History Lesson

Twenty Years of Great Northern Brewings

By John “Suds” Craig

As I wander deep in the woods in my bunny boots, the March winds are slapping me in the face at minus 20 below. With a ring in the air, a buzz and a vibration in my pants pocket, I throw off my mittens, unzip my parka, and un-flap the beaver hat flaps on my ears. I reach into my pocket to pull out my cell phone. On the other end is Steve Schmitt, president of the Great Northern Brewers Club (GNBC). After asking how I was, he asked me if I would write a short history on our homebrew club.

How could I resist? It made me warm all over, even excited, thinking about all of the good times over the last twenty years as a club member. “Sure, Steve, it will probably take me a month to do this in my spare time, but I’m more than happy to do it.”

Now it’s going on to the end of April and the snow is about gone, but Jewell Lake is still frozen and I still have a chance. I thanked the beer Gods that Steve gave me two of his smoke beers years ago. I think tonight is the night to crack them open, to get me started.

With this being the 20th Anniversary of the Club, I would like to raise a toast to a couple of key members. First there’s Dave Yanoshek. Then there’s me. There’s Gary Busse, Steve Baxter and lots of other beer lovers of the years. We are the oldest living GNBC dinosaurs in the club.

I’m not bragging, but in my old age, the wiser I’ve become, I’ve found myself to be a true connoisseur of beer. I have seen a lot of changes over the years, even before the club was founded. A fellow named Herb Brasseur was teaching people how to brew. He held classes at different Anchorage community schools. I took one of his classes at the Sand Lake School. The recipe we used was a lot different from the recipe my dad passed on to me but basically, what I learned is school is essentially the same method we homebrewers use today. It was of European style. Remember that we didn’t have microbrews back then and the beer was either from Europe or was mass produced in America. We also had a wine and beer brewing club in Anchorage back in 1980 and I went to a couple of the meetings. Their name was the Alaskan Fermenters and they held their meetings at Alaska Mill Feed and Garden Center, the same place Great Northern Brewers first started its meetings.

If anyone is interested in a May 19, 1980 newsletter of the Alaskan Fermenters, I have a copy that I can send you. I also have every GNBC Club Newsletter from Day one. That would be two hundred and forty issues in twenty years of great homebrewing.

I remember our early meetings in the Mill Feed and Garden warehouse trying to stay warm. We wore parkas, mittens, and bunny boots to keep from freezing. We wouldn’t be here today without Pat and Randy Oldenburg, the Club’s first presidents. They spent hours and hours bringing the club together. One of the highlights back then was fighting the State of Alaska. At the time, marijuana sales were illegal but it was okay to grow your own at home for personal use. Ironically, it was illegal to make beer. The state was not going to let our club set up a display at the annual Fur Rendezvous event. The club members were hot! We wrote and talked to our legislators to have this outdated law abolished. We won (see AS04.2I.015). At about the same time, we came up with our present club name and the logo that remained intact until it was redesigned last year.

Thinking about the last twenty years and explaining all the things that have happened, I could write a book about the club. We had meetings at the Oldenburg’s house for many years, then at the Brown Jug Warehouse. We held meetings at the Catholic Church on East 20th Ave off Muldoon Road. . That’s where I suppose I learned about the Beer Gods. Thank you Father Leo!

Some of our homebrewers ultimately turned professional including Mike Hartman, Shawn Wendling, Ken Pajak, Ray Hodge, Ike Kelly, S.J. Klein, Kevin Burton, Gary Busse and probably many more to come.

I do enjoy being with old and new friends at our brew club. We’ve had some crazy, wild times over the years. House parties, house, crawls, pub crawls, summer and winter camp outs, pot lucks and dancing around the camp fire or doing the chicken polka all come to mind. I would say we are a group of homebrewers that make damned good beer and have a good time doing it. I’m increasingly impressed with our recognition across the nation as a true homebrewing force in the United States. No matter what, we always have a great time doing it.

Our competitions include the Fur Rendezvous Homebrew Competition, the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company’s Annual Breakup Homebrew Competition, the Humpy’s Bigfish Homebrew Competition and the Alaska State Fair Homebrew Competition bring great exposure to our efforts and it’s always fun to be a beer judge or to volunteer by helping out. In the early days of our club, you even got extra points at judging if you used a cork-lined bottle cap. Even the beer dregs were an important part of judging. The empty bottle was held up to the light and the judge looked like he was looking into a pocket telescope, checking for runny or sticky bottom sludge. Times have certainly changed.
I could write about our club for hours sharing the good, bad and ugly beers over the years. Beer is my life. I was born and raised on it and have had some ups and downs with it, but it’s still with me until I leave Mother Earth. As I close with a Jade Street Smoke Beer, tonight I will dream about all the beers and club friends over the last twenty years. Remember, relax, don’t worry and have a homebrew!