An up-and-coming brewery in Sitka has made the leap to bottling and distribution of their products — and Juneau will be one of the first to benefit. Beer from Baranof Island Brewing Co. has literally just gotten off the boat, and is now available in Juneau and throughout Southeast Alaska. The beer was brought in last month by Specialty Imports, one of the best distributors in getting an enormous variety of craft beers and high-end imports to grace Juneau’s shelves.
Baranof Island Brewing opened in 2010 as the smallest nano-brewery in Alaska, brewing on a half-barrel system (15.5 gallons), and quickly had to go bigger, brewing 55 gallons at a time. To keep up with demand, in January of 2011, Baranof Island Brewing installed a 10-barrel system, enabling 310 gallon batches to be brewed at one time, to hopefully keep up with demand of this flourishing brewery.
Formerly in the beer business, I’ve been watching this brewery since they had their coming out, in full form, at the Great Alaska Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage in January of last year. It was pretty spectacular. Still brewing on the one-and-three-quarters system, I’m sure they ran out of beer, as they had an enormous line from the start and throughout the festival. I’m also sure the lengthy line had something to do with their showmanship — they decked out their booth like no other, with 30-foot tall spruce poles with netting and banners strung up, creating quite the scene. The booth had the essence of a pirate ship. Pretty fun.
And their beers were good too. At the time I recall tasting a spruce tip beer. It was good and clean with spruce showcased, but I don’t recall the specifics – just that I was curious to see, and taste, how this brewery was to progress. I got the chance recently when I got an invitation to drink a growler brought back from Sitka by a friend, Rob Roys. Roys, a former beer writer himself, thought I’d appreciate Baranof beers. He said they are all good, clean and taste like a new brewery. I had to verify what he said twice to make sure he was truly sincere in his statement — he was. I had the Red — it was quite tasty, clean and malt forward, but well balanced with substantial hop backbone. Hop essence wafts off the top and is floral, pleasant, solid and, indeed, did have the taste of a new brewery. It’s hard to explain, but there is a certain essence to a beer, kind of like a new car smell, of a really good home brew stepped up into production. This new brewery essence is by no means bad, on the contrary, it’s solid and moving into the world of refinement.
The Redoubt Red Ale I had from the growler was a treat, but in order to write this article, I had to delve into Baranof Island Brewing’s entire line-up, and have almost gotten through them all. The first thing I noticed was the consistency between all the brewery’s styles. For some reason, when drinking products from the bottle rather than a growler, the new brewery essence diminished. I’m guessing this is caused by better oxygen control, as the growler I had did sit a few days.
The consistency I was tasting throughout the line-up, sampling four of the six styles available, I immediately attributed to the yeast. I guessed Baranof Island Brewing used one strain for all their styles, but had to give owner Rick Armstrong a call to confirm they do. It’s nice and clean, seems to ferment well, and also provides a nice consistency through their products. While I had him on the phone I also got to quiz him on some of the details of the operation — like how and why he got into this business in the first place.
It seems it was the fault of Haines Brewing’s Paul Wheeler. Working maintenance in the bio-medical field and for SEARHC, Armstrong found himself traveling throughout Southeast Alaska and, whenever he made the stop in Haines, he would visit Haines Brewing. Armstrong would buy as much beer as he could but still found himself running out of beer between trips, so he started brewing in his garage.
It became a career quickly. With the help of his wife Susan, the brewery has now expanded out of the garage into the building across the street with a recently installed a 10-barrel system. They are working with a few open fermenters, and now have installed a bottling line – with full production of one bottle at a time. Still working part time for SEARHC, Armstrong is able to travel throughout Southeast, and with the help of Specialty Imports and a flatbed truck, is able to distribute his products outside of Sitka.
Although they are now exporting the beer, I still plan to go to Sitka on a day trip to try a couple products they are not exporting — specifically the food created with their products — beer cheese and beer bread. And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the root beer. Also bottled and available around town, Ben’s Brew Root Beer is a nice non-alcoholic beverage — tasty and perfect for a root beer float.
The beers are bottled in 22 oz. bottles, and can be found on shelves throughout Southeast Alaska. The bottles and labels are consistent and classy, very Alaskan in feel, with mountains in the background and a touch of color in the subject and theme of each style — red salmon on the top of the Redoubt Red, a grizzly on the stout, a seal on the brown.
Preparing to interview Armstrong about the brewery, I was told to ask about the keg hunt. It seems last year around Easter, inspired by his nephew, the brewery held a keg hunt. Over the span of two or three weeks, clues were given out over the radio and on Facebook about the location of an empty keg — six, actually — stashed around Sitka. Whoever found a keg was able to turn it in to the brewery in exchange for a full keg. According to Armstrong, most were found through the clues, until the last one — found in the volcano. I guess that clue was “it’s in the volcano” — so it was a race to the top.
You’ll want to keep an eye out for these beers in Juneau: Halibut Point Hefeweisen, Peril Strait Pale Ale, Medvejie Stout, Silver Bay IPA, Redoubt Red Ale, Baranof Brown Ale and Ben’s Brew Root Beer.
• Rachale Juzeler is an organizer of beer festivals, a certified beer judge and Cicerone, and former brewer and QA tech. Basically, she loves the craft of beer.
Redoubt Red Ale – pours hazy with bright rust highlights. Slight head. Aroma: carmelly, fruity hop, light toastiness, good depth. Taste: substantial hop but balanced with malt. Chewy, resiny hop lingering, but drying at finish, calling for another sip.
Baranof Brown Ale – pours pretty clear but brown with ruby highlights. Chocolate wafts off top from a foot away, minimal but slight fruity hop. Taste: chocolate sweet with toasty notes, good sweet lofty malts at first sip. Crisp and slight roast dryness in finish. Clean, well balanced, and very sessionable.
Medvejie Stout – pours nicely, slightly viscous. Aroma: bitter dark chocolate. Flavor: aroma follows through in flavor. Smooth and creamy with roast finish to cut sweetness, leaving slight chalkiness drying the palate. Very nice, drinkable and clean.
Peril Straight Pale Ale (on tap) – mellow aroma (lots of other smells around.) Nice hop, not overpowering, with a touch of fruitiness followed with a solid but refined malt bill of light caramels, and slight roast twang near finish, but otherwise clean and quite refreshing.