Business/Economy

The Anchorage bar scene isn’t dying, but it’s changing

Around lunchtime on a recent weekday in South Anchorage, the Long Branch Saloon was bustling. Most of the tables were full, tended by waitresses sporting tank tops and tattoos. Half a dozen people sat at the bar, where men ordered Budweiser on draft and brown liquor in shot glasses. Others played pool alongside a digital jukebox and wall-mounted signs for Miller Lite and Jack Daniels.

A typical dive with better-than-dive-bar food, this might not be the type of place you'd expect to boast an extensive craft beer selection. But soon, it will have just that.

To keep up with changing tastes, the Long Branch is on the verge of installing 14 new craft taps, all of them local, in addition to the Alaskan Amber, Midnight Sun IPA, Kassick's Dolly Varden Nut Brown, and others that are already alongside the big-brand domestic options.

"Our customers want more," said owner Glenn Kent, who goes by Junior. He calls the Long Branch a five-star dive bar.

The Long Branch is just one example of an Anchorage bar adapting to accommodate customers, who are more and more downing the craft brews.

Some other bars have died off. A longtime Spenard dive, the Carousel Lounge, shut its doors last month, with owner Christopher Cox citing sliding sales as well as personal health issues. In recent years, other well-established Anchorage bars that have closed include Blues Central, the Anchor, Rumrunners Old Towne Bar and Grill, and the Woodshed.

Some of that might be tied to the fact that more people — in Alaska and nationally — appear to be grabbing their booze at the liquor or grocery store and taking it home, instead of going out to drink.

Representatives from beverage distributors Odom Corp. and K&L Distributors said they've seen an upward trend for sales at off-premises liquor establishments (those are your liquor and grocery stores), as opposed to on-premises (bars).

Dave Brown, the Alaska beer brand manager for Odom, said at the end of April, 83 percent of the company's business went to liquor stores and other off-premises locations, up from 80 percent about 10 years ago, Brown said.

"People might go to a bar to have a Denali IPA on tap, but now they can go to Fred Meyer on Abbott (Road), get bread and milk and get a growler of IPA on tap," Brown said, "And they don't go to the bar anymore. There's a lot of shifting going on right now."

Craft beers in Alaska and elsewhere are now "huge," while sales of domestic brands, like Budweiser, have declined, Brown said. And one reason people might be drinking at home more often, he said, could be to avoid facing charges for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The openings of larger bars and entertainment complexes also bring challenges for longtime Anchorage dives.

"There's just more competition, and the dive bars are having a tough time," Brown said, citing the impending arrival of Dave & Buster's at the Dimond Center and the relatively new franchise — Hard Rock Cafe downtown.

Kent said the Long Branch used to sell 45 cases of Budweiser in a week, and now he goes through about 25 percent less, but sells far more drafts. And, increasingly, people are coming in to have a beer and food instead of to just hang out and drink.

Randy Waite, sales manager for K&L in Southcentral Alaska, said bars seeing an uptick in business are ones that also offer food. That might leave out some of the dives, which call up images of dingier locales, fewer options, and food offerings that often don't go beyond a popcorn machine.

"In general, over the past five years, there's been a general downward trend … in terms of volume of sales at dive bars," he said. "The off-premise is, in general, having a better trend in the past three, four years."

Frank Dahl, who owned Blues Central, said he's noticed people spending more money on one drink like a craft beer rather than multiple, cheaper drinks. He closed Blues Central so he could retire.

He said regulations are part of what makes it tougher to keep a hospitality business open in Anchorage, citing no-smoking rules and alcohol taxes.

A few years ago, an Anchorage Daily News analysis of state tax records showed after the biggest alcohol tax increase in state history, sales of most types of alcohol increased.

Dahl, along with Don Skewis, the previous owner of the Crossroads Lounge, bought the liquor license from the now-shuttered Carousel Lounge. They are "keeping our options open for what we want to do with it," Dahl said. He wouldn't give any details about what that might be.

If anything is symbolic of the "shifting" Brown mentioned, it's the trendier Brown Bag Sandwich Co. moving into the Third Avenue spot where karaoke dive bar the Woodshed used to be. Or that the speakeasy at the sleek new restaurant and music venue Williwaw is also called Blues Central, and uses the physical bar from the old Blues Central. You need a password to enter, and inside, vest- and bow tie-clad bartenders will serve you spendy Prohibition-era cocktails.

At Brown Bag, it costs $5 for a pint of Blue Moon, compared with $3 at the Gaslight, a dive bar just a few blocks away. Trendy Edison light bulbs hang from Brown Bag's basement ceiling. You can order specialty cocktails and hunker down in one of a few candlelit booths.

Vito Ungaro, who owned the Woodshed until it closed in 2013 and currently owns Vito's Auto Sales, said he just didn't want to be in the bar business after about 10 years.

"It used to be a lot of people downtown, and now, I don't see it at the bars," he said. "It slowed down."

The Washington Post recently reported that the trend of more neighborhood bars shutting their doors and being replaced by liquor stores is continuing at the national level, and Americans are going to their living rooms instead of the local watering hole to unwind with a drink.

"People are turning away from the dive bars," said Cox, who owned the Carousel since 2003. "Kind of going with the hip and trendy, and being safe with not drinking and driving, going where bars are concentrated downtown, taking cabs."

The bar scene is not altogether dead in Anchorage: on a Friday or Saturday night, it's easy to spot clusters of cabs waiting for people to trickle out of Williwaw and Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse across the street, which has about 50 tap handles and a huge selection of Alaska brews.

And across the state, the popularity of breweries is exploding as more and more open.

"I can say I have noticed the trend of more craft breweries and distilleries. That is a national trend," said Cynthia Franklin, director of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, in an email. "I do think that the culture around drinking and driving is slowly shifting in a positive way to DUI conduct being socially unacceptable."

But she hasn't noticed a spike in bars closing, and it's hard to know exactly how many bars have shut their doors recently in Anchorage because she said the state doesn't keep data on closures or license transfers.

Of the dive bars that haven't closed down, many are either adapting — like the Long Branch — or are benefiting from others shutting down.

John Pattee has owned the Gaslight, on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, since 1990. On a recent Thursday night, about a dozen people populated the establishment, one group threw darts and others lingered at the bar while a Rihanna song played. A Pabst Blue Ribbon banner hung in the back, and a staging area for a mechanical bull sat at the bar's center.

Pattee said the Gaslight's clientele has become more mainstream in the past few years, and he's getting more of what he calls the "traditional, downtown-type bar-hopping crowd." Tastes will always change, he said. You just have to be able to roll with it.

"People still like to go out, but late night bars are less prevalent, I guess," he said. "Some places are always hanging on by their fingernails."

Correction: This story initially said that Frank Dahl and Don Skewis had plans to open another bar in Anchorage. They purchased the liquor license from Carousel Lounge but said they do not have concrete plans for what to do with it yet.

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