From Brewpubs to Brew Caucus: The Growth of the Small Brew Industry in Alaska

Courtesy of Denali Brewing Co. Facebook Page

Courtesy of Denali Brewing Co. Facebook Page

Though Alaska may be small on people, it’s a state that’s big on beer. As beer columnist for the Press Dr. Fermento or James Roberts explains, if you go into any liquor store in Alaska and you will find one thing (or many things): diversity.

“When brewers from outside and people within the alcohol industry come up here and look at what’s on the selves, they are just blown away,” explains Roberts.

But where did all of this diversity come from? Well as with almost any question on beer, James Roberts had the answer.

Though he shies away from crediting them completely, he cites, “that it was Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Cheeko, California that said, we don’t have to be like every other brewery.”

Instead of keeping hops in the background, Sierra Nevada decided to feature hops as the definitive flavor in its beer.

The result forces Roberts to employ a catalog of adjectives like, “fresh, green, cascade, leafy, aromatic, juicy, tasty, hop-forward beer.”

After the deregulation of the beer market in 1979, the market exploded. With the success of Sierra Nevada, other breweries began popping up and exploring flavors both new and old. This wave finally crashed on Alaskan shores in late 1980s, bringing customers start ups like the Alaska Brewing Co.

Since then, beer shelves have been stocked with a diversity of craft brews to compete with the big industry mainstays of Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. Slowly sales for craft brews have gained on their big name rivals. As economist Michael Fried detailed in an report on the rise of craft brew in the state, between 2003 and 2013 craft sales almost tripled while sales for big industry brews sales declined at almost 50%.

As consumers begin to prefer craft selections over their “Bud-mil-oors” rivals, the shift fed a huge growth of the number of craft breweries in the state. As James Roberts observes, that while 22 breweries are currently in operation within the state, seven more are already in planning.

This has created an opportunity for people to evolve their home brewing hobbies into a business. One of those people is Sassan Mossanen, who became a founding partner of Denali Brewing Co. in Talkeetna.

Mossanen’s dream has grown steadily since the brewery opened its doors in 2009. As last year the brewery produced around 4,000, he expects they could double that number this year and potentially reach 12,000 by next year.

“First and foremost we love to make good beer. But the thing I am probably the most proud of after the fact that we try to make the best beer we can, is the fact that we are contributing significantly to the employment in Talkeetna,” explained Moussanan.

In the context of Talkeetna, this contribution truly is significant. In the past few years, the brewery has grown to become the largest year round employer in the city. However as Mossanen found, the road to this success is fought with difficulties and heavy capital investment.

“Myself and partners at the beginning took very big pay cuts,” Mossanen explains.

Mossanen says that he still works his construction business to make ends meet. As he has found, “the return on investment unlike many other businesses takes in our experiences a minimum of three to five years to turn a profit.”

However many aim to make it easier for brewery start-ups to rise through those early turbulent years. James Roberts is not only Dr. Fermento but the President of the Alaska Small Brewers Guild. This group advocates for breweries in the state government and to Alaska’s representatives in the US House and Senate.

Robert’s efforts have been aimed at promoting the economic benefit of this growing industry to policymakers, with the hope that they may implement new policies that make easier for a new brewery to find its feet.

This representation is not falling on deaf ears, as the Senate Small Breweries has caucus has grown in attempt to aid the small brewery industry. This group has collected of a diverse roster of legislators from both sides of the aisle including Alaska’s own Senator Lisa Murkowski.

The Guild maybe seeing the first fruits of their labor in the proposed bill known as the Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce Act or as it more aptly called, the Small BREW act. The act would reduce the per barrel tax more than half on breweries producing less than 6 million barrels a year.

Both Roberts and Mossanen explain the affect that this would have on small breweries would be huge. As the bill only qualifies for new or small businesses, the bill aims to help level the playing field between craft brew and their big name competition.

Mossanen elaborates, “Typically if you see someone succeeding at what they are doing by creating jobs and infrastructure and developing within their own communities. You should get out of their way and let them continue to do what they do best. ”

If the Small Brew Act passes, the US treasury would loose out on a source of funding. Whether the Senate and House both have a stomach for cutting a source of revenue remains to be see. As Small Brewers Guild boasts, the bill enjoys the support of both Alaska’s Senators and Representative Don Young in the House of Representatives.

The bill has been introduced and awaits the to be heard by the House Ways and Means Committee.

 

Be sure to tune into KRUA 88.1 FM to hear more updates on the future Small Brew Act and you can listen to our previous coverage in the links below.

And hear Communication Director for Senator Lisa Murkowski discuss the Small Brewers caucus and the Senator’s support for the Small BREW Act:

 

External Links:

A rundown and copy of the Small BREW act: https://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/494

 

Listen to our coverage of the growth of beer in Alaska:

By News Director Connor Keesecker

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