Plaid-clad and faux-mustachioed, Andy Kline herded a large crowd of revelers from bar to bar during the Hopothermia release party and pub crawl on Jan. 10, while sharing an epic Alaskan tale — concocted just for Alaskan Brewing’s newest year-round brew, a double IPA that packs a hoppy punch. Only days earlier, in an interview at the brewery, Kline was weaving another tale: of how a beer goes from rough draft to year-round, from an idea to refrigerators around the country.
If you’ve ever toured Juneau’s local brewery, established in 1986 by Jeff and Marcy Larson, you have probably seen the different brewing systems, from single-barrel home brewer’s dream to the ten-barrel system, to the newest, largest 100-barrel system, which notably runs on spent grain. You may have also learned that original Alaskan brews, like the flagship Amber, came from turn-of-the-century recipes from Juneau’s mining past. But Alaskan Brewing will not rest on its hops; the brew crew is regularly concocting new recipes. Some may not make it past the break room, where employees are encouraged to sample and share thoughts, but others will be enjoyed by the public as Rough Drafts, some will become part of the Pilot Series or make it to seasonal status, and a few rare brews will be made available year-round.
“It just happened with Hopothermia,” Kline said. “It’s our newest year-round beer, but it started out as an idea for a double IPA — and that’s some brewers getting together, or a single brewer, working on this system... a single barrel system.”
The cycle of a beer starts as an idea, sometimes with a brewer, sometimes with another employee. In the break room at the brewery, there were three small-batch beers on tap to try. Packaging Lead Sarah Lionberger collaborated with brewer Brian Ross on a chocolate schwartzbier — “It’s Brian Ross’ recipe. He did all the real work,” Lionberger said. There are not too many rigid parameters for what brewers can do, Kline said, but the first is that all beers will be brewed with Alaskan’s well-guarded ale yeast. Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of ingredient availability and costs. “You don’t realize how agriculturally oriented this industry is, it’s about grain being there, hops being there, and our guys doing a lot of planning and a lot of work to make sure ingredients are lined up for next year’s beer and the year after that,” Kline said.
Sometimes the brewery knows it wants to try a certain flavor, like the Pumpkin Porter or Hopothermia, so they get to work with the necessary ingredients. When new hop varietals becoming available, they will often inspire experimentation, as with the Citra hop that really shines in the Freeride APA, and is featured in Hopothermia — along with four other hop varieties. Kline also talked about helping with the Heritage Coffee Brown Ale recently, using premium coffee that wouldn’t make sense financially for production beyond limited Rough Draft quantities, despite its popularity.
Brewery employees are encouraged to sample the experimental beers and provide feedback. If the beer is popular, which can be discerned in part through feedback, but also by how quickly the small keg is drained, there’s a chance for it to become a Rough Draft, available to the public. Taste testing is a big part of the brewing process for all the beers, and everyone takes a turn.
The Rough Draft series is the first step for a beer that’s passed the initial internal taste test — and taste tests are encouraged, both from certified experts and lay people. Rough Drafts start out available only statewide, poured at the brewery and some restaurants and bars — that’s the limited series. But some Rough Drafts are now made available to taste buds outside the local market in the export series. Currently being shared Outside are the Taku River Red and the Sentinel Rye.
Popular Rough Drafts might find their lives elongated with entry to the Pilot Series. Pilot Series beers rotate, but are available to the wider market Alaskan Brewing serves — that’s 15 territories now. The Pilot Series brews are limited, sometimes because of seasonally available ingredients. The beers can be so popular, they’re often in high demand and sell out quickly. Pilot Series brews are available in kegs or 22 oz. bottles. Alaskan also has its seasonal classics, Summer and Winter, which are available widely in typical bottles.
After a few seasons of limited availability on the market, a Rough Draft might join the Pilot Series, or a popular beer not limited by ingredients might make its way from the rotation to being a year-round beer, as Hopothermia recently did.
Kline said Hopothermia hit the market as a Rough Draft in 2010, and that “the flavor has been played with subtly here and there, but largely the recipe stayed the same.” It was available as a Rough Draft export last year and should have just hit Alaskan Brewing markets nation-wide this last week as a year-round.
The most recent year-round releases, the Freeride APA and Hopothermia, feature some notable differences, not just in the design of the labels, breaking from the classic designs seen on Alaskan Amber and others, but also in the punchier flavor profile. As the craft brewing industry in the U.S. has evolved, so have the palates of today’s craft beer-drinkers, with the younger crowd demanding hops, hops and more hops.
“Our flagship beer is Amber, and the trademark of Amber is smoothness,” Kline said. “But for a lot of younger craft beer drinkers, they’re looking for real hop bombs — they’re looking for these outlier, extreme tastes. That’s interesting to respond to because Alaskan’s hallmark has always been balance. Even when we put out a beer that’s hoppy, like Hopothermia, we put it out with a really strong malt backbone so it’s a rich flavor profile, it’s not just this mouth-turning hop bomb.”
Whatever the flavor profile, there are a couple things that keep Alaskan Brewing’s beers distinctly Alaskan.
“We try to bring something of either the lifestyle the people live here, or the place where we’re brewing, into the name of every beer, and we definitely put that into every beer — you’re literally tasting Alaska in every beer because we use our water ... and we happen to have incredibly good water here,” Kline said.
In addition to the lifestyle and the water, and the one yeast to brew them all, there is the Alaskan frontier spirit, embodied in the mythic “lone brewer” that Hopothermia celebrates in its packaging and story.