask me to help, but we had our area of expertise and we both respected each other. We had input but we weren’t stepping all over each other.”
As much as these two laugh about being forgetful, shared memories bind them. “We were so devoted here [at the brewery] that our friends didn’t see us for like 4 years. We used to be the ones that were always out doing this and doing that, and we just vanished.” says Marcy.
That devotion to good beer, and to respecting and supporting not just each other, but their community, kept them on track, brewing first their iconic Alaskan Amber (a recipe and flavor unchanged to this day) and then moving into dozens of award-winning beer styles over the decades.
THE COMMUNITY GIVES BACK
Help came from unexpected places in the early days. From truckers who were simply making a delivery hopping out of the cab to help unload or work on machinery, to a legendary tale of the late arrival of their first tanks that came in 6” higher than expected.
Geoff recalls, “Luckily we hadn’t told them about the 9” clearance we actually had so they just fit. But how were we going to move them in? We ended up using Joy soap! We put booties on the tanks, slicked up the floor with Joy and they slid right in!”
That ol’ Alaskan ingenuity at work. When options are limited, creativity blossoms. Just like the miners working in Juneau in the early days, improvisation and perseverance are keys to the Larsons’ success, and part of what keeps them as motivated and enthusiastic as they were in 1986.
DRIVEN TO INNOVATE
In the beginning, even having a brewery in Alaska was unusual. What worked for other breweries in the lower 48 wasn’t necessarily going to work in Juneau. Take sourcing CO2 as an example. CO2 is used at many points in the brewing process, and most breweries don’t think too much about it. But just getting tanks of CO2 to Juneau was an expensive proposition. They had to be barged up; not just a logistical challenge, but an added cost.
But the brewing process also produces CO2, which Geoff decided to capitalize on. “Well, you know what? We were the first craft brewery in the country to capture our own CO2.” Which ended up saving money. But it wasn’t just about the money.
“It’s financial, it’s stewardship and guess what - the CO2 we’re getting? We know our source! Our beer is making the CO2 and we’re using the CO2 to make the beer! So it’s the classic recycle thing. But it’s also sourced from photosynthesis, so it’s pure CO2, it’s not from fossil fuels.”
Andy Kline, Alaskan’s communications manager jokes, “We have the best tasting CO2 in brewing!”
Disposal of spent grains offered the same opportunity for innovation. “Spent grains are a waste product [of brewing]. There are breweries that take spent grains to the landfill,” Geoff says.
Marcy adds, “There are others that give it to cattle farmers or use it for feed, but that wasn’t an option for us, so we had to figure out how we were going to dispose of it.” “We have about 6 livestock here in Juneau” Geoff notes, laughing.
Andy recounts, “In the beginning we could give it to the community garden, but once we went to the 100 barrel system it would have buried the community garden.”
They tried shipping their considerable piles of spent grains down south. Geoff recalls, “So it became this process—in order to get it down to the farmers we dried it to stabilize it and one thing led to another.” Eventually, the company developed a first-of-its-kind steam boiler system fueled entirely by their spent grain.
Andy notes that once the 100 barrel system went in the team never considered landfilling the spent grains. “There are other breweries that are forced to landfill and that happens but … we went through this massive build out of this incredible infrastructure to use our spent grains as fuel, which did come out of that ethic of responsibility.”
Marcy continues, “And that comes from Alaska - a community that’s small enough that you see your impact. It’s right in front of you, you can’t hide anything. Down south, you put it in a landfill, you don’t see it. Up here, you see it and all your neighbors see it. The community of Alaska brings that to you. A benefit, a challenge.”
Andy points out that although their innovations have come first and foremost from a business need to be efficient in order to be competitive, “it also does come from this ethic of doing it as well as we can, of doing it correctly, of stewardship, and those are Alaskan values.”
The Alaskan Brewing Company is its own community. “The little bit of Alaska in the bottle has to do with the people that supported us. You have the responsibility to the people who take the leap of faith and invest in you, and that holds your feet to the fire. And then you have all the staff. We have people that have worked here for decades and decades —that’s a significant part of their lives. And then it goes another step. There was one year that we had like a dozen kids born,” says Geoff. “We wanted to talk about the elements of our products and fertility, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms didn’t like that…”
“Now some of those kids are working here!” adds Marcy.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
There is no brewmaster at the Alaskan Brewing Company. Instead, the company has a “Brew Crew,” which Andy describes as “different brewers who have different interests and different ways of experimenting and that gets worked up through our system.” The Brew Crew is free to experiment with one-barrel brews, which are first rated internally in a casual way, and more formally through tasting panels and a quality assurance program.
Not having a single brewmaster isn’t easy. “We struggle with it, it incorporates a lot of people into the process,” Andy admits, “and that ends up being representative of the place again, because everyone has their own experience of what it means to be here, brew here, live here and they bring that.”
Marcy adds, “We brought that over from the investors - it wasn’t ‘the Larson’s Brewery,’ it was ‘the Alaskan Brewing Company.’ So that’s what we wanted - not the brewmaster personified by one person - it’s the team that makes it. It takes more than just a brewer to make a beer.”
Just because we’re all coming together over beer doesn’t mean that we’re agreeing on everything - and that includes the beer itself.
“We need to eat for sustenance, and because we do it three times a day we take it for granted. It’s like breathing. Do you think about breathing? “ Geoff continues, “and sometimes you don’t think about what you eat or what you drink. And you know what? I go back to that. The human experience is such that were in a field of discovery… it’s exciting to be dealing with flavor and that excitement creates a passion and that passion, that intensity, sometimes makes our discussions, our points of view really heartfelt.”
Andy agrees, “It’s a funny thing, we have a committee that looks at different flavor profiles and different beers and how we want to schedule them and they can become incredibly heated discussions. At the end of the meeting we’re like ‘WOW, it gets crazy!’ It comes from a passionate place.”
Beer tasting might sound like a dream job, but at the Alaskan Brewing Company the tasting panel takes its work very, very seriously. One reason is that their continued success, to some extent, depends on consistency. Every single bottle of Alaskan Amber has to taste like every other bottle of Alaskan Amber and when you’re bottling thousands of bottles of that beer a week, consistency can be a moving target. But it’s a target you cannot miss.
“We have different ingredients every year. It’s a crop—you know a barley crop or a hop crop or spruce tips. We don’t have a vintage, we don’t have Alaskan Amber 2016 and Alaskan Amber 2017 so you have to make it consistent, which makes brewing very complicated,” Marcy notes. She then adds, “We love home brewing sometimes because it’s a one-off. That’s the challenge of the one barrel. It can be a big hit in the break room, but if they can’t replicate it consistently then it’s not going to go anywhere.” As Andy says, “We don’t want to be a one hit wonder.”
There’s no worry of the Alaskan Brewing Company falling off the charts any time soon. The brewery is already the most award-winning craft brewery in the history of the Great American Beer Festival and they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
The coming years will bring more growth to the company, which plans to remain firmly rooted in Juneau. And more growth doesn’t just mean more beer. It means continuing to find ways to work with more Alaska-grown ingredients. Marcy smiles and says, “I am just waiting for local hops.”
You can find Alaskan Brewing Company beer in 18 states in the lower 48, and the company hopes to continue to add to that list. That’s a heartening thought.
If we had to pick one item to represent the state to outsiders, a beer brewed from clean, plentiful, local water by people with a respect for their neighbors and the land they live on, would be a choice we could all drink to.