Before they were brewing distinctive beer in Juneau and distributing hundreds of thousands of barrels of it across dozens of states, Geoff and Marcy Larson were 20-somethings, new-ish to Alaska and looking for a way to work together to earn a living in their adopted home state.
Today, they are preparing to celebrate 35 years on a journey that seemed improbable when it started in the early 1980s.
“We enjoyed working together and a friend said, start a brewery,’” Marcy Larson said in an interview Friday afternoon.
The suggestion was a bit out of the box. Geoff Larson was an avid homebrewer, but neither had any formal experience brewing beer.
And, craft breweries were not really a thing at the time. According to Geoff Larson, there were fewer than 100 brewers across the county. By comparison, he said that today there are more than 9,000 breweries.
Add in that Juneau is a logistically tricky place to reach, and no industry existed to supply small breweries with equipment or supplies at the time, and the idea seemed like an unlikely one to help them achieve their goal.
“The banks thought we were crazy,” Geoff Larson said, adding that at the time, banks were failing, and interest rates were high. “The idea of a small brewery was foreign.”
But, they were undaunted.
Inspired by what they described as Alaska’s “can-do, pioneer spirit,” they moved forward anyway.
“It took a bottomless pit of sweat equity,” Geoff Larson said.
Raising money was the first step in the process.
Geoff Larson explained that they started to “boot-strap” their way through the funding process–traveling across the state to seek money and support from other Alaskans.
“It made us more of a community brewery with investors across the state,” Geoff Larson said. “We had 88 investors at the start and they spanned the state. Every single one of them was important to us.”
The Larsons said that the fundraising hustle of the early days gave them a broader perspective on being a “community brewery.”
They said excellent guidance also helped them launch the business.
“We had great advisers — legal, insurance and accounting,” Geoff Larson said.
With funding secured and some volunteer workers, the Alaskan Brewing Co. produced the first cases of Alaskan Amber in December 1986. According to Marcy Larson, they brewed about 23 barrels that month.
By the end of 1987, the Brew Crew — the affectionate name the Larson’s have for their team — had brewed 1,500 barrels of beer.
An old recipe gets a new life
The first cases of beer were a throwback to a recipe from the Douglas City Brewing Co.—a brewery that was in business locally from 1899 to 1907. The brewery was featured in local newspapers at the time, creating a historical record about its brews. The brewery’s process of using cold fermentation caught the couple’s attention, given their desire to brew in Juneau.
Between newspaper accounts of the brewery and a shoebox full of receipts and invoices from the brewery that a collector shared with them, the Larson’s were able to recreate the beer now known as Alaskan Amber.
The recipe called for Saaz hops, which the Larsons found they could still get from the Czech Republic. Further research revealed that the original brewer used the Saaz hops because they grew in his hometown in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as it was known during the time the Douglas City Brewing Co. operated.
Geoff Larson said at the time of the Douglas City Brewing Co, Juneau was an international city. He said the city was teeming with people from around the world who brought new ideas to the frontier, often through the gold mines.
“We had high-tech engineers from Europe, he said. “There was lots of innovation happening here.”
The Larsons said that the feeling that “things happen here” still drives them today. They ticked off several innovations at the brewery — including sustainability efforts, often driven by necessity and realities of shipping supplies and materials to Juneau.
“We are one of the greenest breweries in the world,” Geoff Larson said.
The brewery now produces about 100,000 barrels of beer a year, and that beer travels to 25 states. The beer goes as far east as Ohio, as far south as Texas and travels across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.
The couple has also branched out into a variety of other brews, hard seltzers and sodas over the years. They’ve added a wide range of branded gear to their offerings — often featuring intensely local views.
“We’ve been blessed with very talented artists along the way,” Marcy Larson said.”We try to represent Alaska. We want to represent where we are.”
The spirit of innovation also persists.
The Larson’s said they encourage members of the Brew Crew to experiment with different flavors and try new things. Successful experiments go to the break room for more opinions. Those that the crew like, move into the tasting room for a public test, with many of the experiments resulting in new products.
They said that they are developing new, spicy seltzers that feature the distinctive flavor of peppers and they are busy introducing a new employee stock ownership plan.
The couple said they also continue to look to history for inspiration. They cited Captain James Cook’s use of spruce tips in beer as he traveled through Southeast Alaska — as the idea behind several of their brews and beverages that feature the flavor.
As they prepare to mark 35 years of making beer on the last frontier, the Larsons said that public celebration plans will be shared soon.
A special 35th-anniversary ale is currently available and will be until it runs out. According to the description on the brewery’s website, the commemorative brew is a Russian Imperial Stout that is “complex and malt forward.”
According to the site, the ale is “brewed with an array of local ingredients and flavors to add dimension and celebrate Alaskan’s history and home. Alaska birch syrup from Kahiltna Birchworks lends a deep, almost tart character to the dark malt profile, while wildflower honey adds a delicate sweetness and floral notes to the aroma and finish. The slight addition of our in-house alder-smoked malt alludes to the distinctive roasted flavor of turn-of-the-century malting practices, without overpowering the more subtle flavors of this dynamic anniversary brew.”
Geoff Larson said the release is similar to ales released to celebrate the brewery’s 25th and 30th anniversaries.
“It ages really well,” said Geoff Larson.
After 35 years in the business, the Larson’s are still clearly in love with their craft, the industry and the community.
“In 1986, everyone thought that beer was straw colored and light with a fairly narrow flavor profile. That’s not the case today,” said Geoff Larson. “It feels like the blink of an eye, but there’s been a lot of change in the industry and the town. That’s one of the most amazing parts. It’s absolutely blossoming.”
What do beer makers drink?
For Marcy Larson, it depends on the occasion. She said she likes Icy Bay IPA as a thirst quencher. When she’s in the mood to savor a brew, she prefers a smoked porter or an oatmeal stout — which will be featured at the upcoming Pour the Love fundraiser.
Geoff Larson said he enjoys Alaskan Amber as well as the Kolsch-style ale. But, he added that “the best beer in the land is the beer in your hand.”
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.