Even with walls of plywood and bare fixtures, the new Kenai River Brewing Company building gives off a welcoming air.
Situated with its back to Soldotna Creek and facing a quiet side street from the main vein of the Sterling Highway, the future brewery blends into the trees, despite its size — several thousand square feet.
The Soldotna-based beer company is planning to move from its current facility on Aspen Street into the new building, boilers and all, by May. The move will add more pub space for customers as well as significantly more space for brewing and canning, said Doug Hogue, co-owner of Kenai River Brewing Company.
“If you’re (at the brewery) on a Friday night, it’s packed,” Hogue said, gesturing to the future pub space. “This has room for about 85 people.”
The new facility will have freestanding and wall-mounted tables with a bar where customers can order some of the brewery’s beer, which they can watch being made through a set of windows. The overall aesthetic is meant to be like a cannery, Hogue said. Industrial is an easy look for a brewery, with all the metal fermenters and boilers, he said.
The brewery area will roughly triple the company’s production, from a maximum of about 2,200 barrels to approximately 7,000, he said. This year, they hit their cap and knew they couldn’t go any further, but the new facility will allow them more storage space and room for larger machines. However, the owners don’t have plans to start shipping beer outside Alaska anytime soon, Hogue said.
“The state of Alaska is our priority,” Hogue said. “We don’t plan to ship out at this point, and I don’t see that happening.”
A new 19-foot tall fermenter will be able to process 3,100 gallons at once, and new boiling barrels will allow the brewers to keep up, Hogue said — all of which visitors can watch through windows into the parking lot.
The newest addition will be a kitchen and self-serve bar, brewpub style. The goal is not to turn the brewery into a restaurant but will give visitors something extra, Hogue said. Though the brewery will open in May, the company is shooting to have the kitchen operating by October.
This year marks the company’s 10th anniversary. The community has been very receptive and supportive throughout the company’s time here, Hogue said.
“It’s been good,” he said. “We’ve been working with Specialty Imports, and they’ve never said to us, ‘You have to produce this much beer.’ They’ve allowed us to grow organically.”
The updated brewpub will also occupy a niche separate from St. Elias Brewing Company, about half a mile away. St. Elias is a restaurant and only serves its beer in-house, while Kenai River Brewing Company does not seek to be a restaurant — most of its beer is still distributed.
Jessie Kolesar, co-owner of St. Elias Brewing Company, said the two companies have a good working relationship and the move is a good one for the Kenai River Brewing Company. St. Elias doesn’t have plans to begin distributing its beer soon, Kolesar said, so the two companies occupy different niches.
“We’re happy for them,” Kolesar said. “We think it’s great that any time we’re increasing the number of people that are drinking craft beer. Any time you’re increasing the awareness, it’s good for the craft beer industry.”
Because St. Elias doesn’t distribute its beer, it has a flexibility that Kenai River Brewing Company does not, Hogue said. St. Elias has some permanent ales but frequently shuffles through brews.
“With us, we order 250,000 cans with Sunken Island IPA on it, and that’s it, I’ve gotta make 250,000 cans of Sunken Island because I’ve already got the label on them,” Hogue said. “(Henry) doesn’t have to do that.”
The brewery is in position to be part of a more walkable space along the Soldotna Creek and Kenai River. From the Aspen Hotel, people can walk all the way along the river via trails or boardwalks until they reach Swiftwater Park, though Soldotna Creek Park and other conservation easements. Behind the new brewery building, parcels of the former Mullen homestead have been given for conservation purposes and mostly likely will not be built up.
The plan to develop that route into a more walkable space is in the early stages but looks positive, said Soldotna City Planner John Czarnezki. The community has expressed interest in a more walkable downtown in Soldotna with housing and shopping available, he said, and the city administration is hoping to work with the landowners in the area on executing trails or construction that would make that happen, he said.
“At some point, we’ll probably sit down with all the key players and see if we can make it a reality,” Czarnezki said. “I think there’s actually some excitement being generated within the community in regard to things that are happening right now.”
The Kenai River Brewing Company is doing its best to jive with its surroundings. Though they had to fell some spruce trees to make room for a patio — which will eventually be outfitted with thermal lamps to allow for year-round use — two of the bigger spruce will be used as the support columns for the roof of the patio. The rest of the land will remain raw, Hogue said.
Construction is likely to take a few more months, but at that point, the operation will move entirely to the new building. Hogue said it was possible that the company would hire more employees once everything is settled, but it’s not a sure thing yet.
“People are super excited about (the new building),” Hogue said. “Soldotna doesn’t have a city center, and we’re hoping to really stimulate that.”