One of the first things you’ll notice as you approach 49e State Brewery is the crowd of people thronging the large, fenced-in dirt yard around several fire pits and picnic tables. Distressed Carhartt pants and faded flannel shirts seem to be the clothes of choice, and plenty of dogs of all shapes and sizes are walking around. The parking lot is filled with dented trucks, SUVs and other utility vehicles, most of them bearing the scars of the harsh lives the vehicles endure in this far north. Inevitably, visitors notice the rusty old bus with faded green paint sitting on one side. It’s a popular place for selfies and appears in many people’s social media feeds. That’s because his bus featured prominently in Jon Krakauer’s book and movie “Into the Wild”.
When you ask 49th State co-founder David McCarthy about the bus, he enthusiastically explains why he thought it had to be part of his setup. “It’s not the real one but the cue used in the movie. We thought we should have it here; we kind of relate to its story,” he said. “He has dedicated his life entirely to something and has given everything. It is very unique in Alaska. So many people come to live here and do it every day. Life can be difficult here. Unfortunately, he (Chris McCandless) paid the ultimate price for his adventure, but he’s gone for it.That’s how we feel about 49th State, we’re going to challenge ourselves and hopefully that makes us successful. If not, at least we tried. ”
This mentality has propelled 49e State Brewery through expansive growth and has positioned them for success in the future as tourism slowly returns to Alaska.
When McCarthy and his partner Jason Motyka first decided to open their brewery in 2010 in the small town of Healey, Alaska, most people hadn’t planned big things for them. The city of 1,100 people just outside of Denali National Park and Preserve was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Fairbanks is 130 miles north and Anchorage 248 miles south, and the park’s peak tourist season only lasts the short summer in Alaska from May through September. The rest of the time the neighborhood was quiet.
Their decision to open in Healey was based on their knowledge of the town, where they both lived. Both men owned the popular Salmon Bake and Prospector Pizzeria and Ale House in the nearby village of Denali, where they saw customers asking for craft beer. Something that was still in its infancy in Alaska in the early 2000s when the few breweries there were in the state were located near the coast.
“It was our proof of concept; people were buying all the beers we brought, ”says McCarthy. “We knew that if we made something uniquely in Alaska, the community would embrace it. So we raised enough funds and opened with a small half-barrel system in a converted bus depot building. From the moment we started pouring beer, we couldn’t meet the demand. ”
Brewing a wide range of beers designed to appeal to any drinker, news of their business grew quickly, aided by the drafts poured into their other two businesses. Their business grew and they opened a second location in Anchorage in 2016, followed by a production brewery there. Part of the decision to expand was driven by the unique nature of manufacturing in Alaska, where most goods originate from out of state, resulting in high shipping costs that impact the results.
“The cost of products is huge here. Nothing is cheap, especially as far away as we were,” says McCarthy. “We had to focus on economies of scale when necessary because the cost of manufacturing in such a remote area is even more difficult than in Fairbanks or Anchorage. The reason is that most of the products we buy literally pass us by. They have to cross the wharf at Fairbanks and get off. Even UPS and FedEx didn’t ship to us directly. If we could cut those costs by brewing in Anchorage, then we knew we should. ”
The other reason is that their brewery closed in the winter to keep costs down. It was a seasonal activity. Opening another location was in their plan from day one. It just took them six years to find the right place and not expand too much to open it.
When the pandemic hit, it could have been synonymous with disaster for 49e State. They were in the midst of a vast remodel and expansion of their original location, significantly expanding their dining room, bar and outdoor space. In addition, they were modernizing parts of their brewing facility to add barrel aging capabilities and the ability to stay open year round. This was on top of the shutdown of their other businesses and the abrupt end to all forms of tourism. But true to their form, they have decided to look to the future.
“We decided to expand this because Healey is the home port, the center of our brand. So the decision to expand was not based on the population here; it was based on overall community support for 49e State that we received from day one, ”says McCarthy. We thought if we built something iconic we could create demand based on filling a bigger restaurant and pub. We were not going to go back on that commitment.
They quickly turned to packaging their beers for sale to meet demand during shutdowns, something they rarely did before. A full canning line was added to their production facility and packaged beer was sold on the doorstep of both their breweries. This led them to decide to work with a distributor to make their beers available throughout Alaska, and they are in talks with a large chain to start shipping beer out of state.
If the enthusiastic crowds filling 49e Status are an indication of what the future holds; things look good. By adopting a forward-thinking attitude backed by a supportive community, they have come through one of the most difficult years in craft beer history. Their decision to open in the middle of the wilderness and brew beer paid off and made it one of the most popular brands of beer in the frozen north.