The secret to brewing great beer may not be glamorous, but Skagway brewer Joel Probst can sum it up in three words: "Sanitation, sanitation, sanitation.”
Probst, the project manager and brewer at Klondike Brewery in Skagway, said that sanitation helps in the elimination of impurities that can affect the flavor and quality of beer.
That’s why Skagway Brewery closes for the year in September and then the entire brewhouse gets the once-over.
"At the end of the season we’ll shut down and change everything,” he said. "Then it’s back to production. The ingredients have to be fresh. That’s very important, too. But it’s very important to have a sanitation protocol at the brewery. It’s quality over quantity.”
Klondike Brewery specializes in barrel-aged beers, which are known for their richness, as well as seasonal beers. But the variety of beers is what makes Klondike special. Probst is always experimenting with new brews, and he’s hoping to brew new types of beer this year.
"My goal is to brew a pilsner,” he said. "I would also love to produce a light beer for Southeast Alaska. It’s not something many breweries are doing. I’m hoping to produce a dry, light beer for people to enjoy in the summer, something perfect for the beach, the boat, the woods.”
"But we’re not going to just do a couple of beers and stick with them. The industry is constantly changing. There are new ideas, new innovations that are constantly evolving. It’s the big guys that give us the ability to be creative in the craft sector. They spend millions on research and development, and we’re able to take that knowledge and expand on it. It’s a launch pad that truly allows for innovation in the craft beer industry.”
Probst is not just a brewer, he’s a student of the history of brewing. Not that it started out that way. Like many people, he always enjoyed beer without thinking much about the brewing process. But now he loves the science of brewing, especially the data side and being able to track the brewing process
"Brewing in general is an ancient art,” he said. "Beer is what got nomadic man to settle down. It’s been around forever and it was something I always was associated with after years of enjoying the benefits, but I never appreciated it.”
The brew house at Klondike Brewery has seven barrels. At 31 gallons a barrel, Probst brews about 200 gallons this season. Klondike Brewery will have nine beers on tap, and Probst hopes to brew all year-round in 2019.
As an experienced brewer, Probst is hesitant to name his favorite beer.
"I like all beers,” he said. "There are very few beers I dislike. Maybe ‘crushers,’ light beer in a can.”
Of course, as the old joke goes, his favorite beer is "free.” But when pressed he says his true beer love is what he calls, the "Ken Grossman classic, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”
As for the brewing process, he said lagers and pilsners are difficult to make because "you’re dealing with a palate that’s much clearer, so you can’t hide your mistakes. All those flavors come up. If you have a porter, a much more robust brew, you can hide your mistakes.”
Probst admires the large brewers and how they are able to manage quality control.
"The fact of what they’re doing at the scale is incredible,” he said. "The fact that they can brew beer anywhere on the planet and it tastes exactly the same no matter where you are is an incredible feat. What they’re doing on that scale is incredible.”
Still, the advances made by the big brewers have also helped smaller craft brewers like Klondike Brewery, he said.
"The craft scene isn’t new, but even when you look at how long the brewing industry has been around it’s maturing and in Alaska it’s really growing,” he said.”There are all kinds of opportunities to get into the industry.”
Probst is especially proud of the independent brewers and distillers in Skagway. He said Skagway’s reputation for craft beer is growing, and he isn’t shy about promoting it.
"People should know that the craft sector in Skagway is strong,” he said. "There’s Skagway Brewing Company, for example, and if you like what’s going on here you’ll definitely like what’s going on there. There’s also Skagway Spirits, a local distillery. There’s definitely a strong independent scene in Skagway that’s very exciting.
"There are three of us you can enjoy during a day and not have over-served yourself. We feel very strongly about what they’re doing, and we urge people to support them, too.”
The brewery itself is a place where people from all over gather and enjoy their favorite brew. Probst describes the place this way: "It’s all about coming over and hanging out and telling your story,” he said. "It’s a celebration of life, and it’s exciting to see people come in from all over the place.”