In 2004, when beer aficionado Bill Howell retired from the U.S. Navy and settled in Alaska, the brewery scene on the peninsula left much to be desired. Homer Brewing was the only brewery on the Kenai Peninsula — 85 miles away from his home in Sterling.
A long-time homebrewer with a taste for craft beer, Howell looked for opportunities to promote local brewing.
“I (thought) ‘I’m going to be living in Sterling, Alaska for the foreseeable future,’” Howell said. “So I started to take a little more proprietary interest in the local craft beer scene.”
A decade and a half later, Howell is the go-to guy for all things craft beer — he’s authored multiple books, hosts a regular public radio show, and is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his Alaska craft beer blog, Drinking on The Last Frontier. There, he covers everything there is to know about Alaska craft brewing, from new beers to try, new brewery openings and all things concerning the local beer drinker.
When he first started covering Alaska’s breweries, Howell said there were only about 15 in the state. Now, there are more than 35, with more opening.
“Things have grown so much,” Howell said. “It’s a hard job trying to stay on top of it.”
Howell first became interested in craft beer in 1989, while he was stationed at Virginia Beach. He began to homebrew and traveled the world trying new beer styles. Wanting to share this knowledge, Howell asked his boss at Kenai Peninsula College if he could start a beer class. The one-credit, community-education course is usually offered in the spring semester but will be offered this fall.
“People in this area are going to be curious about beer,” Howell said. “They’ll want to be educated about beer.”
In the 2007 spring semester, Howell began to teach a beer appreciation class at KPC. In each class, students get to taste different beer, tour local breweries, learn how beer is made, understand the business of beer, its history and the different styles and food pairings. Howell said it’s actually a fun class.
Howell launched the blog in 2008, as a way to meet demands of students who wanted the lastest updates on the beer scene after the semester was over. Later that year, Jenny Neyman, who ran the Redoubt Reporter, asked Howell if he wanted to write a monthly beer column.
“The popularity of craft beer and local brewing was skyrocketing at the time,” Neyman said. “Who better to write about it than Bill? His column was one of the most popular features of the paper. It wasn’t just about craft beer, but craft beer as a lens on history, science, politics and economics.”
While Howell was working on his blog and his monthly column for the Redoubt Reporter, more and more emails came to his inbox asking about where to drink craft beer while vacationing in Alaska.
“After I wrote the 10th email response to that, I thought, ‘This is dumb. I’m saying the same thing over and over again,’” Howell said.
So he sat down and wrote a book. The first volume to his book series “Beer on the Last Frontier,” covers breweries on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island. The second volume covers breweries in Anchorage and Fairbanks and everything in between, while the third covers southeast Alaska. Howell’s fourth book, “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” looks at the history of beer and brewing in Alaska.
Most recently, Howell has been hosting an hour-long radio show on KDLL 91.9 FM, during which he discusses beer, brewing and features special guests. Neyman runs the station and said she knew she wanted a beer show from Bill.
“The popularity of craft beer has continued to grow in our neck of the woods, so I figured a craft beer show would go over well with our listeners,” Neyman said. “If I had a TV channel, I’d be twisting his arm into that, too.”
Since investing his time in Alaska’s craft beer scene, Howell has become knowledgeable about beer regulation and keeps up with the state legislature and Alcohol Beverage Control Board brew policy and news.
“I feel very deeply invested in the local craft beer scene,” Howell said. “All these things that I was happily oblivious to 10 years ago … now I know about it and find myself worrying about it and tracking it.”
Howell said he is passionate about keeping people informed about all aspects of beer — and credits the community’s interest for keeping him blogging over the last 10 years.
“People are hungry and interested in [local craft brewing], and there isn’t anybody else doing it,” he said.