Throughout their history, seven Kenai Peninsula craft brewers have found a way to survive despite laws limiting taproom hours, entertainment in taprooms and how much beer they can produce.
The threat of the new coronavirus has brought a whole other challenge.
“Microbreweries have been limited in what they can do, so that’s forced innovation,” said Doug Hogue, owner of Kenai River Brewing in Soldotna. “Given a new challenge, we all get together and figure it out. But the challenge is not normally this extreme.”
In an effort to flatten the curve of the spread of the new coronavirus, Gov. Mike Dunleavy closed all dine-in service at breweries and restaurants on March 18. Brewers are still able to sell growlers, crowlers, six-packs and other containers on a to-go basis, but taprooms are no longer open. Breweries with restaurants also were force to go takeout only.
The restaurant and bar closure also affected craft brewers by taking away the chance to distribute in those establishments, though brewers distributing in liquor stores still get revenue from that.
Hogue said one way the seven craft brewers across the peninsula have found success is to win support from their communities, support that will be valuable during these restrictions.
“This is going to be a challenge for a lot of businesses — for every business. I don’t see any of the breweries that are currently running failing,” Hogue said of the seven peninsula craft brewers. “We have the ability to sell out the door, and there’s so much community support for microbrewing.
“People are still coming and picking up beer, and that goes for every brewery on the peninsula. They’re heavily supported by their communities.”
The following is a closer look at how the peninsula’s craft brewers are weathering the storm:
St. Elias Brewing Company
St. Elias, located in Soldotna, is a brewpub and restaurant that opened in 2008. The establishment closed for dine-in service March 18 with the governor’s mandate.
Jessie Kolesar, who owns the place along with Zach Henry, said takeout business was OK, but St. Elias then closed everything March 28.
“We’re putting in a bunch of flooring and doing a bunch of remodeling we haven’t had the time to do in the past,” Kolesar said.
The plan is for St. Elias to open again for takeout early next week with normal business hours of noon to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Kolesar said the best way to keep up-to-date with the brewery is through the St. Elias Brewing Company Facebook page.
Even with the takeout business, Kolesar said St. Elias had to lay off about 30 of its 34 employees.
“That hit us pretty hard,” Kolesar said.
Two managers, one that has been on since St. Elias opened and another that’s been on for eight years, have kept jobs.
“They’re valuable assets, and we’re vowing to keep them paid and working,” Kolesar said.
Even after the mandate is lifted, Kolesar expects a tough summer, but she also said St. Elias will survive.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Kolesar said. “We’ve made a lot of good financial decisions in the past that have prepared us for dealing with something like this.”
In the meantime, St. Elias will soon get back to focusing on takeout. With the high temperatures involved in brewing and the 650-degree temperatures of the pizza ovens, Kolesar said the food should be safe.
“People have to call in, then we put it on the table outside, then they go get their food,” Kolesar said. “We’re following the same thing other restaurants are doing.”
In normal times, the Nikiski establishment has a taproom where patrons can sample and buy beer. Kassik’s also distributes far and wide.
Kassik’s was started in 2002 by Frank and Debra Kassik. Rick and Michelle McGlasson took over as owners this winter.
“We are struggling like everyone,” Rick wrote in a text message. “Hoping things change for the better soon.”
After going to takeout only on March 18, Kassik’s went to a pickup and order window on March 31. Kassik’s continues to fill growlers, sanitizing them on site. Six-packs, 22-ounce bombers and kegs also are available by calling 776-4055 or 252-6300.
Kenai River Brewing
The establishment started in 2006 and moved to its new location in 2016. The new building has a taproom with a restaurant, plus beer is distributed around the state.
Hogue said Kenai River Brewing has been able to maintain 21 employees, while four had to go on unemployment.
“We were fortunate to have some savings and we’re going through that,” Hogue said. “Our employees and staff are the key to our business. Having employees that are highly trained and know what they’re doing will be important when this does pass.”
Hogue said Kenai River Brewing is doing can sales through distributors.
There also is a takeout option, either through a window, or employees will take the order to cars. Kenai River Brewing will still do growlers, but also is selling cans and family-sized meals that are designed to be take and bake. Hours are noon to 7 p.m. from Tuesday through Saturday. Orders can be done at 262-2337 or online at orders.cake.net/10208985, though currently beer sales can’t be done online.
Hogue said employees use different gloves with each order, wear safe masks and wipe the door when leaving or entering. Brewers must be very conscious of microbes, and Hogue said this is no different.
“We’re 95% janitor — we do a lot of cleaning anyway,” Hogue said. “We’ve had to step up our game even more in a couple different areas.”
Hogue doesn’t expect as many Lower 48 visitors this summer, but he hopes in-state travel makes up some of the difference.
“Locally all year, we do well,” Hogue said. “In the summer, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s crazy from the minute we open the door to the minute we close. It’s a big time to generate savings. I don’t expect it to be that huge this year.”
Cooper Landing Brewing Company
Nelz Barnett and his father, Sean Barnett, own the fledgling brewery.
The Barnetts, with Nelz living in Anchorage and Sean living in Chugiak, have had a family place in Cooper Landing for about 10 years and started the brewery as a way of eventually getting out of their day jobs as commercial flooring contractors.
“Where else would you want to be, right?” Nelz said of Cooper Landing.
The brewery was licensed in 2017 and has been selling to-go beer and distributing on the Eastern Kenai Peninsula. In 2018, the brewery got a piece of property by the Sunrise Inn, built on it, and was set for a soft opening in May and a grand opening in June.
The new building will have a taproom and make more production possible.
Nelz said the pandemic will most likely delay plans, but it will not stop them.
“We’re too close now to give up,” he said. “We’re going to push through and get her done. Other brewers we’ve talked to said this might be a blessing in disguise — a long, soft opening.”
The brewery is still scaling up, with a full-time brewer in Cooper Landing available to take care of pickup orders, so there haven’t had to be layoffs. Not having a taproom yet or lots of distribution means there hasn’t been a ton of revenue to lose.
Although Cooper Landing has had it rough lately with the Swan Lake Fire last summer and now the pandemic threatening this summer, Nelz sees money coming to the community through in-state travel this summer and with this year’s start of the Cooper Landing Bypass Project, which will take about five years and cost about $375 million.
“It’s a wonderful community,” Nelz said. “They’ve been very supportive. There’s lots of people volunteering to get things done. They’re excited about a place where the community can come and hang out.”
The best way to keep up on plans is the Cooper Landing Brewing Company page on Facebook.
Homer Brewing Company
Stephen McCasland and Karen Berger, co-owners of the brewery, were the first craft brewers to set up shop on the Kenai Peninsula. They started in 1996.
McCasland said the brewery’s business model has been refined over the years, so Homer Brewing Company should be able to weather this storm for a while.
“We don’t owe much so we don’t need much,” McCasland said. “We stay in our own little bubble in Homer.”
McCasland said that works out great because Homer is so good about buying local, whether it be beer, bread, fish or vegetables.
In normal times, Homer Brewing Company has a tasting room where patrons can buy containers to go. The brewing company also sells to Homer bars and restaurants. The company also sells Indian spiced teas — Zen Chai and Alaska Chai.
“I’ll be honest with you,” McCasland said. “Homer Brewing Company is 23 years old and I’m glad we’re not 3 years old. When we first opened up in 1996, counting us, there were nine breweries in the state.
“Now there’s like 45. There’s a lot of new ones and they spent a lot of money to get going. Hopefully, with the help of the feds, they can get that going again.”
Currently, Homer Brewing is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. All the bar and restaurant sales have gone away. McCasland said he had to make the tough move of laying off his three year-round employees. He’s mainly doing spring cleaning right now.
He said the pandemic layered on top of last summer’s Swan Lake Fire layered on top of the November 2018 earthquake makes things tough on business.
“It’s going to be a very challenging summer for a lot of small businesses depending on their finances,” McCasland said. “Like I said, I’m so thankful we don’t owe much and we don’t need much. We should be able to weather quite a bit.”
Grace Ridge Brewing
The brewing outfit in Homer has been operating for about 4 1/2 years, according to Sherry Stead, one of the owners.
In normal times, Stead said business comes from the tasting room, filling up containers to-go, and limited distribution at Country Liquor in Kenai and The Grog Shop in Homer.
Stead said that if Grace Ridge had wider distribution, it’d be easy to weather the storm. With limited distribution, the brewery is down one employee.
“We will make it, yes,” Stead said. “We are in the process of building a new building to move into and grow our business. We’re still going forward with that.”
In the meantime, Stead said the main concern is safety. Grace Ridge has cut its hours to Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. There is a special offer of five crowlers for $40 in order to encourage customers to stock up and get out as little as possible.
Stead and her husband, Don Stead, have no contact with those customers. Customers call 907-435-0601 and give an order and a credit card number. Customers then sit in the parking lot while the beer they ordered is put on a table.
Sherry and Don then bleach the door handle before going back inside, and wash their hands.
“You can’t bring in a growler to get filled up,” Sherry said. “We don’t want any cross-contamination. We’re keeping this a clean area.”
Sherry added the brewery appreciates the understanding and support of the customers during this difficult time.
Seward Brewing Company
The Seward establishment is a brewpub with a restaurant. Seward Brewing Company, co-owned by Erik Slater and Hillary Bean, serves the beer it brews only on-premise — meaning at the restaurant and by filling growlers and crowlers.
Slater said that in normal times, Seward Brewing Company shoots for a May 1 opening and closes in mid-September.
These are not normal times.
For starters, Slater said that 50 percent of Seward Brewing Company’s staff is local, while 50 percent comes from out of town. Once Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a health mandate requiring a self-quarantine for 14 days for anybody traveling to Alaska starting on March 25, Slater said plans for a May 1 opening were scrapped. That mandate will be re-evaluated April 21.
“We had staff hired and ready to come up, then we got the two-week quarantine mandate,” Slater said.
With another mandate in place limiting restaurants to takeout only in place indefinitely, Slater said planning is even more difficult. Seward has a large number of restaurants open for the summer to accommodate large numbers of tourists, but if tourists can’t come, all the restaurants will have a hard time doing takeout-only business.
“A lot of businesses in town are trying to stay open with takeout,” Slater said. “The pie is really small. We’re trying to support them. It’s better not to try and jump in the pool if we don’t have to.”
Seward Brewing Company is already brewing beer for the summer. The online shop will be open by the end of the week. Slater said the best way to keep up with the changing plans is on the Seward Brewing Company Facebook page.
“I think it’s going to be a hard summer for a lot of us businesses,” Slater said. “It won’t be the summer we’ve seen in the past.
“If the travel mandates are done by July, at least I think we’ll see a lot of in-state tourism. It’d be awesome to have local Alaskans cruising around the state for a change and not having to battle crowds.”