Reach, pull, flick, drop. Reach, pull, flick, drop. I get into a rhythm quickly, reaching up to grasp the bright buds on the end of each branch, gently pulling them free, flicking away the brown, papery sheath that enclosed them, then dropping them into the small plastic bucket that hangs from my belt. Beside me, one tree over, Alaskan entrepreneur Mike Healy, the owner of the Skagway Brewing Company, does the same. We’re a few miles from town, on the outskirts of the boreal forest that covers the land from seacoast to tree line. We came here to forage for wild beer ingredients.
Beer is a big deal in Alaska. There are more than 20 breweries in the state—not bad for a total population of just over 700,000—and the local titan, Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing, is America’s 20th-largest craft operation. Sure, craft beer has been booming across the country for years—it now accounts for nearly 20 percent of the $100 billion beer market—and Alaska’s brewing explosion is in many ways following a southern trend. But in other ways, these far-northern brewers are trendsetters, pushing forward the boundaries of sustainable beer. Thanks to Alaska’s endless edible wilderness, and the logistical and financial difficulties of operating a brewery in the remote sub-Arctic, the beer up here is just a little bit greener than that in the kegs down south.
Alaskan estimates that its system prevents 800,000 pounds of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere annually.
In Skagway, a tiny panhandle port town with a year-round population of just 800 people, Healy’s most popular brew is the Spruce Tip Blonde. It’s a light-colored, refreshing, vaguely evergreen-flavored beer that the tourists—who pour off their cruise ships into Skagway’s streets by the hundreds of thousands each summer—can’t get enough of. The key ingredient is the spruce tip: a small, soft, vividly green bud that appears on spruce trees for a couple of weeks each spring. Healy needs 300 pounds of tips to brew a year’s supply of beer: He and his staff collect nearly the entire haul by hand during that narrow window in late May and early June, and the rest, maybe 50 pounds or so, comes in from helpful neighbors. “For me personally, it’s a point of pride. It comes from my farm background a little bit,” says Healy, who grew up in South Dakota. “You know, harvesting something [yourself], that means something to me.”
Skagway Brewing isn’t the only outfit brewing with local ingredients foraged from the Alaska wilderness. In the next port over, the Haines Brewing Company has its own take on a spruce tip ale. In Juneau, a short hop south by ferry, Alaskan Brewing incorporates locally sourced spruce tips, fireweed honey, and birch syrup in some of its specialty beers, and its award-winning Smoked Porter is smoked using local alder branches. Meanwhile, in Anchorage, Midnight Sun Brewing has taken “drink local” to another level. A couple of years back, the company hauled a barrel of early-stage beer up into the hills outside the city, covered it with cheesecloth, and allowed it to ferment using only wild, airborne yeasts. They called the finished product “Open Container.”
Alaskan brewers’ forays into wild, foraged ingredients are a matter of opportunity: The hops, malt, and barley required to make beer may come from large-scale farms in the Lower 48, but the state’s nearly half-a-billion acres of wilderness provide an endless supply of local flavors to supplement those building blocks. The brewers’ advances in energy efficiency, though, are driven at least in part, by necessity.
Juneau is the only American state capital that is not accessible by road. It’s a small, compact city, wedged between the cold ocean on one side and a wall of glacier-draped mountains on the other. The only way in is by plane or by boat. Alaskan Brewing brings in all of its supplies by barge, from Seattle, a trip that spans three days and nearly 1,000 miles—and much of their waste goes out the same way.
In 1998, Alaskan became the first craft brewer in the country to adopt a CO2 reclamation system. (California’s Sierra Nevada, the second, followed suit in 2005.) The set-up re-captures the carbon dioxide that’s released throughout the brewing process, and cleans it for re-use during the bottling and kegging stage. Alaskan estimates that its system prevents 800,000 pounds of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere annually—and, of course, it also saves the cost of shipping canisters of CO2 up by barge, and then sending the empties back down south again.
Alaskan Brewing incorporates locally sourced spruce tips, fireweed honey, and birch syrup in some of its specialty beers, and its award-winning Smoked Porter is smoked using local alder branches.
Alaskan has also pioneered a boiler that uses spent grain as biofuel. Typically, craft outfits hand over their spent grain—a byproduct of the brewing process, the remnants of large quantities of malt and barley that have been boiled to produce the beer—to local farmers, where it’s used as fertilizer. But Juneau has no local farming community, and, until recently, Alaskan had to ship all of its spent grain back down south by barge. The spent grain boiler lets the company use a waste product as fuel, saving on both the barging south and on conventional fuel sources like diesel. The machine has been online since early 2013, although Alaskan is still working out the kinks—it’s undergoing a retrofit to burn cleaner right now. The near-term goal is to source 70 percent of the brewhouse’s power requirements with spent grain.
Healy’s Skagway operation runs on a much smaller scale, and he’s able to disperse his spent grain among the town’s gardeners.
As the hours pass and buckets fill with fresh green spruce tips, we chat about our favorite beers, Healy’s life in Skagway, and the thin, but vibrant, streak of granola-ism that runs through Alaska’s red-state veins. We call a halt in the late afternoon, and head back to town with our hoard. In the brewhouse above the pub, Healy weighs our take: 15.5 pounds. Then we head downstairs for a cold, well-earned beer.
Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.