Beer in Alaska: a love-hate history

About a dozen people took a journey through Alaska’s rich chronicle of breweries and beer Thursday with Kenai Peninsula College adjunct instructor Bill Howell.

Howell presented on his latest book, “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” in the McLane Commons as part of the school’s Showcase series, which highlights music, art and entertainment with speakers and performers.

The presentation combined Alaska’s unique history with one of America’s favorite refreshments. A book signing followed.

Those who attended were given a crash course on how the beer industry helped shape the state, how it survived the ups and downs of Prohibition and the oil boom, and where the industry is headed today.

“Alaska has this funny love-hate relationship with alcohol,” Howell said.

“Prohibition in Alaska was a joke… it was a tragic joke. Alaska was a bootlegger’s paradise.”

While Howell has always been interested in beer and breweries, he said he never had the time to devote to his passion until he retired in Alaska with his wife after about 20 years serving in the U.S. Navy.

In addition to giving presentations, Howell writes columns for publication and teaches what he calls a beer appreciation class at the college.

“More and more people are becoming aware of craft beer,” Howell said. “There’s this huge variety of beers, and flavors, and tastes and everything that’s out there, and that’s my goal in the class, is to expose people to that. I always tell them (the students) on the first day, I’m not here to tell you what you should like.

If you go through this whole class and you taste all these different beers and at the end of it you tell me, ‘Bill, I think Coors Light is the cat’s meow,’ who am I to say you’re wrong?… All I want to do is when you make that choice, I want you to have tasted all these other choices so that you’re making an informed decision.”

Showcase Coordinator Dave Atcheson has taken Howell’s class, and said he is also looking for more presenters and performers. Hearing about the ups and downs of breweries in the state because of Prohibition is always interesting, Atcheson said.

“(Howell’s) history book is new, and it’s Alaska Book Week, so I thought this would be a good start for the showcase,” Atcheson said.

Howell’s listeners Thursday night were treated to plenty of interesting tidbits about the beer industry: that Alaska’s first schools were built with money from brewery fees, that the then-territory voted itself dry before Prohibition officially took hold in the country, that Prohibition was successfully established in part because Alaska already allowed women to vote — but kept them from entering breweries — and more.

Because of Alaska’s relatively short history, several audience members recalled some of the beers and breweries Howell cited in his talk, including the beer from the first brewery to make a comeback in the state after World War II: Prinz Brau. The latter portion of Howell’s presentation focused on the well-known breweries of today, like the Alaskan Brewing Company, and what the future of beer looks like in the state.

Several new breweries have opened within the last few months. As more and more brewers jump on the bandwagon, Howell said there should be room for them as long as owners aren’t thinking too big.

“I think there’s still plenty of room for the small brewery,” Howell said. “You could have a brewery, very easily have a small brewery or brewpub pretty much anywhere in any town. Now, while I think there’s lots of room at the bottom, I’m not sure how much room there is for breweries that want to be players in the distribution game.”

Alaska’s first breweries after the oil boom of the 1970s were born of an initiative to diversify into industries other than oil, Howell said. While he said no one thing will ever be able to replace oil in Alaska, he is hopeful that beer will continue to contribute to the state’s revenue along with several other smaller industries.

After all, with the second highest beer tax in the nation, next to Tennessee’s, a thriving beer industry in Alaska “won’t hurt,” Howell said.

“Part of the philosophy going all the way back to the end of Prohibition is, ‘Well, we don’t want too many breweries,’” he said. “Which, in a state where we’re desperate for money, and breweries that create jobs and pay… a lot of extra taxes… it seems odd to me that we would want to discourage people, but that’s kind of the model that we’ve created that we’ve been living with for all these years.”

According to Alaska statute, the number of licenses the state will give out related to the sale of alcoholic beverages are limited by population. Once a town like Soldotna has maxed out on the number of beverage dispensary licenses allotted for its population, those who wish to open a brewery have to search around for existing licenses that are for sale, Howell said.

On April 7, Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) introduced Senate Bill 99, which seeks to amend parts of Alaska’s alcohol regulation statutes — Title 4 — including the part that refers to licenses.

Howell said Alaska’s breweries are valuable in that they pair well with another industry that’s helpful to the state’s revenue: tourism.

“It’s a value-added industry,” Howell said. “And in a world where we’re worried about carbon footprint, and beer is 95 percent water, why in the world should we ship water to Alaska? We’ve got plenty of water. Let’s ship raw materials, and we’ll add the water, and make beer.”

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