What it’s like to brew beer in some of the world’s most remote locations
Sunday 11 April 2021
This article is from
Share this article
There are not a lot of opportunities for spontaneity when you’re brewing in one of the most remote locations in the continental USA. If Ben Millstein, founder of Alaska’s Kodiak Island Brewing (KIB), wants to experiment with a new beer, he has to plan ahead.
“Being on an island, there’s nobody I can go down the street and borrow ingredients from or buy equipment. There’s no sanitary welders here that can work on my equipment,” he says.
It’s possible to fly ingredients and brewing equipment to Kodiak, a Cyprus-sized island high up in the Gulf of Alaska with a population of 14,000, but it’s not exactly cheap. So Ben has everything he needs sent up the coast by barge from Seattle, a journey of around six weeks.
Some people would be put off by such constraints, but not Ben, who spent five years working on a business plan for his brewery in order to be able to anticipate these sorts of challenges.
“All it means is that I have to think in the future,” he says.
His customers - a mix of tourists, US Coast Guard staff (Kodiak Island is home to one of the largest and busiest coast guard stations in the country) and people that work in the island’s fishing and logging industries - don’t seem to mind these constraints either. Of the 13 beers available on tap at the brewery’s tasting room in downtown Kodiak, five are staples – the others come and go depending on the season and Ben’s whim. If he wants to bring a speciality beer back, he’ll plan to do so six months or a year out.
“Our market knows to expect turnover in the availability of different beers,” says the brewer. “And that works out fine.”
Ben originally moved to Kodiak because his wife was offered a job there. An avid home brewer, he immediately clocked that there was no brewery on the island and began thinking about how he could step up to fill that gap in the market.
“The [craft beer] industry in Alaska was really getting off the ground. There was a lot of openings, many of which were friends of mine who opened their own breweries. And so I got to see that from afar,” he recalls.
“I was a carpenter at the time. Starting a brewery seemed like something that I could do that would be more of a neat contribution to the community than just continuing to work for somebody else.”
Ben had lived in Kodiak for almost 10 years before opening his brewery in 2003 but that slow gestation period turned out to be a boon, he says. For starters, he was able to really hone his brewing skills during this period. Then there was the fact that “because of my carpentry background, I had a lot of friends and connections in the trades. You save a lot of money by doing a lot of work yourself or with friends in trade for beer.
“Having a little connection to your community sure helps when you’re trying to do a project like this.”
Robert Johansen, founder of Svalbard Brewery, can relate to this feeling. There are only around 2,600 people living on the Norwegian archipelago but, thanks to the dominance of coal mining as an industry, electricians and plumbers are plentiful.
“We use them and teach them to understand how the brewery works. And then of course we have good connections for spare parts,” says Robert, who has split his time between Svalbard and the Norwegian mainland for the last 42 years.
Like Ben, Robert decided to set up a brewery having caught the home brew bug. Working a two week on/two week off schedule as a commercial pilot on Svalbard, he had plenty of time at home in Tromsø, northern Norway, to experiment with beermaking when his wife and kids were out during the day.
Unlike Ben, however, Robert found a major obstacle in his way when he set about turning his dream into reality: an old law banning any form of alcohol production on the Svalbard archipelago. Dating from 1928, the legislation was designed to prevent coal miners making merry with moonshine.
“I had to change the law first. So I sent a letter down to the government in Norway. It took five and a half years until they changed it,” says Robert, betraying no hint of the frustration this must have caused him at the time.
With that hurdle out of the way, the rest of the set up was relatively simple, he claims. “To get the brewery up here…well, there’s not so many ways to do that.” Robert got himself a warehouse on Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently occupied island in the archipelago, and brought a master brewer up from Oslo to install brewing equipment that came overland from Italy to Tromso. The final leg, that is also taken by all the ingredients that make their way into Robert’s beer, is by boat, a journey of two or three days depending on sea conditions.
The majority of Svalbard Brewery’s output is consumed in the archipelago, but 25 per cent makes this journey in reverse, back to the Norwegian mainland. From there it’s distributed by Tromso-based Macks Ølbryggeri, one of the largest and oldest breweries in the country, across Norway and to Switzerland. Before the pandemic, Robert and Macks were in talks about exporting to Germany too, but those plans are currently on hold. He hopes they’ll pick up again when circumstances allow.
Having a craft brewery on Svalbard, particularly one that exports, is a source of great pride to its residents, says Robert. “We don’t produce anything up here. It had been only coal that left the island, and the beer is the next thing.”
He’s delighted to be able to share this small piece of the archipelago with the rest of the world but when it comes to the beers themselves, Robert and his master brewer (who was due to stay only three months but liked Svalbard so much that he’s never left) have got one market firmly in mind: the home crowd.
To this end, the beers have to be “drinkable”. Robert likes the strong, tangy beers produced by microbreweries in Norway and around the world but there’s no appetite for these “hipster brews” on Svalbard, he says with a chuckle. “There are not so many hipsters up here.”
The thinking behind Robert’s second rule – Svalbard beer comes in cans, not bottles – is as neat an explainer of Norwegian culture as you’re likely to find: “When you’re going hiking, or on a boat, or you are snowmobiling, you don’t use bottles.”
High and dry
Sam and Matt Humphrey, the couple behind Knoydart Brewery in Scotland, have adopted a similarly pragmatic attitude to the beers they produce. Based where they are, on a peninsula accessed only by boat or two-day hike, their beers must have popular appeal, Sam explains.
“Rather than outlandish ones which people might try once but then not drink again, the aim is to brew something that people will come back for.”
For the tourists who come to Knoydart for walking holidays, one quality is paramount: “It’s got to be thirst quenching,” says Sam.
“People come down the track and see Matt with his brewery t-shirt on and say, ‘ah, holy grail!’”
There’s no tasting room at Knoydart as yet but the couple are hoping to open one in due course, aiming ultimately “to be able to offer work out to the community,” says Matt. “That was the idea, to create a couple of jobs in addition to supporting ourselves.”
Sam and Matt moved to Inverie, a tiny village of just 100 full-time residents, 19 years ago from London. They joked about one day converting the chapel that adjoined their home into a brewery but, between kids and jobs (she was a nurse, he worked in IT), were too busy to make it happen.
By 2015 however, they were ready to take the plunge, and set about the not inconsiderable task of turning a 19th-century Roman Catholic chapel with a leaky roof and rotten floor into a 21st-century brewhouse.
“We wanted to do something that meant we could stay living here,” says Sam. “We wanted to do our own business and lots of other people were doing self-catering properties so the market for that was well filled. With the science parts of our backgrounds, we thought that [craft beer] would be a really fun thing to do.”
With only a passenger ferry connecting Inverie to the rest of the mainland, all the materials and equipment required for the conversion came to the village via landing craft, before being transported up to the chapel on a tractor with a forklift. It took three years to complete, with Sam (who had attended brew school in Sunderland in the meantime) and Matt tapping their first keg in November 2018.
“All these years later, after lots of umming and ahhing, we finally did it,” says Sam.
The brewery had a good year in 2019, and Sam and Matt had just invested in new equipment so as to be able to start supplying pubs in Fort William, their nearest decent-sized town, when the pandemic struck.
“Almost as soon as the stuff arrived, everything stopped,” says Matt. “Nothing’s started since.” That’s not quite true, he corrects himself. They actually had a good summer season once the lockdown restrictions were lifted and tourists flocked back to the Highlands.
Now, however, deep into the third national lockdown, Inverie is totally without visitors. Given that Sam and Matt cater almost exclusively to the tourist market, their business is effectively in hibernation: “No tourists, no sales.”
The couple are confident that demand will bounce back. Not that that’s all it’s about. “What we really want is for people to come here for the beer and enjoy the beer as well as the whole Knoydart experience,” says Matt.
Overcoming the odds
It’s hard living somewhere as isolated as Kodiak, Alaska, the Svalbard archipelago or the Knoydart peninsula. Yet despite – or perhaps because of - the challenges of life in these locations, these courageous individuals decided to up the ante by starting their own breweries.
Times are as tough for independent craft breweries today as they ever have been. But as long as there are people passionate enough about beer to ship yeast, hops and barley thousands of kilometres; cater to a market that arrives mainly on foot, having hiked for two days straight; and campaign to overturn decades-long legislation, you can be pretty sure that the industry will survive to fight another day. Long live the craft beer adventurers – the world is a richer place with them in it.
Share this article