Alaskan Brewing Co with Geoff Larson - TAS #19

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This week I sit down with Geoff Larson, co-founder of Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, Alaska. Geoff and I talk trends in hard seltzer and beer, brewing Alaskan flavors into beer, how being off the road system forced him to innovate the brewing process, and what the beer shelves will look like in 15 years.

Alaskan Brewing's tasting room is now open!

Interview Notes

Opened up the tasting room end of June.

What’s the reopening process? They have tents outside so they will have more of an airy environment. They’ve done a lot of work on the sanitation side in terms of wiping tables down. Alaskan Brewing staff knows how to clean and sanitize because the brewing process needs equipment to be squeaky clean. Geoff knows he will have a broad spectrum of customers - some who are sensitive and some who aren’t.

At the beginning of the Covid crisis Alaskan Brewing was able to get a ton of sanitizer on behalf of the state since they had the supply chain setup. Brewers have to be very clean.

Geoff is a chemical engineer by training - so he gets into a lot of technical details.

Alaskan Brewing started doing some curbside pickup services to provide for locals, thankfully a lot of their beer goes to liquor stores, because the restaurant and bar trade was hammered. Geoff can’t think of anyplace else he’d rather be than Alaska during this crisis because of the sense of community we have here and the social distancing. For example people pick up hitchhikers in Fairbanks in the winter or boats stop to help each other because it’s common decency. Geoff thinks we are less afraid of strangers here.

Alaskan Brewing gave away 240 gallons of hand sanitizer over a 5-day period.

Hard seltzer sales have exploded in popularity in the last couple years. One thing Alaskan Brewing is trying to be aware of is the consumer trends. They don’t want to chase every single little trend, but it was obvious to them that people were interested in healthier beverages with flavor and lower carb and alcohol content. They put a lot of effort into tasting in their drinks. They have hundreds of flavor combinations - but they landed on having spruce tips as part of the flavor profile.

Back in 1986 when they started brewing beer the diversity of beers made in America was much lower. When Alaskan Brewing started they knew they needed to brew a beer that cost more and had more flavor. That was around the beginning of a revolution - beers available now were unfathomable in 1986. That exploration of flavors has led people to wanting to get more subtle but flavorful combinations.

Are beers that are lighter and lower calories getting more popular? Geoff thinks there’s a bit of a pendulum effect. There was a huge trend towards the products with HUGE flavors and a LOT of alcohol. Conversely that also exposed people to realize there are beautiful beer with lighter flavors and lower alcohol that are great. People love peaches, but people also like watermelon. Watermelon isn’t as sweet, it’s more subtle. People are understanding the spectrum.

When Geoff goes out to consume alcohol he’s more mindful about the amount of alcohol in his beer. At the beginning of America - the transport of alcohol was one of the reasons taxes changed. Rum and gin was very easy to transport because it’s lighter but it was very alcoholic and very destructive to society. Beer was harder to transport but was the drink of moderation.

Today, the beer world is looking for the expression of locale - that’s why they put spruce tips in the beer. Each year they have a fish processor that buys spruce tips from the people of Gustavus. Families go out and pick spruce tips before the fishing season. It’s great timing and a benefit to the community. They wanted to do it through a local processing plant and have it one step removed from the brewery - because families and kids go out and pick. One parent came up to them and said thanks for doing this - because my kid sees the result of getting paid per pound and they see the correlation between work and reward.

They have certain rules - have to pick on private land and give consideration to the health of the tree. They’ve done some analytics on the oil fractioning of spruce tips and it’s very similar to noble hops. Captain Cook used spruce boughs - which tasted bad. Then he used the new growth on the spruce trees and the crew loved it.

Alaskan Brewing has focused on the history of Alaska. A lot of the histories reference porters that were made. In the late 1800s/early 1900s the west was a little further behind the east coast. The west coast was just getting into lagers. There were a lot of porters in the west. Being located right next to a salmon smokehouse we would be sharing rejects eating smoked salmon and drinking beer - they thought why don’t we just roast our own grains using our neighbors smokehouse with the intent of having some smoke? That smoked porter was a bit of a throwback to that group.

From when you started in 1986 were you looking to history and local flavors? Yes and no - some things were from our own desire for flavors, some are from local stuff. They just put out a fireweed blonde ale so in many ways they do try to make the state of Alaska be part of what they are. On their 25th anniversary they put out a Perseverance which was a Russian Imperial Stout. Perseverance was one of the mines in Juneau.

Geoff also thinks where they’re located influences how they brew. One thing they have in Juneau is great water. He knows a number of breweries down south who have to purify their water because their water is influenced by agriculture. But they also have logistics issues. When they fermented they would capture their CO2 and purify it and use that. From 1989 on they were self-sufficient for carbon dioxide. They started doing that at 3,000 barrels of production. The next brewery to do it was at 600,000 barrels. That was at the influence of the locale. Everyone else just buys CO2 the tanker comes in and drops it off. Not to Juneau. It challenged them to be different because no one ran a brewery in Juneau before.

They were also the first brewery to install a mash filter press and steam boiler fueled by spent grain. It’s both an operational efficiency and commitment to environmental stewardship. Their CO2 is from photosynthesis. Most CO2 is from sequestered carbon from burning fossil fuels. That’s an environmental benefit, but necessity is the mother of invention. Same thing with the spent grain they were trying to get rid of. Geoff says there may be a lot of pork on capital hill in Juneau but they don’t eat spent grain. They had to dry the spent grain and ship it to a farmer. It was complicated and expensive.

When you talk about being innovative and fixing a problem it is very, very difficult. It’s a trial-by-error. Using spent grain as fuel was met with huge hurdles. They were suffering under the need to move this waste stream. It never occurred to them to dump it in the landfill. It’s high-protein which means it doesn’t burn well. Those two examples of the CO2 and spent grain was an image of necessity causing invention.

The mash filter press was a mindset change. While tradition meant you would do it a different way - there was technology in Europe that reduced waste, water, and increased efficiency of use of grain. In the US we pollute more because we have more land and it’s easy. In Europe they can’t do that. The mash filter press was a mindset where they wanted to do something innovative and not traditional but it didn’t mean they couldn’t try it. They reduced waste water and impact plus got 5% more out of their grain without impacting the end result.

These seem to be once-a-decade type technology upgrades. What’s next? They got two patents on the spent grain boiler and are getting a third. Their high-protein waste stream technology has applications in other industries. Geoff was asked to speak in Belgium to the international brewing congress and the world beverage forum and National Brewers Association of the Americas.

There is a specific compound they used in their lab to suppress yeast growth to easier discover bacteria they didn’t want there. It was a horrific substance and the only yeast suppressant stuff available. The staff decided to try this other compound that is actually used by people. They started using it and their lab team submitted a paper to the American Society of Brewing Chemists who did it more formally. They got three large and three small breweries to test their process. It was comparable to the traditional system and they ended up changing the handbook to allow this new process using the new compound. They changed the health environment of every lab in the country. Their system is the way they process. They improved every lab’s health environment. It’s a mindset of looking at things differently and instead of saying why can’t we do that?

Alaskans appreciate innovation because everyone has to innovate on some level. In 1986 prime lending rates at banks were 15%. Geoff and Marci said why not?

In the US they’re one of the top-25 craft breweries in the country.

This trend of IPAs is still a growing trend and it’s not going to go away. Each trend leaves a legacy of innovation. When they first started wheat beers were popular. Then there was a trend of raspberry beers in the late 90s. The raspberry beers coming out were of poor quality - synthetic flavoring and all that. Alaskan Brewing made one with real fruit.

IPA is still here to stay - people want different flavors and it will cycle through. Geoff doesn’t think it will disappear.

What beers does Geoff see raising and lowering in popularity in 15 years? Geoff thinks the discovery of big, bold, huge products is going to go back into its proper place, he doesn’t want a beer to overpower his meal. Geoff thinks the biggest beers are taking a little more of the front stage. He likes having a couple beers - he can’t do that at 9%. He had a brewer lament to him that he couldn’t brew strong beer in Utah. Geoff thinks his locale is giving him a challenge. Just because you can’t have high alcohol doesn’t mean you can have big flavor.

Can you brew a good beer at 2-3%? Guinness Stout on draft is about 2.75% in Ireland. It’s huge and unmistakeable flavor-wise. Alcohol doesn’t have a lot of flavor it’s about the grain.

What is the most underrated town in Alaska to visit? Geoff hasn’t traveled throughout the state as much as he’d like to but he’s been able to see a lot of places. He a Marcy don’t have kids so they take their nieces and nephews around Alaska when they come of age. They always ask what Geoff and Marcy suggest. Float trip up to the arctic circle? Kayak trip on outer coast? Mountaineering experience? They’ve used their nieces and nephews for excuses to travel but the most underrated is hard to say. Right now Geoff wants to go to the Kobuk Sand Dunes and take a paraglider.

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