Brew-Monkey's Brewer Interview
Alaskan Brewing Company
||Alaskan Brewing Company
5429 Shaune Drive
December 10, 2007
Well... this about takes the record for the longest time to track down the interviewee... almost 2 years. Finally, I caught up with Curtis at GABF in Denver and gave him a hard time - apparently it worked. So... come in out of the cold and check this out.
How long does it take to settle on a recipe for commercial production?
We have a 1 bbl pilot plant that we use to experiment with new recipe ideas. These new test beers are tasted by our crew and if we get good feedback on those beers, we'll move them up in scale so we can release them locally. We still have our original 10 bbl brewhouse from when we started in 1986 and so we use this system to brew small production batches of beer for keg only sales in our local market area. This allows us to test and fine tune new styles. If the style does well and gets requested a lot we'll keep brewing it in 10-40 bbl batches at a time and if the popularity continues to grow we might eventually move it up to our 100 bbl brewhouse batch size. Some recipes stay as 10 bbl brews for many, many years. Other styles such as our IPA, Stout, and Summer Ale moved up to a 100 bbl recipe quickly due to popular demand and we now bottle and keg them as regular products.
How much trial and error went into the recipe?
It depends on the recipe and how familiar we are with the style, for example our flagship beer, Alaskan Amber, that the brewery started with in 1986 had over 16 different batches of it brewed and dumped before we were happy with the final product. Most of our products are tested on the 1 bbl until they can be reproduced in a consistent manner and then we move them up to the 10 bbl system. But overall, I'd say we can usually dial in a new recipe within 1 to 3 brews.
How did you decide on the beer styles you make?
Our original Amber recipe was based on a gold rush recipe from the turn of the century, so it has very close ties to our Alaska brewing heritage. The owners who started the brewery had historical documents and invoices from a brewery that was located in Juneau during the early 1900's. We tried to make a beer close to what the ratios in the old invoices suggested, luckily for us many of those old ingredients were still available such as Czech Saaz hops and the resulting Amber recipe was well received by the public. This was our first beer and still continues to be our most popular brand. A few years after the Amber was released we worked on a Pale Ale recipe to give us some variety with a lighter, crisper drinking beer. Other beers came along depending on various desires or experimentation by our brewers. One famous example is our seasonal Smoked Porter which was first released in 1988. We had learned from the Amber recipes that the historical turn-of-the-century brewers in Juneau were also malting their own grains. Wso we surmised that with direct heating of the malt, some smoked character was probably evident in those beers. We decided to use Alder wood for smoking the malt, since it was an indigenous wood for Alaskans to use to preserve food and was most likely used by the local brewers for their malt. When we released the Porter, which at the time Rauchbeir (Smoked Beer) was a little known style in the U.S. The beer was very popular when released and continues to be our most well known product even though we only brew a limited edition each - 400 bbls per year of it.
How far removed from the initial idea is the final product we all now commonly drink?
Usually not too far. Our brewers stick pretty close to their original recipe that they come up with. If the beer doesn't sell very well then we will typically move on to something else unless we think the recipe only needs some minor changes.
What settings do you use for crushing grain?
We vary the settings on our mill based on the grain sizes and the type of grain so this setting is always being adjusted to give us the best amount of extract per pound of grain that we use.
Do you perform the legendary "20 minute" mashes? If not, how long do you mash?
We have various mashing cycle lengths depending on the recipe but I won't give away any secrets other than to say that we mash in long enough for each recipe to give us good starch conversion and to get the right mix of fermentable and non fermentable sugars to make our beers taste outstanding! :) I've talked to some people that have 10 minute mashes, and others that have 2 hour mashes so it really does vary based on the quality of malt you get and the character of what you want too achieve in the beer.
What kind of efficiency do you normally get? How much fluctuation do you get from batch to batch?
We tend to hit 93-95% efficiency. With our 100 bbl brewhouse we get very consistent efficiencies from batch to batch as long as our malt has good extract and we have a good malt crop year.
How long does a typical brew session take? What is a typical brew day like?
We can put out a 100 bbl brew every 4 1/2 hours, and we typically brew for 5 or 6 days straight once we get going. Beer doesn't sleep so we don't get to either, we have 3 full shifts around the clock to run the brewhouse and tend to the beer. We have two brewers per shift; one is working the brewhouse while the other is in the cellar. A typical brew day for our brewers consists of running the brewhouse and working on trying to get out at least 2 brews in different stages as they move through the brew vessels per shift. The brewer also measures hops as needed. We have to handle our own bulk grain unloading so the day brewer usually has to vacuum out a 20 foot container van while brewing, we go through one of these per day with 35,000 pounds of grain so we have to stay on top of it. We also have a grain dryer to dry our spent grains so they can be shipped back to Seattle since we don't have any way to dispose of the material here, so the brewer gets to tend this machine while he is brewing. They stay quite busy. If the brewer is working in the cellar, their day consists of being responsible for cleaning tanks, checking fermentation of the beer, and making sure the tanks get hooked up to our CO2 collection system when ready. The cellar brewer also filters our beer which consists of centrifuging out the yeast and then filtering the beer with a DE filter., and then carbonating it to make it ready to package.
How often do you brew? What days do you brew?
We brew every week of the year except for a 2 week shut down in December. We start on Mondays and usually brew until late Friday or Saturday as needed.
At what temperature do you do your mashes?
Does anyone ever answer this question? :) Each beer has it's own mashing program and they are all different. Year to year differences in the barley malt will also require us to adjust the mash programs slightly from year to year. We use temperatures somewhere between 120 and 170 degrees for all of our recipes.
What type of mashes do you do?
We use upward step infusion mash but on some recipes we'll do a single temperature drop before knockout to the lauter.
How long does your boil commonly last?
It varies based upon the recipe but typically between 60 and minutes typically, we do have some recipes that we boil for 90 minutes.
Do you adjust the water (use water modifiers) for the different styles or just go with the local water source?
We have excellent water in Juneau due to the amount of rain we get and the amount of snow that feeds the aquifers, so we are lucky enough to just use city water. Our water is chlorinated so we remove the chlorine by using a carbon filter. Since we have soft water we do add some gypsum to help control calcium levels in our beers. We don't adjust the water for the various beers, even for our stout, all of our water is treated the same. We feel our beers taste just fine without trying to match a water source from another part of the world.
What type of yeast do you use and how do you maintain your culture?
We use an ale yeast in our beers. We keep slants of our yeast strain in our lab at cryogenic temperatures. We propogatepropagate up the yeast when the existing strain has hit our preferred number of pitchings.
How many times do you reuse your yeast from batch to batch?
This really varies. We repitch from previous fermenters and try not to use the same generation of yeast for more than about 2 months, we feel that the yeast starts to change/degrade after that and it tends to ferment slower and give more off flavors. However, yeast is a living organism and sometimes it is necessary to start a new generation earlier if we see problems in flavor or fermentation.
What about hops... do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?
We almost exclusively use all pellets. The hops store better as pellets since they are usually sealed in vacuum bags or are purged with nitrogen. The pellets are easier to store, and by the end of the crop year retain their quality better than and use than the bails of whole hops. For our remote location, the ease of shipping boxes of pellets is also a benefit.
Do you use a Whirlpool or Filter method? If neither, which do you use?
We use a combination kettle / whirlpool.
What finings or clarifiers do you use if any?
We use standard kettle finings, Irish Moss, in the boil to help coagulate the trub and impurities so they fall to the bottom before transferring off the wort.
What temps are most ales fermented at on this level?
At ale temperatures... each recipe will have it's own fermentation temperature depending on the flavors from the yeast that we want. For example our Amber is fermented at cooler temperatures due to the fact that the historical brewery that we based our Amber recipe on had a difficult time keeping the brewery warm since we are in Alaska, this affected his beer in a good way and we try to emulate that. So the cool fermentation of our Amber is a part of this beer flavor profile and is similar to the Alt fermentation in Dusseldorf Germany. Our other styles are fermented at higher temperatures than the Amber but the temperatures are all unique to each beer, and top secret so we can't tell you.
Do you pasteurize or add preservatives?
We don't believe in pasteurizeing our beer or adding preservatives. We have a meticulous lab and quality control program to help address/reduce any issues before they might come up.
Which award are you most proud of and why?
We are proudest of the awards our Smoked Porter has won over the years. It continues to be the most award winning beer at the Great American Beer Festival, and has won many other awards around the world. People are always surprised that we only make a small amount - 400 bbls of it per year, but yet it is the beer we are most recognized for. The Smoked Porter is often credited for starting the Smoked Beer (Rauchbier) revolution and creating appreciation for this Germany style of beer in the United States.
Do you have any techniques or processes that are unique to your brewing/brewery? Can you tell us about it/them?
* With our Smoked Porter we hand smoke our own malts over Alder wood using a commercial smokehouse from a local fish smokery. We recently bought this smokehouse so we can do the smoking in our brewery, this is the best part of making this beer and the crew really enjoys it.
* We were the first craft brewery in the United States to start collecting our waste CO2 from fermentation, we did this in 1997. We clean this CO2 and then re-use it downstream in our carbonation and packaging processes. We are almost totally self sufficient with this green house gas which keeps us from buying it from outside sources and it helps to lower our carbon footprintoutput to the environment.
* We have an automated yeast counter that uses a computer to calculate and pitch the correct amount of yeast into each of our tanks,tanks; this has really helped our consistency and reduced the human error factor in yeast pitching.
* We use a grain dryer to dry our spent waste grain to reduce its shipping weight and stabilize the grain for shipment since we can't dispose of this waste locally due to the lack of farms or ranches. The dried grain is sent to Seattle where it is turned into compost or feed. WAs far as we know we are the only operating craft brewery in the US that currently uses a grain dryer for handling our waste products.
Your Smoked Porter, a truly amazing beer... people want to know how you do it. Any chance we can get some info on the grain bill, especially percentages of the darker malts used? Also, do you smoke the pale malt or the Munich (or both) that's supposedly in the grainbillgrain bill? What percentage of the grain is smoked? Any tips on home-smoking grain to get similar flavors as the smoked grain you use?
We smoke approximately 5-10% of the pale malts in this beer. It is a fairly standard Porter recipe which uses Pale, and Munich Malts, caramel malt, and about 5% (I need to verify this) of the chocolate and black malts. We only smoke a small amount of pale malt for the great smoked flavor we want and about 7 percent of the malts are the darker malts. For those readers who want to brew a smoked Porter, I would say the hardest thing with the smoke flavor is not to overdo it. Some smoked sources flavors such as peat or hickory can be overpowering even in small quantaties quantitiesfor a dark beer, luckily for us the Alder wood is very smooth and mellow. A slight smoke character will add complexity but too much smoke character can make the beer unpleasant.
For those that want to try a smoked beer at home, if you purchase peated malt I would seriously suggest using only 3-5% of this malt the first time around. On the other hand I have had great tasting beers made with the majority of the grist being smoked using Weyermann malt. If you make your own smoked malt you need to make sure that the malt is totally dry at the end of smoking. A by-product of wood burning is acetic acid which is unpleasant tasting, but this will be driven off once the malt is totally dried. Then you need to experiment. If you make your own smoked malt start using it as a small part of your total grist. Then work it up from there to taste. Each smoked malt is unique so there isn't a rule of thumb to go by. The Association of Brewers published a book called smoked flavored beers which will tell you more than you want to know about this general style of beer.
What is your take on the hop revolution - the race to see who can make the hoppiest beer around?
Well obviously this year that might turn out to be a big mistake due to the hop shortages we are all now seeing. We can definitely see that there is a following of people that love their hops, but as for ourselves we also want the beer to be enjoyable so that you can have several pints. A beer can be very hoppy but it needs to be balanced and drinkable, otherwise it will always only appeal to a small group of people. It depends on the audience you are targeting. Unfortunately these hoppier beers can turn off new craft beer drinkers if they are uninformed about the beer they ended up with. It gives them the impression that all craft brews are that intense and they may never try another one if they have a bad experience.
What do you see in the future for you and your company?
Many years of quality beers, more great customers, and lots of fun doing what we do even as we continue to grow.
Alaskan Brewing Company 5429 Shaune Drive Juneau, AK 99801
How long has the brewery been around:around?
We started in 1986, and are now celebrating our 21st year of making great beers.
What is the yearly production?
In 2007 we plan to produce 1188,000 bbls of beer.
How many different beers are made and how many are bottled? Where do the rest go?
We currently have 9 main beers. Our product line consists of Amber, Pale Ale, ESB, Oatmeal Stout, IPA, Smoked Porter, Summer Ale, Winter Ale, and a Barley Wine. These are all bottled and kegged. All of the beers are available year round except for the following: Smoked Porter which is only available in November and December, Summer Ale is available from March through September, Winter Ale is available September through February, and Barley Wine is only available in December and January.
What is the current distribution?
We distribute in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific Southwest. We are in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona. We are also served on Alaska Airlines and our beers are available on most cruise ships travelling to Alaska
Name: Curtis Holmes
Date Of Birth: January 1967
Current Brewery: Alaskan Brewing
What kind of education do you have? High School
Did you attend a Brewing School? 2 week short course at Siebel and various training opportunities at the brewery overfor the last 15 years.otherwise learned it all here.
How long have you been brewing?
I started with Alaskan Brewing in 1991, but didn't start brewing until 1992.
How long have you been at your current job?
1991 at the brewery but I've done many jobs here including brewing, packaging, filtration, sales, engineering and maintenance.
What did you do previous to this job?
Worked in movie theaters and selling office supplies. I didn't know anything about beer before starting at the brewery, but learned it on the job and at Siebel. It's been fun.
Every brewer has high and low points... what are yours?
Every time we win an award is a high point for me, it really makes me proud to be part of the group that created an award winning beer. Not too many low points, about the time I take things too seriously I go and enjoy a pint of beer.
What is your favorite beer style and why?
I love a good stout that isn't too roasted and has more sweet notes, something you can sip slowly and enjoy the complexity of it. Sweet Stouts or Oatmeal Stouts are just perfect. I also like a crisp Pale or Kolsch for the summer months as they are less filling and more drinkable. I also like many of the belgian or lambic beers just because they are not average styles of beers and are all so unique and fun to try.
What is your Favorite beer?
Tripel Karmelite or any good Lambic
Which beer do you enjoy brewing the most? Why?
Kolsch, Pale Ales, Bitters. I think the lighter beers are more challenging because they don't hide any mistakes, but I still like to dabble in Stouts and darker beers on occasion.
Do you still brew at home? What do you like to brew if you do?
I don't brew at home, I do enough of it at work and it keeps me from making a mess in my kitchen and garage!
Personal notes/outside interests:
Skiing, Fishing, motorcycling on the ALCAN highway in Alaska and Canada.
Please feel free to add any other notes or things of interest.
One unique thing about our brewery is that we don't have other breweries located near us, this eliminates most of the chance for finding unemployed and experienced brewers or packagers. Most of our employees are almost always hired locally off the street and trained onsite to become brewers or packagers, so it gives us a very diverse staff that learns to love the brewing business.
Curtis, thank you for your time and wisdom. There is some great info in here. If you have not had a chance to try the king of smoked porters... grab some now if you can find it - it doesn't hang around long.