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Talkeetna-based Denali Brewing Company is quietly booming

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 25, 2015

Expansion seems to be around every corner at the Denali Brewing Company. The Talkeetna-based craft brewery has been quietly booming for the past few years, and this summer is no exception for the Alaska business.

"This is kind of an exciting week for us," general manager and co-founder Sassan Mossanen said during a tour of the company's brewery on Friday. A fourth brewing vessel was being added to the row of shiny stainless steel equipment, which will allow the company to brew three batches of beer -- or 900 gallons -- at a time.

Walking around the facility, Mossanen pointed out new additions: new grain silos to be installed soon; a machine that assembles boxes purchased a few months ago; a new warehouse constructed last winter and another building coming soon.

Denali Brewing Company continues to expand at a dizzying pace. Mossanen compared the company's trajectory in the last six years to "putting your mouth up to a fire hydrant that's wide open."

Last year, based on self-reported numbers to the national Brewers Association, it became the second-largest beer producer in the state.

On Friday, an electrician was installing a computer system to bring the new brewing vessel on board with the rest of the equipment. Meanwhile, a handful of employees bustled around an assembly line, where cans of beer were being filled, sealed and cleaned, as rock music played in the background.

Standing on an elevated platform by the brewing vessels, brewery operations manager Brian Robison said that the company's operation is "not even comparable" to how it was a few years ago. "Everything that we're doing is on such a different scale," Robison said.

Constant growth

Since opening in downtown Talkeetna in 2009, the company has "never really stopped expanding," Mossanen said.

Originally located at its Denali Brew Pub restaurant in downtown Talkeetna, "it quickly became apparent" that the company would need more space, Mossanen said. In 2011, the company moved to a facility on Talkeetna's Spur Road.

Since then, the brewery has doubled its production every year, Mossanen said. Brewers Association numbers reflect that steep increase -- from 1,000 barrels in 2011, to 2,000 the next year and 4,000 barrels by 2013.

Each brewery self-reports the barrels produced per year. While the Brewers Association didn't receive the company's numbers for 2014, the barrels Mossanen reported would reflect a jump to the second-largest producer in Alaska, according to the association's chief economist Bart Watson. That means Denali Brewing Company barely surpassed Anchorage's Midnight Sun Brewing Company, Watson said.

Most of the company's beer is consumed in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley, Mossanen said. Perhaps not surprisingly, Talkeetna is the biggest consumer.

The company cans four different beers -- an India pale ale, golden ale, stout and red beer -- and keeps a variety of specialty beers on tap and bottled in limited editions.

Meanwhile, the company completed an expansion to the warehouse in February, where the company's original brewing equipment is now stationed.

Also in the second warehouse, specialty beer batches ferment in rows of oak barrels. Naturally occurring wild yeast present in the oak adds a unique flavor to the beer, Mossanen said, creating limited-edition beers such as the Louisville Sour, a blond ale with a bite. Another building will be constructed this summer on an empty plot behind the facility that will house the canning machine and towering palettes of empty cans now sitting in the warehouse.

Motioning to empty kegs and various pieces of equipment resting on a covered area outside the warehouse, Mossanen noted that there was "stuff piled up everywhere" due to a constant state of construction.

"Hopefully for a little while it'll alleviate that," Mossanen said of the new building.

All these expansions reflect the demand for beer in the Last Frontier.

Alaska's beer production is the fourth biggest in the nation per capita, Watson said. That makes sense, according to Watson, given the state's low population and the fact that it has a regional craft brewer, Juneau's Alaskan Brewing Company.

Alaska has 35 breweries registered with the Brewers Association, but Alaskan Brewing Company accounts for more than 75 percent of the beer produced in the state, Watson said. No other brewery comes close to reaching the barrels produced annually than the popular brand.

But the other breweries are still kept very busy. Alaskans favor beer with high alcohol content and strong flavors, Mossanen said, and he's trying to meet that preference.

Beyond the quality of beer, Mossanen said he takes pride in being one of Talkeetna's major employers, with 49 full-time employees and more seasonally. Local farmers re-use the company's spent grain, and he tries to contract locally as much as possible.

For Mossanen, Talkeetna is home. But in a sense, "you have to be crazy to brew at the end of the road," he said, referring to the Spur Road that dead-ends in the small Southcentral town.

Being in a relatively rural area presents challenges. If something breaks, there's no nearby contractor who can rush to the facility. All malt must be stored on-site, meaning that the company has to plan production months in advance.

While Mossanen is thankful for the company's success, he doesn't see it growing indefinitely. In the next five years, he hopes to halt its expansion.

"It's a stupid amount of work," Mossanen said of running the brewery.

But in the meantime, the company plans to start canning two more varieties of beers by the end of 2016.

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