Alaska residents embrace the wild and secluded nature of their state; it’s something they wear as a badge of honor. The hardships other Americans lament – blizzards, high prices, out-of-stock items are things Alaskans take for granted. It is the price they pay to live in a place wilder than civilization and which animates a spirit of resilience and resourcefulness.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the city of Fairbanks, the third largest city in the state with over 31,000 residents and two large military bases nearby. Located in the heart of the interior of the state, it has no direct access to ports, has only two roads leading to it, and is at the end of the Alaska Railroad line. When something happens in the city, it has come a long way.
So while the craft beer industry has exploded across the country in recent decades, and in Juneau and Anchorage, the state’s other two major cities, Fairbanks only had one craft brewery. Hindered in part by restrictive state alcohol laws governing craft breweries – must close at 8 p.m., can only serve 36 ounces of product, no entertainment of any kind including TVs or games – and by the fact that being at the end of the supply chain resulted in higher ingredient prices than elsewhere, the margin for success was narrow.
The tide started to turn in 2012 when HooDoo Brewing opened, joining the existing Silver Gulch Brewery (a currently closed brewery) to serve the city’s residents. The result of more than half a decade of planning and hard work, the brewery was a blow in the dark for Bobby Wilken, a town resident and its founder. “I wanted to create a place where the community could come together over a few good beers,” he says. “We opened the door without notice or publicity, not knowing what to expect.”
What greeted them when they opened were queues at the door, lines that still materialize every day as customers line up to buy one of their beers. Designed to mimic the feel of the German breweries where Wilken studied brewing, it has an industrial exterior meets the Bear Grylls feel on it. A large outdoor beer garden is packed with drinkers all year round. The brewery quickly became one of the social hubs of Fairbanks.
Keeping the brewery running and profitable is not easy. Production needs to be planned four to six weeks in advance as malts, hops and other ingredients need to be ordered in Seattle and shipped north by barges. To help keep costs down, HooDoo ordered items in bulk to keep shipping costs down. If they made a mistake and lacked an ingredient, that would mean either scrapping a production or bartering with an Anchorage brewery to buy it.
The nature of the dramatic climate change in Fairbanks has also added to the complexity. In winter, temperatures regularly hover below freezing and can drop quickly to -40. At the same time, in summer the sun rarely sets and temperatures can reach the 90s. Solar panels have been installed to offset expensive energy costs, their cooling compressor has been moved indoors to capture heat. during the winter months and large windows were added to the design to bring in more light.
Even with these changes, the brewery had costs close to double those seen in breweries in the rest of the United States. This was part of the reason why Wilken decided to focus on his local community with his beer and not build a large distribution platform. The packaged beer was canned on site in a double-headed pot and sold at the door; barrels were sold to local bars. This helped to maximize profits. In the years since it opened, HooDoo has thrived, inspiring others to follow the path they have forged.
Black Spruce Brewing Company opened in 2018 with a focus on something different. While HooDoo had found success making beers built around classic styles – kölsch, stout, lager, IPA – co-founder and head brewer Carey Fristoe created a menu around big, bold IPAs and experimental beers. His beers were a hit, and his relaxed tasting room in a nondescript concrete building across from the city’s Coca-Cola dispenser took off.
“We felt that there was a segment of the population in Fairbanks who was looking for something a little different in craft beer, and their tastes aligned with ours,” he says. “The ingredients in our beers can be expensive, but we balance the sustainability of the business by providing value to our consumers to keep them coming back.”
As the demand for their beers increased, they adapted and recently upgraded their canning machine to sell more packaged beer to their customers in their tasting room and at local liquor stores. . By self-distributing, they can control their market and keep their costs low.
The success of the two breweries has not gone unnoticed. Midnight Mine Brewing Company was opened as a small nano-brewery in the heart of downtown by longtime hospitality veteran Rick Mensik a few years ago and has quickly grown a following for their nuanced small batch beers. and tasty. There are plans to open another version nearby to meet growing demand from residents.
The latest addition to Fairbanks’ growing brewery scene is Latitude 65 Brewing Company, which opened in May 2021. Built in a former racquetball club, it is by far the largest brewery in town at this time. day. Occupying 5,400 square feet of a 22,000 square foot building, it was designed to grow as needed. Twenty-eight faucet lines will serve their products ranging from seltzer and cider to a wide range of beer styles. The plan is to provide residents with a one-stop-shop to taste a wide variety of products. Co-founder Zeb Mabie predicts a day when all of the city’s breweries can pool their resources and order products wholesale to reduce their shipping costs and increase their bottom line.
Logistics, costs, and location kept the craft beer industry going in Fairbanks for some time. But, finally, it has taken hold and shows no signs of slowing down as Brewers learn to thrive in such a remote place. Just like the townspeople, nothing seems to hold them back.