There are few businesses that would permit a member of the packaging department to help develop a new product.
But that's what happens at the Alaskan Brewing Co., where they not only permit employees to do crossover tasks - they encourage them. For example, Theron Clark, a member of the packaging department, was tapped for the design team for a new limited edition beer, Alaskan Summer Ale.
"I helped brew it, and it was great fun," Clark said. "And when they posted the label design, we would point out things we like."
"I am pretty excited about seeing it hit the store so I can say, 'Yeah, that's beer that I made,' " Clark added.
Clark's participation was part of what Alaskan Brewing calls Rough Drafts, limited edition beers that typically are available only in Juneau. However, the brew crew is currently producing Alaskan Summer Ale, a beer that will be marketed throughout the Pacific Northwest in March.
The Rough Draft program spreads out the creative responsibility for each new limited edition among many departments, from packaging and sales to maintenance and accounting. Department representatives meet with brewers to research, discuss and, ultimately, sample each specialty.
"The Rough Draft program is an opportunity for our crew to design and brew beers for the pure art of brewing," said Brent Kesey, Alaskan's lead brewer. "It fosters understanding, information sharing and knowledge of how their work is an important part of brewing beer, not to mention the camaraderie."
Brewer Calvin Crawford collaborated with Clark. "It's great," Crawford said. "Everybody gets their hands in it and tries a little of their own personal touch."
Dave Wilson, quality assurance manager, was also on the Summer Ale development team. Usually the brewery will make a batch of 10 to 12 barrels (31 gallons to the barrel) of a limited edition like Sumatra Stout, flavored with locally roasted Heritage coffee. But they are producing 1,000 barrels, or about 15,000 cases, "to start with" of Summer Ale because it is slated for wider distribution. If that entire batch is sold, the brew will be judged a success, and the brewery may consider it for annual, seasonal production, Wilson said.
Smoked Porter, for example, was the third seasonal Rough Draft brewed in the company's 15-year history. Its dark flavor is a result of smoking the malt over local alder wood. Smoked Porter is being produced for the second year because it sells very well, Wilson said.
Alaskan Brewing Co. has made its award-winning reputation on the basis of only four brews produced year-round: Alaskan Amber, Pale, Alaskan ESB and Oatmeal Stout. Summer Ale is a Koelsch-style beer, meaning it's lighter - more suitable for consumption during hot weather. It tends to be dry rather than sweet.
Tourists who take the company's tour can view through picture windows the pilot brew house where Rough Drafts are made.
"It's an ongoing process, and a lot of the tourists who come here are interested," Wilson said. "The big brew house is not convenient for tours, which are a test barometer for our products" through tastings conducted at the conclusion.
The small tanks in the pilot brew house are fermenters, wrapped in refrigerated jackets to maintain a constant temperature. "Controlling the fermentation is one of the most important parts of the process," Wilson said.
The big tanks on the opposite side of the narrow area are steam-heated mash tuns, large tanks that hold 10 barrels (330 gallons) each. Mash tuns covert insoluble things in grain to soluble, such as starch to sugar, Wilson said, "and some of the proteins into larger proteins." A brew cooks in the tuns only about two hours, at a temperature ranging from 110 degrees to 175, depending on the formula in production.
The brewery is not averse to borrowing ideas from history, such as adding the resinous tang of Sitka spruce tips to create Alaska Winter Ale. The idea came from British explorers James Cook and George Vancouver, who experimented with spruce tip ale as a scurvy preventive during their explorations of Alaska's coast.
Public relations director Kristi Monroe was familiar with spruce tips because she makes spruce tip jelly. "Home brewers have used spruce tips for years," Monroe said. She has yet to taste Alaskan Summer Ale because she recently gave birth to her second child, "but all of us love beer around here," she added.
Like Winter Ale, Alaskan Amber has historical connections. Amber is based on a recipe used between 1899 and 1907 by the Douglas City Brewing Company.
Aging sites also take advantage of local "ingredients." Big Nugget Barleywine is being aged in a gold mine, to mimic pre-electricity cold storage used in the Gold Rush, Wilson said. "Tourists who go on the gold mine tour here can see it off to the side, but, of course, it's locked up," he said.
Alaskan's beer has won a long list of gold, silver and bronze medals, plus "Best of Show" awards at dozens of beer festivals here and abroad with its Amber as well as some of its Rough Drafts. In 1988, it won Best Beer in the Nation in the Great American Beer Festival Consumer Preference Poll.
For more, see the Web site at alaskanbeer.com.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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