On a warm Anchorage day, the garage doors are open at the Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Inside, cans of a Belgian-style tripel make their way down a conveyor belt.
The brewing industry is growing, despite being hit with enormous pandemic challenges. New breweries have been popping up in Alaska for years, and, despite earlier predictions that growth would plateau, it hasn’t let up yet.
Midnight Sun is one of the oldest breweries in the state, open since 1995. The craft beer industry was a lot different back then.
“It wasn’t a ton of variety, it was a small following of people, and it was a very rugged and disorganized kind of situation,” said company president Lee Ellis. Ellis started working at Midnight Sun in 2009. He also heads up the Brewer’s Guild of Alaska.
He describes a craft beer boom in the state in the early to mid-1990s, but said breweries were struggling to stay afloat back then.
“Everything was kind of pieced together,” said Ellis. “We used a lot of dairy equipment. You know, the Craft Brewers Conference, which is a national conference we do every year, there would be less than 1,000 people at it. Now the attendees number over 17,000.”
Alaska’s industry is much bigger and more stable today: There are close to 50 breweries in the state, with more in the works.
“It’s a much less dangerous proposition nowadays to start a brewery than it was in the ‘90s,” said Ellis.
And breweries are all over the state. They’ve proved to be sustainable businesses even in small towns.
“Like Haines Brewing Company, a town of 2,000 or less, and they’re successful,” said Ellis. “Girdwood Brewing Company, a town of 2,000 or less, they’re successful. So really, it doesn’t take a huge population base to make a financially sustainable brewery.”
Alaska Department of Labor Economist Neal Fried recently wrote about the industry for the Labor Department’s monthly magazine “Trends.” It’s a subject he also covered four years ago.
“Back then, there were 36 breweries and I thought ‘Wow, we must be getting close to its peak,'” said Fried. “But obviously I was wrong.”
Now there are 49 breweries, and more being started, despite an economic wallop from the pandemic. In 2020, local beer consumption and brewery employment fell, Fried said.
“Breweries just got hammered. Probably more so than most industries.”
Fried, who prefers IPAs and pilsners, said statistics from the last decade show Alaskans like craft beer.
“The big breweries like Bud and Coors Light, their consumption in the state has fallen by 19%,” said Fried. “All beer consumption has declined by 9%. But craft beer, Alaska craft beer, has grown by 34%.”
The Brewers Association, a national industry group, estimates breweries contributed $332 million to the state’s economy in 2019. And in 2020, Alaska ranked fifth in the country for breweries per capita.
Fried works down the street from one of Anchorage’s newer breweries, Onsite Brewing. Inside, it’s spacious, with tall ceilings and picnic table seating. Landscape photographs hang on the walls, put up for First Friday in March 2020 — a memory from the business’ short pre-pandemic life. Beer pours from taps decorated with plastic climbing holds like you would find on the wall of a rock gym.
Chai, a brown dog with floppy ears, quietly wanders around the floor, or stares out from her bed underneath the front counter.
Amber Chambers, who wears a pair of earrings shaped like mountains, is one of the owners of Onsite, a business that started as a hobby.
“My husband was a professional mountain guide for 12 years around the world and was getting ready to transition to something else,” said Chambers. “We’d been home brewing a lot and doing pretty well, so we thought we might as well try it out for ourselves and start a small brewery and see what happened.”
She said when she and her husband opened in January 2020, they aimed to create a space for outdoor enthusiasts to gather.
“When the Alaskans come in after fishing or biking and they’re talking about — ‘Oh, you just did that trail and I’m going to go do this one — have you seen the conditions on that?’ And it’s like people you’ve never met will come in and sit down and talk over their entire three beer limit on these cool adventures they’ve done,” said Chambers.
Chambers said they’d originally planned to start really small — no growlers, no cans, just beers at the taproom. The pandemic forced those plans to change. Now, Chambers said they’re having a hard time keeping up with demand.
She said Alaskans’ desire to support small local businesses has helped create an environment where a business like Onsite can thrive.
That sentiment is echoed by Ellis, at Midnight Sun.
“The hyper-localism of Alaskan people, and also the demand of tourists and visitors to experience local flavor has been hugely beneficial,” said Ellis.
The challenges of the pandemic aren’t over yet, Ellis said, and this summer will be critical. He sees plenty more room for growth in the industry, he said, but success will ultimately hinge on the overall health of the state’s economy.