Reawakening Alaska's Seasonal Breweries

By Bill Howell / Photography By Bill Howell & Elaine Howell | June 09, 2016
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Enjoy these seasonal Alaska breweries while you can.

Perhaps more so than anywhere else in the US, Alaskans’ lives are driven by the seasons. The long, sunny days of our too-short summers invite us to make the very most we can of them, driven by the knowledge that the cold, dark days of our tediously-long winters always seem just over the horizon. For those Alaskans who make their year-round livings from such summer-only industries as fishing and tourism, May through September is an especially frantic time. Many businesses in Alaska are only open during this period, and shut their doors during the long winters to cut costs. Included in the list of “summer only” businesses are several breweries scattered across the state.

49th State Brewing Company, located in the town of Healy just outside Denali National Park, opens in late April and closes its doors at the end of September, doing a year’s worth of business in about five months. During the winter months, Healy has only 40 to 50 inhabitants, braving the short days and -50o F temperatures. Yet, between mid-May and mid-September, over half a million engulf the area to visit the national park. The brewery uses its long winter sleep as an opportunity to produce beers which are improved by a long period of cold-conditioning. Just prior to closing, the brewery brews several of these beers, pumps them into its tanks, then turns the heat down in the building to just above freezing, allowing the beers to condition from October to April. These Hibernation Series beers include such favorites as Seward’s Folly Russian Imperial Stout, Double on Tundra Belgian-style dubbel ale, and Smoked Marzen, winner of a Gold Medal in the Smoked Beer category at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Despite brewing for less than half the year, 49th State Brewing Company is producing some of the finest beers in Alaska.

Seward Brewing Company in Seward, AK
The exterior of Seward Brewing, on the corner of 4th and Washington in downtown Seward, AK.
Photo 1: Seward Brewing Company’s bar has an industrial look, befitting the seaport and railway that define its hometown.
Photo 2: The exterior of Seward Brewing, on the corner of 4th and Washington in downtown Seward.

Another brewery that utilizes a winter furlough is Seward Brewing Company. Its namesake town bustles from May to September, with thousands of passengers embarking and debarking each week at its cruise ship terminal. Opened in 2012, the Seward Brewing Company is a brewpub in downtown Seward that caters to these summer visitors. Owner Erik Slater is a chef and brewer who offers delicious locally-made beers and superb locally-sourced seafood to tourists and natives alike. However, when the last cruise ship sails in September, Seward reverts to its winter identity as a small Alaska town of only a couple of thousand year-round residents, too small a market to support such a large dining establishment, so Slater takes the fiscally-prudent step of closing down his business until the following May.

In addition to these two breweries, other seasonal breweries in Alaska include the Gakona Brewing Company (a nanobrewery located in the town of the same name), Gold Rush Brewing (located on the South Klondike Highway a couple of miles north of Skagway), and Icy Strait Brewing (located in the small community of Hoonah on Chichagof Island). Each of them has reopened for 2016 and now offers its beers to thirsty summer visitors.

Recommended Beers to Try:

49th State Brewing Company

  • Smoked Marzen: Winner of the Gold Medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival as the best smoked beer in America.
  • Double on Tundra Belgian-style Dubbel: Part of the Hibernation Series, this strong abbey ale has notes of raisins, figs, and plums.

Seward Brewing Company

  • Pinbone IPA: Brewed with five different varieties of American hops, this IPA has a wonderfully citrus aroma and taste.
  • Inked Out Stout: This American stout is thick and chewy on the tongue and loaded with notes of chocolate and coffee.

Gakona Brewing Company

  • Killer Rabbit IPA: Brewed with Amarillo and Cascade hops, this is a clean, full-bodied IPA.
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