Thursday, September 4, 2014

Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company Interview

     On my trip to Alaska for my brothers wedding I had a chance to interview Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company. Pulling into The Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company, I was greeted by Gabe who was in the middle of a brewing a batch.
     Anchorage Brewing currently rents his brewing equipment from Sleeping Lady and then pumps the wort to the basement where he does all the fermentation and barrel aging.  Anchorage Brewing will be moving to a new location with a much larger location at 148 West 91st Ave which will be much larger and have a full tasting room.  Anchorage Brewing also contract brews Arctic Saison for Hill Farmstead under the Grassroots label.  In between brewing processes I was able to ask Gabe a few questions about brewing:

Portland Craft Beer: Where did you receive your brewing education? Formal or on the job?
Gabe Fletcher: I wasn't looking to be a brewer I just sort of fell into it.  Someone heard about me and heard I was a good worker.  I started on the bottling line and I was bottling that day and in a year and in half I was the head brewer.

Sleeping Lady Brewing System
PCB: What was the first beer you recall drinking?
GF: I don't remember what it was called but I found this beer and it had a lady that was in bikini that you could scratch off, and I thought that was pretty cool.

PCB: What was the first craft beer you recall drinking?
GF: Sheaf Stout

PCB: What was your worst brew day ever?
GF: While at midnight sun I dumped a double stack of bottles with a forklift. There was glass shattered all over the floor.
PCB: Describe the brewing scene in Anchorage. Is it a pretty tight knit group or mostly everyone keeps to themselves?
GF: For the most part people kind of keep to themselves.  There's some guys that kind of hang out with each other.  I don't see the guys from Mooses Tooth coming over here or Midnight Sun.  Every once in a while someone will pop in but its not super close knit.  The home brew community is really close knit and all the beer drinkers just not so much the professional brewers.

PCB: What made you decide to leave Midnight Sun and start Anchorage Brewing?
GF: I just knew, its obviously every brewers dream to open their own brewery. I just thought it was time and I just had to go for it.  Also I didn't want to do production beer anymore I just wanted to do artisinal beer only and only do stuff I enjoy I don't want to be cranking out amber every single day and then do a barrel aged beer every once in a while, I want to do barrel aged beer all the time.

PCB: What is your favorite beer brewed by Anchorage Brewing Co.?
GF: Right now I try and put everything into every beer that I make.  Its not like I have 10 taps and I have my blonde ipa and my stout and my porter and my pislner and then I have my specialty beer I put all of my work into that I'm really proud of, I put everything into every single beer.

PCB: What is your favorite beer not brewed by Anchorage Brewing Co.?
GF: One of my all time favorite beers is Oro De Calabaza from Jolly Pumpkin.

PCB: What is the hardest aspect of your job?
GF: Probably the paperwork, taxes and all of the office crap.

PCB: Do you enjoy the Art or Science of brewing more?
GF: Probably the art, but they go hand in hand.

PCB: What did you do before you worked at Midnight sun?
GF: I had two jobs at the same time, I was working on the ramp loading planes at Alaska Airlines and I was also working at a winery, like a brew your own wine shop.  I would help people make wines, basically like box wines and ferment it and then bottle it for their wedding.  That's kind of how I got started a little bit.  Then someone heard I was doing a good job at Midnight Sun.

Anchorage Brewing Oak Foudres
PCB: How would you describe your beers? Would you say it is influenced by any specific brewery or style?
GF: We were, at the time, even 4 years ago, there were not a lot of people doing what I'm doing now. just in the last 2 to three years it seems like there has been a huge influx init. Back when we opened we were the only one in the US doing 100% of our beer fermented in wood.  We definitely take inspiration from other brewery's, Jolly Pumpkin, Farmstead, greats like Cantillon stuff  like that but we definitely try to do our own thing.

PCB: What unique challenges have you had to face as a brewery in Alaska.\
GF: You know, there's not that many.  I mean you have to drive your forklift out in the snow, but they have to do that in the midwest too.  I would say there's not many in Anchorage maybe if you lived in Kodaik or somewhere way up north its a little more extreme.  But, Anchorage is a city so you can get stuff shipped up here easily I would say the biggest problem is the cost of shipping .  We have to add so much more to the cost of our malt compared to everyone else down south plus everything has to ship down south.  probably the biggest thing is that we are so disconnected from the US that we have so much more shipping cost.

PCB: Do you have a house strain that you primarily use you use or do you use commercially available yeast?
GF: We use a lot of commercial yeast, we use some house strains we uses basically a different yeast on almost every beer. generally all the beers have three different yeast for the most part.  There's always some sort of brett and maybe a wine yeast for bottle conditioning and a Belgian yeast for primary.

PCB: You've been in the brewing industry for over 17 years what would you say is the biggest change you have seen?
GF: I would say the acceptance of craft beer and how big the media has made it, whether Facebook or Untappd and all these beer blogs, and all this stuff has just allowed for smaller craft breweries to grow without having to spend a lot of money on advertising.  It seems like if you make good beer you'll be successful.  But the quality of the beer I feel like has improved, and there's more people making good beer.

PCB: Do you think that the craft bubble will burst with the market getting so saturated that breweries will shut down.
GF: It will happen, and it will mainly happen to the ones aren't making good beer the public's pallet is getting so good no that you cant just make craft beer anymore and survive you have to make good beer.  I think the key for a lot of these breweries is they are opening small and they are pretty much selling most of their beer out of their taproom.  So their basically just opening up a bar almost, and their making their own beer. That's the best margins for every small brewery anyways,  if they're selling a keg of beer out the door they make like $30 and if they sell the same keg out of their tasting room they make $500.

I started asking him about the success that Anchorage Brewing had even early on, being voted best new brewery in the world.  He attributed a lot of it to people hearing about his work at Midnight Sun and to his distributor.

GF: The Shelton brothers basically said that they would buy all my product.  They are the only person other than my local distributor that buy my beer. They distribute my beer to almost every state in the US and Europe.  Their mainly an importer they import all these beers like Cantillon and Mikkeller and the list goes on their portfolio is huge. They represent all these small artisinal breweries around the world they just buy all of my products and then they sell it to the distributors.  I only get like 15 checks a year, but that's like all my money for the year its sort of weird but they are big checks. But, they're filling up connexes at a time. We only bottle once every other month but when we bottle we do a thousand cases.  its a really different way of doing things.  My idea is to stay small, I don't want to have a bunch of employees and get disconnected to my beer.  

As we were leaving, we walked through a dimly lit alcove in the brewery with a couple stainless steel tanks.  Gabe informed me this is where he blended his beers, and that was the only time the beer touches stainless steel after the boil, everything else is done in wood.  A large wooden souring tank sat against the wall.  This held a souring culture donated by Vinnie at Russian River for his sour beers. Also showing me two  kegs with yeast cultures in them, one from Shaun at Hill Farmstead and one from Mikkel at Mikkeller preparing for future beers.

A huge thanks to Gabe Fletcher for hanging out with me and answering my questions.  Be sure to look for his beers if they are sold in your area, especially if your a brettanomyces fan.

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