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 must be added British Admiralty’s project in the same war for ship-borne brewing.

That story has been told numerous times, so I will tell a different one here. It has to do with 1930s Alaska and is another offbeat feature of that state’s brewing history, or history in general.

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

Craft brewing was different. Alaskan Brewery, formerly called Chinook Brewery, is an early modern craft founded in 1986 by the Larsons, who still run it. It does well, a success story sparked by its alder-smoked porter.

Brewing in post-1933 Alaska was sporadic. Bill Howell explained three breweries got off the ground. The first closed after only a year, the other two 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 proved finally impossible to get, which spelled the end for two firms still operating when Pearl Harbour occurred.

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



An interesting feature of PBC was its seaborne branch, on the ship Alumna. American and Australian press reports at the time highlighted this novelty.  A story in January 1935 (via Trove Newspapers) stated:

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 paper reported the Alumna was already in Ketchikan doing its good work. Ketchikan, at the southernmost tip of the state, is where PBC was based. It is not 100% clear to me but there may have been a land-based brewery, since Howell referred to a facility on Cliff Street in Ketchikan, and a branch on the Alumna.

I presume the Alumna brought in supplies for the land brewery but did some of PBC’s brewing. A Canadian resource on West Coast nautical heritage, The Nauticapedia, includes photos of the Alumna. It was built around 1900 as a four-masted vessel and was named for the owner’s daughter. 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. 2018.

This is the only reference I know to ownership of the floating brewery by PBC, but it connects to the other background. The pilsner sounds good, clearly all-malt, using noble (Saaz) hops.

How was beer on ship made? Possibly with malt extract, the Admiralty plan in WW II. Perhaps on the ship all-malt brewing took place if it was stationary while brewing and fermenting.

Press accounts explained that a floating brewery carried cost advantages. There was no need to buy land and fixed plant. Most of the cost to ship beer afar was avoided.

True, one had to buy and equip a ship, but once it was a travelling brewery, multiple branches were combined in one facility.

Today the idea should be revived, at least in certain areas. Apart from a few cruise ships that installed microbreweries, floating breweries do not exist today, to my knowledge, except maybe on permanently-berthed boats.

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, see Part II.




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