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Trail ale: Brew for backpackers gives new meaning to 'light beer'

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Photo courtesy Patrick Tatera

Say backpackers, ever had to leave a six-pack behind because it was too heavy?

Patrick Tatera has, and it's a pain he never wants to feel again. So the former chemist who once lived in Talkeetna decided to take things into his own hands, creating what appears to be the first concentrated beer through his company, Pat's Backcountry Beverages. Backpackers, canoeists or anyone looking to have a good time in the wilderness need not strain their backs carrying water, so long as they pack a carbonator (essentially a specialized water bottle, complete with a carbon-dioxide activator), plus packets of citric acid and sodium bicarbonate. A few pumps, a little shake and the reaction is complete. Add soda or beer concentrate, and get ready to get your drink on.

Tatera, who moved his family to Wheatridge, Colo., two months ago to start his beverage business, is a former chemist for Toyota who moved to Alaska 15 years ago to teach math in Galena, a Yukon River community of about 500 residents. After five years he moved to Talkeetna, where he worked as an assessment director for the Galena-based IDEA home-school program.

'Sweet spot'

He's also an avid backpacker and longtime home brewer. It took a trip to Utah 15 years ago for him to realize how important concentrated beer could be. He and a friend left a six-pack of craft beer in their car, not wanting to haul the heavy booze into the backcountry. But once into the hike, he and his hiking partner realized a beer was the only thing that would make everything better. That meant a hasty retreat to the car to retrieve their stash --  and fresh thoughts about how to make beer lighter and easier to carry.

“It’s a sweet spot for me, to be honest. All my interests converged to a point of singularity,” Tatera said. “I get to incorporate the all my geekiness.”

Sketches on the backs of napkins eventually became Tatera's carbonator, which he claims is the first of its kind. Weighing just half a pound and not much bigger than a Nalgene bottle, Tatera said users can put any sort of treated water in the carbonator -- whether filtered or cleansed with iodine tablets. Follow the instructions and, presto, some trail ale.

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Tatera uses a special brewing process to create the concentrate. He doesn't brew beer and then remove the water, but instead brews the beer as a concentrate.

Alcohol content is key. To make a pint of lager, a single one-ounce packet of concentrate is needed. But for beers with a higher alcohol content -- say, an India pale ale -- more than one packet would required.

“If you went into a liquor store, you could buy 80-proof bourbon, or if you wanted to get the most concentrated (alcohol) you could get, Everclear,” Tatera said. “The same with concentrate, the more alcohol, the more concentrate for that style and character of beer.”

Tatera said his concentrated beer holds up in taste tests against regular beer. However, Tatera only has a few of the carbonators on hand and couldn't get one to Alaska Dispatch quickly.

The product is due to launch by mid-September. Soda will be the first product available; the company is still trying to get permits allowing it to ship beer concentrate. He hopes to secure those by early 2013.

Valuable in Bush Alaska?

He figures that while the carbonator and soda will be sold at outdoors retailers like REI and Cabela's, the beer would probably have to be outsourced to smaller stores with a liquor license.

Prices are reasonable. The plastic bottle retails for about $30, and the soda concentrates are $1.49 apiece. Beer will be more expensive, but Tatera hopes it will cost no more than double the price of the soda concentrate.

Tatera may have an ulterior motive. After years of living in Galena, he's familiar with the cost of shipping soda and other beverages into Bush Alaska. It's “obscene,” he said, that residents pay so much to ship what's essentially water.

“It's comforting to me to look at this reusable system,” he said.

Jessica Caplan works at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage. Her first reaction when told there's a concentrated beer in the works? “Gross.”

But after hearing how the system works, she admitted it sounds “awesome.” The idea of not having to carry heavy liquids into the backcountry was especially appealing to her.

“I think I would probably get one for soda,” she said.

Colleague Jason Buttnick had already heard of the product, but was leery of endorsing it until he'd had a sample.

“It's gotta be good,” he said, standing next to a rack of GU energy packs and Clif Shot Energy Blocks. “My suspicion is that it's not.”

Fellow AMH employee Laura Gardner had this suggestion for Tatera:

“Tell him I'm waiting for a wine concentrate.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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