HAINES — As Rosie Ainza finished handing medals to the winners of the 23rd annual Great Alaska Craft Beer and Homebrew Festival, she was confronted with a surprise.
Her boyfriend, Logan Lott, had climbed onto the Klondike Stage at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds and sank to one knee. In his outstretched hands he held a ring.
The question was obvious. So was the answer.
Three years ago, Ainza and Lott met at the Haines festival. It was only fitting to propose there.
“It’s our anniversary place,” Lott said. “It’s something special.”
At 23 years old, Haines’ festival is old enough to drink, and it just might be old enough to get married. Its fiancee is an easy pick. Two decades after it started as a party on the Fort William Seward parade grounds, the festival is tied as closely to its town as anything else in Haines.
“It’s incredible,” said Kyle Gray, president of the Haines Chamber of Commerce, speaking about the economic impact of the festival on Haines.
Haines has a year-round population of about 2,600 people; this year, with 1,600 festival attendees atop the normal Memorial Day weekend crowd, it was a close call whether the visitors outnumbered the locals.
Ainza and Lott — plus a few hundred others — came from Juneau on a packed ferry the night before the festival opened. Alaska Seaplanes added extra flights to cope with the demand for air travel. Hundreds more visitors came from the Yukon and other Canadian provinces. In parking lots across Haines, there were cars carrying license plates from Alberta and Ontario alongside those from Alaska and the Yukon.
Many attendees were like Manuel Sidler of Whitehorse, who said he was attending his third festival. What kept him coming back? “Beer,” he responded.
What’s his favorite part of the festival? “Beer,” he responded.
A few offered a more nuanced view. Sean Sluggett of Whitehorse was attending his fourth festival and brought Jeremy McCoy, who was enjoying the event for the first time. Sluggett had draped a Canadian flag around his shoulders like a cape. McCoy wore the Yukon flag in similar fashion.
Other attendees enjoyed music and games under a cloud-spotted blue sky, wearing Batgirl costumes, tutus and other items that would draw a third look on a city sidewalk.
“I don’t think you’ll find a beerfest like this anywhere else,” Sluggett said. “It’s not very serious.”
While that may be true for those who paid $40 per ticket, Haines’ marriage to its festival has serious business implications for the town and the breweries and alcohol distributors who participate in the festival.
Since it started in 1993, the festival has grown with Alaskans’ and Yukoners’ appetite for craft beer. It is now Haines’ second-biggest event, behind only the annual Southeast Alaska State Fair — and that event stretches across four days to the festival’s two.
Leslie Ross, tourism director for the Haines Borough, said the festival is comparable to having a large cruise ship in town, “except they stay,” she said of the visitors.
While cruise ship passengers will visit Haines for a few hours, their lodging and dining is largely taken care of aboard ship. Brewfest attendees pack hotels, dine at restaurants and stay for days. “The town is full to capacity,” she said.
With every hotel room in town booked, many festival attendees pitched tents on Haines’ beaches and in its parks, something the borough plans for every year, Ross said.
Jessica Edwards has been director of the Southeast Alaska State Fair since 2013 and oversees the brewfest, whose stated goal is to raise money for the fair. The festival is the fair’s biggest annual moneymaker.
The 2015 festival was the largest ever, but it can’t grow much larger, she said.
“We’re a town of 2,500 people,” Edwards said. “We can’t do much more. ... We already have people camping on the beach.”
This year, to take further advantage of the tourist influx, the Haines Chamber of Commerce hosted an outdoor market, encouraging festival-goers to make a brief detour from Haines’ bars.
For the brewers and alcohol providers, the festival’s business edge cuts closer.
Stephen and June Gerteisen own Arkose Brewing, a four-year-old operation in Palmer. For them, attending the Haines event with their beer is good marketing. Last year, the national Brewers Association counted 22 commercial Alaska breweries, and competition for market share can be intense.
“Even if you’ve been around 20-25 years, you still need to get out there,” Stephen said. “What better way to get the word out than to talk to folks?”
June stated things more plainly: “People taste it here, and they go in their bars and want it.” If people want Arkose beer, that encourages bars to stock Arkose products and liquor stores to sell them.
There’s business to be done between brewers, too. Friday night’s brewers’ dinner, part of the festival, encouraged brewers and distributors to socialize at an $80-per-ticket event. Ryan Makinster, executive director of the Brewers Guild of Alaska, made a pitch for brewers to get involved with a bill in the Alaska Legislature that modernizes and revises the state’s alcohol code.
“I want you guys to enjoy yourselves,” he said, “but when we ask for your support, we really need it.”
Alaska’s craft beer industry has grown enormously since the first Haines festival, and in the meantime, other festivals have come and gone. Paul Wheeler, founder of the Haines brewery, said there’s a simple reason why Haines’ relationship with its festival has turned into a lasting marriage.
“How can you stop a good thing?” Wheeler asked. “It’s a happy festival. Just look around at all the smiles.”