Alaska’s Seaborne Brewery (Part I)

I discussed earlier British Rail’s pub on wheels, and the British Army’s mobile brewery units of WW II. To these moveable feasts must be added the Admiralty’s project during the same war to launch ship-borne breweries.

This story has been told numerous times. I will tell a different one here, but for the lowdown on HM’s ship breweries, the late Fred Eckhardt’s account is my favourite, mainly because he actually drank the beer brewed. He was a youthful U.S. Marine in the Pacific and the war had just ended.

British Royal Marines stationed nearby told him of the ship brewery. He remembered the dark colour and warmish temperature of the beer, and that he drank it “with pleasure”.

There is a Canadian connection as well, as the ship that carried the brewery, the Menestheus, was outfitted in Vancouver. It was apparently the only ship that actually brewed beer under the wartime plan. Read Fred for the rest.

Another ship-borne brewery pertains to an earlier period, the 1930s and Depression. It has to do with Alaska and is yet another offbeat aspect of that state’s brewing history.

In more recent times we have the failed Prinz Brau venture, 1976-1979, a true pre-craft tragedy. Bill Howell in his book Alaska Beer has a good account of its fortunes. An all-malt German beer made in Alaska didn’t “take” for a variety of reasons, among them branding, labour troubles, and feisty competition from down south. Maybe the German owners were just ahead of their time, as for the Henninger venture in Ontario.

Alaskan Brewery, formerly Chinook Brewery, is an early modern craft brewery founded in 1986 by the Larson couple (they still run it). It continues to do well, a success story in part sparked by its alder-smoked porter.

Brewing in early post-Repeal Alaska was sporadic. Bill Howell explains that three breweries got off the ground. The first closed after only a year of operation, the other two closed in 1942-1943. Alaska, as he put it, was on the front lines of a Pacific war due to the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians. Raw materials for brewing proved finally impossible to get, which spelled the end for the two still operating at war’s start.

The more successful of these was Pilsener Brewing Co. (PBC) of Ketchikan whose stylish ad* is pictured below (source: Alaska States Archives, see here).

An interesting feature of PBC was a seaborne branch, on the ship Alumna. The American and Australian press reported at the time on what seemed a novelty. A story in January 1935 (via Trove Newspapers, Australia) states:

Called the world’s floating brewery, the remodelled sailing vessel, Alumna, may set a new style in beer-making methods in America. Originallv a Pacific lumber carrier, but forced off the sea by competition of tramp steamers, the old craft has just been returned to service—this time as a complete manufacturing plant for beer, with a capacity of 250 half-barrels daily. A deck house was built forward to provide storage space for the raw materials and for the finished product; while 14 fermenting vats of 100-barrel-capacity each were installed in the hold. Present plans call for the beer ship to be towed along the Alaskan coast, making beer as it goes, and selling it at every port. Smaller boats will also distribute the product to fishing fleets and isolated settlements.

Three months earlier a San Bernardino, California newspaper reported the Alumna was already in Ketchikan doing its good work. Ketchikan, at the southernmost coastal tip of the state, is where PBC was based. It is not 100% clear to me but I think there was both a land-based brewery, as Howell refers to a facility on Cliff Street in Ketchikan, and the one on the Alumna. I presume the Alumna brought supplies for the land brewery but did some brewing on ship as well to service isolated communities.

A Canadian site devoted to West Coast nautical heritage, The Nauticapedia, includes a number of photos of the Alumna. It was built around 1900 as a four-master and named for the owner’s daughter who had just graduated from school. States Nauticapedia:

In 1934 she was reduced to one mast and converted to a floating brewery for Pilsner Brewing Co. of Ketchikan AK. She was later converted to a floating fish processor.

(Source: MacFarlane, John M. and Douglas MacFarlane (2018) The Schooner / Barge Alumna. Nauticapedia.ca 2018. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Alumna.php).

This is the only reference I’ve seen to ownership of the floating brewery by PBC, but it all ties in with the rest of the background. The pilsner described in the ad sounds very good, clearly all-malt, using noble hops.

How was the beer on ship made? Possibly with malt extract, which was the Admiralty plan in WW II and probably too, I’m now thinking, for the army truck breweries in Burma.

Press stories on the Alumna explained that a floating brewery carried good cost advantages. There was no need to buy land and fixed plant and most of the cost to ship beer afar was avoided. True, you had to buy and equip a ship, but then it was a travelling brewery – multiple branches in effect in the one facility.

Today, with breweries under pressure everywhere, perhaps the idea should be revived, at least in certain areas. Apart from a few cruise ships that have installed microbreweries no floating breweries exist today to my knowledge, excepting perhaps on permanently-tethered ships.

As so often, the past had lots of things figured out.

We will return to floating breweries: the East Coast had them too, before the Alumna.

Note re image above: Image is used for educational and historical purposes and was sourced from the link provided in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed. 

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.

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*The design values of the ad (excepting the name of the beer) seem at odds with the agrestic, outdoors image of Alaska, but there we have it.