MAKing It: Becoming Homer’s Brewery

SPONSORED: The owners of Homer Brewing Company say keeping the business local has been key to its success.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

It’s a bargain familiar to many Alaskans: One year. Karen Berger and Stephen McCasland were going to give Homer one year.

But as Alaskans know, that’s rarely how it goes.

One year turned into 30. Today, Berger and McCasland not only still call the coastal town home but also have created a staple business in the community: Homer Brewing Company, a local outfit that’s set out to be, above all else, just that.

“I always like to say, we’re a thread in the fabric of Homer,” Berger said.

It started in a basement

Today Alaska boasts a patchwork of local breweries and taprooms, from Homer to Fairbanks, Sitka and Kodiak, and every major town in between.

That wasn’t the case in 1996. Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company was just a decade old. A handful of commercial operations were budding in Anchorage. But on the Kenai Peninsula, commercial brewing was uncharted territory.

Berger and McCasland, just a few years fresh from Seattle, were running a hotel in the small town.

“By then, we were looking for a way to stay here,” said Berger, who always wanted to start her own business. “We were looking for a way to make a living and stay in Homer.”

They found it in the basement of what’s now Homer’s Bunnell Street Art Center, through a homebrewers’ cooperative in the 1990s that spawned a healthy batch of professional brewers.

During this time, Berger, McCasland and co-owner Lasse Holmes built up their brewing chops. With a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the trio started leasing an old garage on Homer Spit Road.

“It wasn’t necessarily pretty, or functional in the beginning,” Berger said. “But we did what it took” to get started.

Homer Brewing Company opened Sept. 21, 1996. Holmes left the company in 2000 to pursue other interests, and since then, Berger and McCasland have run the business together.

Hop to it

How did they know Homer was ripe for a brewery? Berger said she could just tell.

And she was right.

In the first week, Homer Brewing sold out its entire keg supply and had to close for several days to stock back up. The owners were cracking all their grain by hand, brewing and selling as much as they could produce.

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At night, the co-owners scrubbed the floors of municipal buildings to pay their personal bills while they poured their money into the brewery.

“We always laughed that we had the keys to the city,” Berger said.

They didn’t need that additional income stream for long.

Less than a year after they opened their doors, the brewers turned in their city keys and started living off the revenue they brought in from the brewery.

“We were loved to death in the very beginning,” Berger said.

With hard times brewing, community support keeps business afloat

The brewery has been open for more than a quarter-century. But there is an asterisk — five years in, the business had to temporarily close its doors when it got a fax from their then-landlord, giving them a month to vacate the location.

Berger remembers that day vividly.

“Before we even knew what was going on, I started driving around town, looking for a building,” Berger said.

Luckily, they quickly found a space they liked. But the owners needed financing, then and there.

Just a few hours after she got the fax, Berger walked into the branch manager’s office at First National Bank Alaska’s Homer Branch.

“I need $250,000, and I need it right now,” she told them. “And there was never a hitch. They were incredibly supportive.”

Berger said that was the bedrock of her trust with First National — one she’s kept up through her own personal banking, as well as through the process of securing relief funds during the pandemic.

“I felt like that was such a vote of confidence that they gave us,” she said. “It’s just reassuring to know that I feel like First National has our back. If we need something, they will come through for us.”

Erik Niebuhr, the current Homer branch manager, said the story lives in local First National lore. He said it’s a great example of why having a foundation of understanding between bank and customer is crucial — and how a local bank can understand what community members need.

But after securing the loan for the building, they faced a new and unrelated wrinkle in the process: an issue with the building sale.

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On Cinco de Mayo 2001, a few days after they had cleared out of their first rental space, Berger and McCasland brainstormed next steps over margaritas at a Mexican restaurant in Homer — and with this new hurdle in front of them, they considered leaving Alaska.

“I remember people coming up to us, saying, ‘When are you going to re-open? When are you going to re-open?’ It was the push that really buoyed us along,” she said. “‘Cause I was thinking, ‘Let’s pack up our bags, let’s go back to Seattle. It has been a good run.’”

They pushed forward with the building purchase and overcame the sale issues. With the loan secured, they got the keys to the new building and immediately started working.

“Boy, did we work,” Berger said. “We started scrubbing the fish scales off the floor — literally, with a wire brush.”

Homer Brewing was back in business just three months later.

Cup runneth over

Splayed across the east side of Cook Inlet, jutting into the halibut- and salmon-dense waters of Kachemak Bay, Homer is both an Alaska fishing town and tourism hub, ballooning to several times its size in the summer months. Year-round visitors would be hard pressed to find a bounty of local eateries open past Labor Day.

But any time, Homerites can grab a glass of cold beer at the warm, homey taproom on Lake Shore Drive.

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“It’s not easy in the wintertime. That’s not when you make your money,” Berger said. “But the doors are open.”

Berger and McCasland support and donate beer, merchandise, and time to many local nonprofits for their fundraising efforts. They sell cask-conditioned beer — “Fresh, Traditional Country Ales,” as their slogan suggests — to restaurants and bars in Homer, and Homer only.

“They self-distribute to pretty much every bar in town,” said Cinda Martin, a First National loan officer. “There’s a list on their counter of at least 15 restaurants and bars that they distribute to. It really put them on the map.”

In the early years, the brewery sold their beer up and down the road system. But when they had the means to cut back, they did.

That was always a goal of theirs — to be Homer’s brewery.

“To me, that means they’re comfortable in their own space,” Niebuhr said. “They don’t use distributors, which is uncommon for a brewery that’s gained some size and notoriety. They’ve purposely kept it small. Just a solid, small-town business that represents the community.”

Like any small business at the end of the road, Berger and her “dream team” trio of brewers have grappled with supply chain issues and shutdowns during the pandemic.

Berger proudly added, “Staffing has never been an issue in these uncertain times. Our crew has stood by us as we figured it out.”

One leg of their business that propped them up through it all was their Zen and Alaska Chai business — an Indian spiced tea concentrate Homer Brewing makes using a proprietary spice blend originally from Jodhpur, India. It’s the brewery’s only product that gets shipped out beyond Homer, widely sold throughout Anchorage-area stores and coffee shops, as well as sold by coffee outlets in Homer.

Largely, she credits the love from the community for the brewery’s enduring success.

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Since that first week in business, the community of Homer has shown Berger and McCasland the same loyalty and commitment they’ve given to the area.

“This town is so supportive,” Berger said. “I’ve met everyone’s visiting friends and relatives. They may not be a customer, particularly, but if they have people visiting, they’re going to bring them to the brewery.”

At the end of the day, it’s what allows Homer Brewing to keep their business tiny — and mighty.

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.