- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - On the back of a black label stuck to a corked, Belgian-style beer bottle, 38-year-old Gabe Fletcher penned his gratitude to Gary Klopfer, the owner of Anchorage’s Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Co.

“In 2010 I had the crazy idea of opening my own brewery,” it says. “The way it came together was even crazier.”

The brew - bottled this summer and named simply “Thank You” - has sold all over the world.

For Fletcher, the craft beer marks the end of Anchorage Brewing Co.’s beginnings as the 4-year-old business uproots from Snow Goose’s cavernous downtown basement and moves south across town to a new, 8,000-square-foot building near the intersection of 92nd Avenue and King Street.

“This was the plan from the beginning,” Fletcher said, standing inside the halfway-built space. “It took a lot of work to get it to where it is.”

Come November, Anchorage Brewing Co. will open to the public for the first time. Fletcher has outlined a spot for an outdoor beer garden outfitted with fire pits for the city’s long winter. He said concrete slabs will make indoor tables where people can sit near the 9-foot-tall oak barrels that he uses to ferment beer.

While the company undergoes a transformation in South Anchorage, Fletcher said it will run much in the same way. Its staff will stay tiny, its taps rotating and its beers distinct.

“This is the final resting space,” he said. “We’ll continue to experiment, but this will kind of be the house where we do it from here on out.”

Fletcher, a Dimond High School graduate, first started in the world of Alaska breweries 17 years ago as an employee at Denali Winery.

Within months he left for a job at the Midnight Sun Brewing Co., where he was quickly promoted to head brewer, a role that gave him time to begin experimenting with beer.

After more than 13 years at Midnight Sun, Fletcher said, “I sort of decided that it was time to do my own thing.”

Fletcher pieced together ideas for a new brewery. Without a pool of startup funds, he decided he would operate without an expensive brewhouse. Departing from the traditional brewing methods, he would use oak barrels to store the fermenting brew and brettanomyces as an ingredient - a complex wild yeast unfavored by many brewers because it changes taste over time.

He contacted Steve Marshall, a friend and retired BP businessman, and told him of the move.

“I’ve always considered Gabe to be one of the best brewers I’ve ever come across,” Marshall said. “I just thought, ‘Well, that’s great, I’ve just invested in Midnight Sun and now he’s leaving.’”

Marshall agreed to invest in Fletcher and became a partner in the talked-about Anchorage Brewing Co.

Meanwhile in Homer, Klopfer was drinking a beer with Steve McCasland, co-owner of the Homer Brewing Co.

“So I’m in Homer and I’m having a beer with Steve and he said, ‘Hey, I heard Gabe is going to start a brewery,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’” He said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to start it with you,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ I was cracking up,” Klopfer said. “So I come back to Anchorage and, lo and behold, my phone rings. It’s Gabe.”

Klopfer had known Fletcher from Midnight Sun.

Fletcher continues his story on the “Thank You” label: “I knew (Klopfer) had extra space below his brewery in the giant Snow Goose building downtown. So I decided to chat with him to see if he would be willing to let me rent his brewhouse to produce wort, then rent space downstairs where I would ferment, age and bottle the beers on my own equipment.”

Klopfer said, “You’re crazy.”

But he gave Fletcher the keys. Anchorage Brewing Co. would launch out of Snow Goose’s basement and pay to use Sleeping Lady’s equipment. When Sleeping Lady’s business slowed in the winter, Anchorage Brewing Co. would amp up.

“It’s the first time up here that such a collaboration has existed,” Klopfer said.

In 2011, Anchorage Brewing Co. released its first beer. By then, it had already secured two buyers who agreed to purchase everything it made.

Now the Anchorage-made beer is available in most states in the U.S., seven countries in Europe, Iceland and Australia.

Fletcher has held strong to his original vision of producing specialty, barrel-aged beers with little overhead cost. Most of the time, he works alone or brings in his wife or friends to help out. For the new building, he hired an assistant brewer and his sister.

“I just want to have a small amount of employees and take good care of them,” he said. “Instead of having 30 or 40 employees and all of a sudden, at the end of the day, you’re working so hard and you get so disconnected from what you’re making.”

Each beer he produces takes between three months and a year to make. His brewery looks more like a winery, filled with the giant oak barrels that he bought used from California wine companies and in which he lets all of his beers age for months. He doesn’t expect to change the process any time soon.

“It’s a little romantic, I guess,” he said. “It’s just different. Stainless steel is so sterile, and I just feel oak has so much more life to it. It lends a totally different character to the beer that makes it stand out from everything that everyone else is brewing.”

Fletcher has managed to capture a chunk of the market by capitalizing on his innovative, infrequently-used brewing techniques and rolling out new beers in small waves. He assigns some success to the healthy culture of the online “beer geeks.”

“They’re just so in love with beer,” he said. “People’s palates are so intense, and everyone’s so interested in the process, and the more interesting you make your beer the more crazy these people go for it.”

Klopfer credits Fletcher’s unique product and business model as the means for his survival in a state with an “exploding” brewing industry.

“If he was just bottling an IPA or an amber or anything, forget it,” Klopfer said.

According to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, at least 27 breweries and brewpubs are licensed in Alaska, seven of those in Anchorage with one license pending for a planned brewery in Mountain View. Anchorage’s King Street Brewery will operate just down the road from Anchorage Brewing Co.’s new location.

Fletcher said Anchorage Brewing Co. will still send most of its product, about 75 percent, out of state.

“My plan is to not oversaturate any market,” he said. “I always want there to be some excitement about the product where people are, say, tweeting at each other like, ‘Hey it’s here,’ and before you know it, it’s gone.”

Fletcher’s beers have expanded from six makes to 24 since he started. He and his wife already have a few recipes brewing for the November opening.

“I put everything into each beer,” he said. “So I can’t really say I have a favorite.”

For his “Thank You” to Klopfer - who’s partial to a Hefeweizen - Fletcher made a Belgian-style beer. And even though Klopfer isn’t a fan of brettanomyces, Fletcher added the wild yeast. After all, it’s the brewery’s signature.

The message on the label concludes with a final word to Klopfer.

“I will always be grateful for this opportunity. Thank you, Gary.”


Information from: Alaska Dispatch News, https://www.adn.com

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