Hoonah’s new brewery focuses on locals

This is the second week I get to write about a new brewery. Last week, I was happy to cover the Sept. 25 opening of Odd Man Rush Brewing Company in Eagle River. Icy Strait Brewing Company in Hoonah, in Southeast Alaska, officially started pouring beer on August 15. Icy Strait is Alaska’s 25th licensed brewing operation.

Like the brewers at Odd Man Rush, Icy Strait’s brewer Dan Kane got his start homebrewing, but he never thought he’d own a brewery.

“I started homebrewing 20 years ago,” said Kane.

His business partner, Todd Thingball, isn’t a brewer and doesn’t want to be. The two met in Juneau where they both lived.

“We became friends because I made beer and he liked it,” says Kane. If you make beer, you make friends.”

“Todd had this house in Groundhog Bay, which is at Icy Strait out of Hoonah,” says Kane. “He bought this house in Hoonah that’s over 100 years old. He called me up one day and said, ‘What do you think about opening a brewery?’”

Kane wasn’t prepared for that, but he was prepared for a lifestyle change after a career flying for Alaska Airlines.

“He talked me into this and here we are,” said Kane.

Traveling as much as he did, Kane got to visit most of Alaska’s breweries. He was inspired, but with Thingball’s offer, quickly got busy taking that inspiration to a new level.

The house needed a ton of work. It’s situated on pilings because the place is over the water, at least at high tide.

“Todd bought the house two years ago and it’s gone through a total redo,” says Kane. “I came in at the end when the sheetrock was up and I dove in full time. We finished up the inside, the flooring, the tasting room and put in the coolers and the brew system,” he said.

Thingball is the builder and Kane’s the brewer; there’s no doubt about that.

“Todd is the builder guy,” said Kane of his partner. “He does some unbelievable building; people are openly fascinated with the architecture, our tasting room, the woodwork and the bar.”

The brewery itself is actually outside on the back deck.

“It’s a small three barrel system,” said Kane. “It fits fine. I’ve got the best view of any brewery,” he says.

The small, direct-fired propane system feeds two three-barrel fermenters and a seven barrel fermenter. Three- and seven-barrel bright tanks are used to condition the beer.

I wondered about brewing in the winter, since Kane says the brewery’s going to be open year round, something unusual in a small community of 900 people.

“It’s mild here compared to Anchorage. It only got down to 18 degrees last year,” said Kane. “I’ve got some greenhouse panels going up to ward off the snow and the wind come winter.”

The community’s in love with the brewery. Like in most other small communities, breweries quickly become a welcome, social hub. “They’re so excited,” said Kane of the residents’ response. “It’s like it’s their brewery. It’s like a badge of honor. I didn’t expect anything different.”

Kane thought he’d knew what Hoonah people would like. He quickly found out differently in a community that’s mostly Rainier drinkers, according to him.

“I thought, wow, you know, I’ve been into beer a long time. I’m an IPA guy and my vision was that. I have four beers on tap. I have an American Hefe, a pale ale, and IPA and a light pilsner right now. I figured everyone would love and drink IPA. That’s what the rest of the world seems to be doing,” says Kane.

“Nope,” he concedes. “The Hefeweizen is my most popular beer; the locals are so into that. They absolutely love it and it’s so easy to make.”

Kane’s facing what any new brewer in a small community does. He’s re-educating and shaping the local beer palate.

“The funnest thing for me is bringing these people into craft brewing and craft beer,” he said. “I’m always teasing them; I’m telling them, ‘hefe is a gateway beer, you know. I’ll be changing your palate.’”

It’s working. Although the cruise ships slurp through a lot of his stuff, it’s the locals that return and give him the best feedback. “I have a lady that started coming in here. The other day she came back and said ‘Dan, oh Dan, oh Dan! I opened up a can of Rainier the other day and it was so nasty. It’s not even close to as good as what you’re making.’ I had another convert. This is so much fun,” he bubbled.

Kane’s waiting for winter to branch out and start experimenting with more styles. A porter and a stout are in the plans as for more eclectic styles as the community learns to love them.

“It definitely slows down in the winter here, but that will be the time to catch up and that’s the time to make the crazy stuff,” he says.

The rest of Southeast Alaska is just fine with a brewery in Hoonah. Really, the small business is no threat. Kane and Thingball don’t have global aspirations, although local establishments and even places beyond have asked about getting Icy Strait beer to serve.

“Dutch Harbor, Juneau and bars in several other communities have contacted me. We don’t even have a sign out. We just got underway,” he said.

“I want to be the hometown brewery. We love it here. We’re not looking to be the next huge brewery,” he continued, understanding that it’s the local community that will keep his pints pouring when all of the tourists are gone.

In fact, Kane and Thingball have received a ton of support from the other geographically isolated breweries including Baranof Island Brewing Company in Sitka, Alaskan Brewing in Juneau, Haines Brewing Company and Skagway Brewing Company. “I was up at Capital Brewfest last weekend. All of the other breweries are super excited that we’re here and they all want to come and visit,” said Kane.

It was really Kodiak Island Brewing Company that gave Kane the most inspiration when he was getting started. Kicking around, he visited Kodiak and met with brewer Ben Millstein.

“I asked him how far he distributed his beer,” said Kane. “Ben said 36 miles. He likes his beer fresh and he likes control over it. He sells a lot of beer right there out of that brewery and I can do the same thing in my community.”

Kane said the brewery’s success has far exceeded his expectations.

“I’m floored. I’m just a basic brewer. It’s been overwhelming. It’s been very humbling and I’m happy to make so many other people happy,” he said.

You might think that a new, small brewery in a small community has along way to go, but I get the sense that Kane and Thingball are already there.

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Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist.
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