Monday, June 6, 2011

The art of brewing beer

 Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Brewer Tyler Lindquist, left, and Quality Assurance Analyst Darin Jensen pose in an older brewing tank that is being decommissioned at the Alaskan Brewing Company.


This weekend, brewers and beer lovers from all over Alaska will converge at the annual Great Alaska Craft Beer and Home-Brew Festival held in Dalton City at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds in Haines. Brew Fest, as it’s informally called, celebrates the art of making — and drinking — beer, and recognizes the work of those who’ve dedicated themselves to perfecting the craft.
In Juneau many of those craftsmen can be found at the Alaskan Brewing Co. Though the company now ships its beer to 10 states, it continues to celebrate the art of small-batch beer and the creative innovation of its employees, especially through its Rough Draft program. In this the business stays true to its roots: Alaskan Amber, the company’s flagship beer, started out as an experimental home-brew based on a Gold Rush-era beer brewed by the Douglas City Brewing Company, open from 1902 to 1907. While doing research on breweries in 1986, Alaskan Brewing co-owner Marcy Larson came across some old shipping records from the Douglas brewery that included beer ingredients, and an article describing brewing techniques. Her husband Geoff, a home-brewer, brewed up a batch and was so impressed he made several more, tweaking the balance until he came up with something he thought was similar to what the miners were drinking.  
“Gold Rush miners in Juneau were a hard working bunch who seemed to appreciate full flavored beers,” Geoff Larson said. “The rich, yet smooth, attributes of this particular brew is what caught me, and it appears the mining crews drank quite a lot of it in those days.”
Since that first batch of home-brew 25 years ago, Alaskan Brewing Co. has been growing and thriving, attracting a staff that includes beer lovers and home-brewers alike. Some have stuck around to become experts in the field — such as employees Darin Jensen and Tyler Lindquist, who together have invested a combined 33 years with the company.
Road to brewing
Darin Jensen has worked his way up through the ranks for the past 18 years to hold a position coveted by many as Quality Assurance Analyst. He gets paid to drink beer.
Darin moved to Juneau in 1993 from Minnesota and really wanted to work at the brewery. He got his first chance on “volunteer day,” an annual event where the brewery would shut down all brewing operations and take outside volunteers to bottle the beer.
“You’d get paid with rejects and a free lunch,” Jensen said. He then started refurbishing kegs for them and as the company expanded he landed a part-time position.
“I became fascinated by the process of making beer, I was ambitious and I was able to work my way up,” Jensen said. He moved from keg cleaning to tank cleaning to warehouse work, then managed a crew on the weekends and eventually moved into a brewing position just as they scaled up from the 10-barrel system to the 100-barrel.
It was this transition to creating something tangible like Alaskan Amber that gave Jensen the most work pride.
“It was a six-month learning curve to learn the process, but it was the start of a lifetime journey of creating beers and learning the art of brewing,” Jensen said.
He said the brewery’s Rough Draft program, in which small batches of brewers’ specialty beers are released on draft within the state, has allowed him to spread his wings.
“You might be inspired by a different style that’s out there, or you want to clone a beer that you’ve had,” said Jensen, who created a Rough Draft with a particular hop called Simcoe.
Fellow employee, former home-brewer and beer craftsman Tyler Lindquist says he arrived at the Alaskan Brewing Co. fresh from Eugene Ore., where he’d lived with a hop grower and become a home brewer in the middle of a micro brewery explosion in the early 1990s.
“I took a tour of the brewery about five times in a row, then they asked me if I wanted to fill out an application and about two or three weeks after that I got a call to interview, I got the job and it’s been 15 years,” Lindquist said. The first beer he had scaled up was the Alaskan Heritage Coffee beer he made after being approached by Heritage Coffee employees.
“We home-brewed at my house, they really liked the recipe I somewhat developed and we scaled it up at the brewery and from there it took off,” he said.
He added that the brewery’s ESB was the brewer’s beer of choice and noted his displeasure when it was discontinued.
Brewing is a complex process. Beer has so many different factors there is virtually an endless amount of combinations. Beer elements include appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, gravity and alcohol concentration, yeast, grains, hops, fruits, spices, water. Within these categories are even more complexities. Different hops for example have floral, fruit, earth, herb, pine and spicy characteristics.
Beer is also affected by production methods - like aging beer in bourbon barrels, and recipe, history, origin, and seasonal considerations can all influence the overall beer experience.
Music: beer’s unseen force
Along his journey Jensen’s come to believe that music and beer are a circular dynamic — continually inspiring and propelling each other forward.
Lindquist agrees, saying many brewers loosen up by listening to music, which prompts inspired beer discussions and new recipes. Music is also played in all phases of production and throughout the whole brewery.
“It’s neat to walk around the brewery and hear all the different kinds of music being played in the different areas,” said Marcy Larson.
In some cases, it’s live music. Once in a while someone will grab an instrument and rock out in a decommissioned lauter tank because of the good acoustics.
It was a shared love of music and beer that brought together the band Brown Haven, a band that includes both Jensen and Lindquist. The name of the band has a double meaning: it’s the leftover yeast scum on the top of a tank, and refers to the early band’s early jam sessions in their “haven,” a brown storage unit in the Mendenhall Valley.
Brown Haven blended the musical styles of Jensen, a self-proclaimed “metal head” from Minnesota; Lindquist, a surf punk from California; and Damian Horvath, a reggae musician from St. Croix, who also worked at the brewery. The band has broken up but will reunite for a private party this summer.
Jensen has just released an original song he wrote called “Soul Surfer,” which is being played on KRNN on Wednesdays.
Jensen and Lindquist are just two of the many brewers who have passed through or grown roots at the brewery, empowered and encouraged by the Larson’s artist space.
Courtney Nelson can be reached at roughhouseboxing@gmail.com.

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