KENAI -- For such a large state with such a small population, Alaska has plenty of beer to go around. Breweries can be found in such far-flung Alaska locales as Haines, Kodiak, Ketchikan and Skagway. In the communities of Kenai and Soldotna, with a combined population of just over 11,000 on the Kenai Peninsula, three breweries provide libations to locals, tourists and statewide beer enthusiasts. Despite the proximity, Frank Kassik -- who owns Kassik's Brewery in Kenai with his wife Debbie -- said that his brewery doesn't really compete with the two other local brewers, Kenai River Brewing Company and St. Elias Brewing.
"You'd be surprised at how little competition there is between microbrewers," Frank said. Instead, he said, microbrewers are up against macrobrewers, beer behemoths such as Anheuser-Busch InBev -- which produces Budweiser and many other brands -- MillerCoors, and Pabst Brewing Co. Alaska has its own large-scale brewer, too: Alaskan Brewing, based in Juneau, was 24th in the nation for beer sold by volume in 2012. As a result, Frank said, "(Alaska microbreweries) look at each other as resources."
Debbie Kassik agreed. "It's just like a coffee shop," she said. "You have your favorite roast, your favorite cup of coffee." People have their favorite beer too, she said, and that's where craft brewing comes in, catering to a specific taste and filling a niche instead of creating beers to please as many people as possible.
Just because they're up against some big competition doesn't mean that Kassik's is hurting for business, though. The family-owned brewery recently expanded its operations from 1,800 to 4,800 square feet, and increased production from 1,500 barrels of beer in 2011 to 2,000 in 2012. For comparison, Alaskan Brewing produces about 150,000 barrels every year. The nation's largest brewers measure volume in the tens of millions of barrels.
Kassik's also added a sizeable tasting room in the expansion, turning the old one into a vestibule to the brewery proper. They now have six full-time employees and can fill 800 bottles an hour. It's a big step up for a company that boasts it started when Debbie bought Frank a home-brewing kit. That kick-started their interest in unique beers and eventually led to the purchase of a large-scale brewing system and the official opening of Kassik's in 2006.
Debbie said the brewery could have grown much quicker, but they've taken a cautious approach to expansion. But in a so-far abnormally hot summer when people's thirst for frosty brews is high, the brewery ended up selling twice as much beer as it expected during the recent Kenai River Festival -- and Debbie added that sales are always higher in summer, anyway. Still, even for Debbie, Frank, the rest of the shop, and fellow brewers from Kenai River Brewing, it was a hectic couple of days.
"Our line just never stopped," Debbie said.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com