Alaska myths, Alaska realities and Alaska beer commercials

Histories of Alaska: Beer makers used Alaska themes time and again for marketing to Outside audiences. But sometimes, the messages were aimed directly at Alaskans.

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Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Movies and television series set in Alaska tend to emphasize myth over reality, as myth is more of an expectation for the non-Alaskan audience. Put simply, these entertainments are not made for Alaskans. Broad appeal is understandably a greater motivation than appeasing a relatively small and isolated population. In the same way, most advertising invoking Alaska targets non-Alaskans, simply employing the positive connotations of Alaska to sell their products.

Beer advertising is a subset. As difficult as it sometimes is to imagine, far more beer is consumed outside of Alaska than within. Yet, there are some exceptions. A few brands occasionally catered directly to Alaskans. A sampling of beer advertising invoking Alaska illustrates the general rule and the few counterpoints.

The breweries that targeted Alaska were historically more regional than national — companies small enough that Alaska constituted a significant percentage of their market. Grab your nearest old-timer and ask about Lucky Lager, Olympia and Rainier. Lucky Lager, initially based in California but later purchased by the Canadian Labatt Brewery, was one of the best-selling beers in Alaska during its mid-twentieth-century peak. That said, longtime residents might have more fond memories of Olympia and Rainier, two companies with longer histories in Alaska.

Rainier is the older of the two brands. The beer itself launched in 1878, though the company could trace its lineage back to the founding of the Washington Brewery in 1854, the first commercial brewer in Seattle. Thus, many cases of Rainier surely made their way north in the years directly after its creation. However, both beer and Alaska took off in the wake of the Klondike gold rush.

[The terrible early television shows set in Alaska]

In Skagway, the foremost Alaska boomtown of the gold rush, Rainier was inescapable, constantly advertised and featured in the local bars. It was sold as a premium beer at a premium price and was popular despite the higher cost. In a common practice then, Rainier also directly sponsored one of the most popular and enduring Skagway bars, the Mascot Saloon. In the sponsored content of its time, contemporary articles on the Mascot Saloon often included obviously paid-for wording. For example, a 1902 inventory notice in the local newspaper announced the arrival of a keg shipment. “They contain the composition of which nothing enters but the very best of Yakima hops, toned for flavor with the close-made little sundried Bohemians and a generous quantity of malt. It is a famous, creamy brew of ample body and will be on tap at the Mascott (sic) for the next three weeks.”

And the beer was notably popular with both men and women. Early Skagway featured several bars, including the Seattle Saloon, operated by Herman Grimm. In May 1901, he announced, “A large consignment of a special brew of the famous Rainier beer has just arrived and special attention will be paid to the family trade.” By “family trade,” he meant that he would sell to women during an era when it was commonly taboo for women to enter a bar by the front entrance. Around the same time, another Skagway bar, the Mascot Saloon, offered female customers a more discreet and socially acceptable rear entrance.


By the midcentury, Rainier was deeply entrenched in the Alaska culture. Rainier, in turn, favored Alaskans with advertisements more earnestly targeted toward them. A series of 1950s print ads drawn by Chuck Swanberg touted Rainier as the “Inside” favorite, as opposed to more obviously Outside brewers like Budweiser or Coors. The advertisements featured illustrations of distinctly Alaska locations, like Ketchikan’s Main Street, the view approaching Juneau by ship, or the Tanana River near Fairbanks. Especially in comparison to later commercials from the corporate brewers, these drawings projected an intimate familiarity with Alaska without pandering.

Some Alaskans called it the Reindeer Beer, playing off the Rainier name. The nickname was popular enough that Rainier offered a can with a reindeer on top, exclusive to Alaska markets from 1956 to 1957. Examples of this style are considered rare now.

More Alaskans will remember the brand fondly due to its long-running “Running of the Rainiers” campaign, a fixture of 1970s and 1980s television. The commercials featured oversized Rainier bottle costumes with only the human legs sticking out. The “wild” bottles were then hunted, herded, and otherwise observed in nature. The running Rainier bottles frequently appeared in Alaska, including at Anchorage rodeos and Fur Rendezvous parades.

In this typical Rainier commercial of the era, actor Mickey Rooney stalks wild Rainiers. He is accompanied by Jim Owens, the longtime University of Washington football coach. Owens was well known in Alaska during a time when the Huskies were the closest major program, against a still-developing high school scene and before the 1976 creation of the Seattle Seahawks.

The first batch of Olympia reached the market on Oct. 3, 1896. A year later, amid the Klondike gold rush, there was more demand in Alaska than the company could deliver. One order included a demand for 1,000 boxes of Olympia’s Pale Export. Like Rainier, OIympia developed a closer relationship with Alaskan consumers, one spiked with humor and understanding. A representative print advertisement from 1974 offered a Fairbanks Six-Pack, a case of stubby Oly bottles with a few more than six. In their words, “Everything’s just plain bigger in Alaska.”

Then there are the other beer companies. They have repeatedly attempted to cash in on that Alaska mystique, only without the connection and lighter touch exhibited by Rainier and Olympia. A circa 1973 Schlitz commercial shows someone like a park ranger or fish and wildlife agent rescuing a moose stuck in snow. “On patrol in Alaska, helping them through the winter is more than a job; it’s a life. And that’s the only way you’d have it because you know you only go around once, and you’ve got to do it with gusto.” “Do it with gusto” was a longtime Schlitz slogan.

The general themes from the Schlitz commercial are recognizable now as well-established tropes. A rugged, overtly masculine, and noble everyman, in the course of his honest physical labors, earns a beer worthy of his archetypal qualities. The Alaska setting elevates the presentation with implications of survival and mystique.

In 1976, a Miller High Life commercial featured the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which had already become visual shorthand for Alaska in the same way that an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge is shorthand for San Francisco or the Christ the Redeemer statue is for Rio de Janeiro. In comics, cartoons, shows, and movies, the trans-Alaska pipeline is the easiest, if laziest, way to ensure the viewer understands the setting. In other words, knowing about the trans-Alaska pipeline demonstrates no special understanding of Alaska.

“The Alaskan Pipeline, 800 of the toughest miles man has ever conquered, and up here, quitting time is Miller Time,” the commercial said. Again, there is a connection between labor and beer as a reward. A person with a beer is thus someone who has accomplished something, a winner or conqueror. Like the Schlitz example, and in keeping with most other modern beer commercials, the Miller commercial emphasized drinking beer as a social activity. In his 1987 study of beer commercials, Neil Postman wrote, “Beer is represented as the medium through which one demonstrates one’s masculinity, is initiated into the adult world, communicates with other men, expresses feelings towards them, preserves and recaptures the history of one’s group of male friends.”

A 1985 Budweiser commercial copies the Miller High Life commercial formula, swapping in a road construction crew for pipeline workers. “Me and the crew, we’re, we’re taking this road across Alaska, and we haven’t even got to the hard part yet. I guess you could say say we’re hooking up the Last Frontier to the Lower 48. Yeah, working up here, it’s different. See, this road’s gotta be able to handle an Alaska freeze and then the thaw. But I tell you, when it’s finished, when it’s on the map, you can say, ‘we did that.’”

Here, beer is either the fuel that makes road construction possible or, once again, its reward. Alaska residents are likelier than non-residents to know there has been a road “hook up” to the Lower 48 since World War II.

Lastly, there is a 1987 Old Milwaukee commercial shot at Glacier Bay. “Glacier Bay, Alaska, and Old Milwaukee both mean something great to these guys. Glacier Bay means the one and only Alaskan king crab — sweet, fresh, and big. And Old Milwaukee means a great beer.” As the commercial further notes, “There’s nothing like the flavor of a special place and Old Milwaukee beer.


Outside viewers saw what they were meant to see, rugged men laboring to exhaustion before enjoying a cold beer to cap off the day. “Hey guys, it doesn’t get any better than this,” says one of the crabbers. The mountains and snow in the background provided the perfect background. These are “real men” in a “real place,” a perfected masculine form unencumbered by the frantic nature of cities, in a pure environment visibly free of pollution. And by affiliation, Old Milwaukee is understood as a decidedly authentic and pure beverage.

Any Alaskans watching the same commercial might have a different take on the display. Alaskans might scoff at the crabber working in a pristine, white cable knit sweater or the king crab pulled from a dungy pot. The full spread of a meal — with side dishes — eaten at the dock is a similarly odd visual. Needless to say, no Alaskan was convinced to switch to Old Milwaukee because of this commercial.

Commercial beer brewing in Alaska dates back to 1874, when Levi, Cohen, Fuller & Co. began service in Sitka, no matter that their entire operation was, strictly speaking, illegal. In the 150 years since, beer has been a constant presence in Alaska, again no matter any prohibitions. From 1874 Sitka through the Prinz Brau debacle to Alaskan Brewing to the rapid expansion of craft breweries, Alaskans have increasingly made their own beer, a solution for an industry largely ignorant of what actually makes Alaska unique.

Key sources:

“The Creamy Brew.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, April 23, 1902, 2.


“Did Not Buy Plant.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, May 3, 1901, 1.

Hellman, Matilda, Anu Katainen, and Janne Seppanen. “Gendered Citizen Constructs in Beer Commercials as Metatext of Alcohol Control Policies.” Contemporary Drug Problems 45, no. 2 (2018): 163-176.

Howell, Bill. Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Charleston, SC: American Palate, 2015.

Ockerman, Megan Elisabeth. “‘It’s the Water’: A History of the Olympia Brewing Company, 1896-1983.” Master’s thesis, Washington State University, 2017.

Postman, Neil. Myths, Men, & Beer: An Analysis of Beer Commercials on Broadcast Television, 1987. Falls Church, VA: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 1987.

Spude, Catherine Holder. The Mascot Saloon: Archeological Investigations in Skagway, Alaska, Volume 10. Anchorage: United States Government Printing Office, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2005.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.