Local beer lovers seem to have an embarrassment of riches on their hands lately. The last year or so has been marked by massive development from both old stalwarts and newcomers alike. Summit branched out with their Unchained Series, Schell’s debuted Nordeast, Surly’s expansion is being legislated, Fulton moved in next to Target Field, Deschutes arrived in force, Lift Bridge expanded in Stillwater, and new craft operations popped up all over (Harriet Brewing, Pour Decisions, etc.) just as the entrance of established players like Furthermore and Stone have expanded our selections further.
Welcome into that mix the Alaskan Brewing Company. The company sees this week’s Minnesota launch as an opportunity to catch an upswing, not as contributing to market saturation. “We’ve been looking at this market for a couple years,” says Darin Jensen, brewer and Grand Rapids, MN native. “When Surly came in, that was the gateway, in a sense. Now there’s movement, there’s a lot going on. We wanted to time it so we’d be on the curve, and we’re celebrating our 25th year, now. So the timing to open a new market was perfect for us.”
Based on 2010 sales volume, Alaskan is the 20th largest brewing company in the country, just larger than Schell’s (22nd) and Summit (29th). Distributed locally by Original Gravity, Minnesota is the 11th state in their book, most recently having expanded to Colorado in 2008. They plan to lead in to Minnesota with four beers: Amber, Summer, IPA and White. Other seasonal/limited brews, including their multiple award-winning Smoked Porter, are slated to arrive in the coming months.
“Our beers are approachable,” explains Jensen. “Not trendy, just well thought out and well crafted. The idea is quality-based, sessionable beers.” Jensen used the word “sessionable” enough during our chat that it seemed like Alaskan’s mantra. Beer Advocate defines sessionability as lower alcohol beer with “a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session.”
That proved to be a spot-on characterization of Alaskan’s offerings. We had tasted the Summer and Amber before speaking with Jensen and were frankly concerned about the short finishes we perceived in both beers. We immediately assumed the worst – there must be rice additions to the grain bill or other adjuncts in play. Maybe they’re financing this expansion by cutting back on ingredients? Not so. Maybe being surrounded by bold, expressive brands like Surly and Fulton has precluded in our minds the possibility that a craft brewer would consciously opt for a more restrained style.
That isn’t to say Alaskan’s brews are flavorless – Jensen notes the proof in current markets. “Our Amber is one of the top Ambers on the West Coast,” he says. “There’s a reason for that. It’s a beer everyone can drink that goes well with a lot of foods.” Alaskan also does in-house laboratory testing and assembles independent tasting panels to maintain quality and stylistic integrity.
So, it would seem that Alaskan’s target market is not the committed craft beer drinker, rather the macro-drinker who values a lighter mouthfeel over in-your-face flavor. It’s not fashionable, like Jensen said, but it’s also not a bad business decision considering the latter slice of the beer market is gargantuan compared to the former.
Are these beers sessionable? Absolutely. Though it could be said that what is gained in sessionability is at the expense of being memorable. Alaskan’s brews may not for the hop-heads out there, but Jensen is confident his beer will adapt just fine to his home state. “There’s that Minnesota-Alaska connection,” he says. “I constantly run in to people from Minnesota [in Juneau]. I think our beer just makes sense being here.”
The folks at Alaskan provided 22oz samples of two beers for our review. Stop by one of their launch events running through Saturday to sample for yourself.
BEER: Alaskan Summer
Although the malt taste on the mid-sip of the beer has a more “macro” flavor than we were expecting, it has a very refreshing quality to it. When poured, it features very little head, a pleasant floral aroma and a nice rounded hop quality that falls off rather quickly to an ultra light finish. It’s tough to appreciate this beer when our “spring” has been so cold – it’s clearly meant to be enjoyed in the heat. Overall, we found it to be a quite pleasing, yet slightly lackluster beer. The light body with its hints of citrus is very nice, but much like a real Alaskan summer, it doesn’t stay around as long as you’d like.
BEER: Alaskan Amber
The Amber accounts for over 60% of Alaskan’s total sales, the flagship behind their expansion. The beer sports a nice mahogany hue topped with substantial head. The sip is a soft, yet rich core of caramel-like malt. The finish even tends toward earthiness, but is, like that of the Summer, a little more hollow than the initial flavors would lead you to believe. It would probably be best not to pigeonhole this beer as an Amber. The extended conditioning it receives (as is the Altbier style) keeps the flavors very soft and mellow. Approachable, as Jensen said, it is for sure.