A global pandemic may not be the best time to open a craft brewery — or maybe it is? In Sitka, a defunct brewery is once again bubbling with the sounds and smells of malt and barley. New owners hope that a professional brewer will rekindle the town’s thirst for local beer.
The only signs that Harbor Mountain Brewing Company is opening in the middle of an international emergency are bottles of hand sanitizer and signs requesting mask-wearing and social distancing scattered throughout the taproom. Head brewer and co-owner Zach Anderson stands on a step ladder above a stainless steel tank in the brewhouse when I arrive.
“I’m currently making a double IPA. Just a hoppy, seven and a half percent beer,” Anderson says. “IPAs sell a lot, so making sure people get what they want.”
It’s the day before they’re set to open to the public, and they’re still unsure how everything will pan out in the middle of a pandemic. But Anderson seems calm and excited. This isn’t his first rodeo. He’s been brewing professionally for about five years, starting in Oregon and then most recently as the head brewer at Devil’s Club in Juneau.
“They gave me a lot of freedom there, and I was able to do whatever I wanted for the most part,” he says. “I learned a lot about the quality of flavor.”
When Anderson heard that Sitka’s second attempt at a brewery in recent history, Baranof Island Brewing Company or BIBCO, went under last fall after nearly a decade in business, he saw an opportunity for professional growth.
“Brewing itself, as far as in Alaska, there isn’t much of an industry. So, for me to kind of move up and do more of what I’d like to as far as the artwork of brewing. This was something that I was investigating,” he said.
Anderson soon met the investors who thought, like him, that Sitka could sustain a brewery, despite past failures. BIBCO defaulted on over half a million dollars in city loans. It isn’t entirely clear why the popular, widely-distributed brewery struggled to make ends meet, but some pointed to rapid expansion made possible by crowdfunding, conflict within management, and related quality issues.
Sitkan and businessman Gary Smith invested in BIBCO and is now a co-owner of Harbor Mountain Brewing Company.
“We actually really love how BIBCO kind of started this, with showing Sitka that, what a brewery is and how it’s a community gathering place,” Smith said. “I like bars too, but it’s just a different environment. People bring their kids and hang out.”
After they closed, Smith said people kept coming to him, trying to figure out how to keep Sitka’s brewery scene alive. When he and other investors met Anderson earlier this year, they thought that with his experience another attempt might just work. They purchased BIBCO’s assets from the city and started renovating the space. And then, the pandemic hit.
“Some days we said, God, this is like the worst time ever we could’ve done this,” he said.
Or is it? Sitkans have been without a local beer now long enough to miss it, and Anderson already knows what they like to drink.
“The positives are, you know the history a little bit. You know kind of what they were doing, there’s a niche for certain flavors,” he said. “It seems like everyone wants spruce tips and root beer.”
But he did have to change some of the equipment to fit his brewing style. And it’s more work to distinguish themselves.
“Some of the stigma, the previous branding, I mean branding’s a big part of it,” Anderson said. “So, being in the same location, just it’s gonna take time, so they can think of Harbor Mountain Brewing Company as opposed to BIBCO or the previous [brewery].”
For now, he says, they’ll take it slow. They’re offering growler and crowler fills and are working on distributing kegs to local businesses and customers. They’d love to bottle or can in the future and distribute outside of Sitka, but they also want to make sure they have a model that works.
And beers that work.
In the taproom, he sets down a three-glass flight on the table in front of me.
“So, just left to right on the board is kind of what I did. The first one is a Grisette, the second one is an IPA and then it’s an Oatmeal Stout,” he says.
A Grisette is a light, farmhouse-style beer, he explains. My favorite is the oatmeal stout. All of the beers have a clean, simple taste.
And that’s what Anderson was going for. He wants to start with some crowd-pleasers, and then venture into some funkier brews, like a saison aged in wine barrels.
“So kinda just see what Southeast Alaska, as far as the beer industry or food industry, see where we can fit in and then squeeze ourselves into certain places,” he said. Once the pandemic subsides, he hopes to host events, provide a space for artists to showcase their work and have tastings and food pairings.
And yes, they are planning to have both spruce tip beer and root beer soon.
Harbor Mountain Brewing Company’s taproom is now open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.