Girdwood Brewing Company Almost Two Years Old
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
In mid-March 2017, Girdwood Brewing Company (GBC) opened its taps for thirsty customers for the first time. Today GBC is an established fixture in the community by creating a welcoming environment for locals and visitors to enjoy fresh beer, to have interesting conversations and to take in one of the best views in Girdwood.
After nearly two years of visits to the taproom, it was an enlightening experience to be given a tour of the back of the brewery where the beer is brewed. Though this area is visible from the taproom, there are fascinating facets hiding in plain sight until their details are explained.
The informative, insightful tour was given by Taproom Lead Paige Hvamstad and Taproom Attendant Victoria Belser, and both are certified tour guides for GBC. A tasting of Hot Tub Party, a New England India Pale Ale, began the tour in the taproom. The Hot Tub recipe is the exact same as GBC’s flagship beer No Woman No Cryo, with one significant difference in technique that completely changes the flavor. Hot Tub is brought up to the pasteurization temperature of 170 degrees F. and no more, yielding different flavors and texture.
“This Hot Tub is our newest recipe,” Belser said. “It’s the exact recipe of the Cryo, but the difference is we never brought it to a boil. It allows the hops to play a different note. It still has a tropical, sweet flavor like the Cryo. Because it was never brought to a boil, it has super low bitterness, a really light color and a pillowy, fluffy mouth feel. It’s an oatmeal based New England IPA recipe.”
To celebrate Hot Tub’s initial release, it was infused in a firkin; a five-gallon vessel that is placed on top of the bar for service. To compliment Hot Tub’s tropical hop profile, pineapple chunks, coconut flakes and lactose were added to create the infusion that presented the flavor of a pina colada.
Setting the tap into the firkin adds to the excitement of the moment. “One of us taps it with a mallet and a tap,” Belser said. “It explodes a little bit. It’s always a fun, fresh way to taste our beers. Every time I drink a Hot Tub, I think of the pina colada version.”
The next sample was a glass of Cryo, which offered an interesting contrast in flavors to the Hot Tub. The Cryo is juicy and hoppy yet balanced without being assertive. It’s a smooth, easily drinkable IPA that appeals to people who ordinarily do not like the style as well as those who do.
Hvamstad described the Cryo saying, “We use this word a lot: crushable. It doesn’t taste like it’s 7.5 percent, that’s for sure.”
“When it’s super fresh and you can see the color too, we think of it as a beer-mosa, orange juice with beer because it looks like straight orange juice, and it’s juicy and sweet,” Belser added. “We also refer to it as a gateway IPA because a lot of people think they don’t like IPAs because of the assertive bitterness of the classic West Coast style, they are able to ease into it because the bitterness isn’t as assertive.”
Then the tour proceeded to the brewing room. GBC uses a sophisticated, contemporary brewing system specifically designed for the space available. All of the brewing equipment was selected or customized to work efficiently within a tight space. Though GBC began with three 20-barrel fermenter tanks, it now has six, which are needed to keep up with the constant demand.
To make more efficient use of space, a combination mash tun and lauter tun is used. This equipment is where crushed grain is mixed with hot water to create wort, steep it and filter it before draining it into the brew kettle.
The crushed grain and hot water enter the mash tun at the same time and need to be mixed by hand to ensure uniform saturation to release the sugars for the yeast to eat. Standing next to the mash tun is a large, shiny metal paddle with holes in the blade as well as a set of insulated gloves to hold the hot handle while stirring the wort.
“My favorite part about this mash tun is it’s a 10-barrel system,” Belser said, “which is probably the biggest system you can have where it’s still okay to stir it by hand. The guys are up there every batch of beer, stirring it by hand. Sometimes they’ll have one of us do it. It’s like 180 degrees of rising steam in your face. It’s like a hot yoga session in the morning. It uses a lot of core muscles.”
Next up was the brite tank, a carbonation vessel where the beer sits for about 24 hours. It also has a small tap near the bottom to pour fresh beer for tasting samples during the process to see how the beer is coming along.
“It is one of my favorite pieces of equipment on the side of the vessel,” Belser said. “It’s a little tap, and it’s one of the perks of being here. You get to taste the freshest beer on tap. That’s just the way you sample it to make sure it is well carbonated.”
The final stop was the cool room, where kegs are transferred after being filled from the brite tank. All of the bar’s taps on the other side of the wall are connected by hoses to kegs. Yeast and hops and other ingredients such as apricot puree to be used in a future sour beer, firkins are kept here.
If you are interested in a tour, customers can request a tour date for a group of people ranging from 2 to 20 people, costing $20 per person. Visitors will sit down with a tour guide for a beer talk and tasting of a flight or a glass. Then visitors learn about the brewing process and receive stickers with a commemorative glass that is different from current glassware for sale.
“We want to bring people into the beer world where they find that they understand it more and find what they love,” Belser said. “That’s why there are so many different styles of beer, because there are so many types of people. We do this because we want to educate people about our beer, about beer around the world and have them get a better understanding of what they are drinking.”
After the tour, the Gazette caught up with Co-owner and Brew Engineer Rory Marenco, whose twin brother Brett holds the same titles.
“My brother and myself have given ourselves the title of Brew Engineers because we came from an engineering background. We design the beers and then build them,” Marenco said.
With the current cold storage unable to keep up with the demand for fresh beer, there are plans to expand the brewery this summer with additional cold storage space.
“Right now we’re brewing twice a week,” Marenco said. “This summer, that will increase to three of four times a week. Right now one of the limiting factors is our cold storage.”
Marenco is looking to keep six taps flowing with some special beers along the way.
Space Tornado IPA was brewed before and had a pretty good following, so he wants to offer it again soon.
“It’s an IPA we did previously,” Marenco said, “and it has galaxy hops, which is one of the most popular hops right now. We’re going to release that for our second birthday coming up in a few weeks.”
Three other special beers that will join in the rotation eventually are Girdwood Reserve, a Woodford bourbon barrel aged imperial stout, and Rhue Hefner, a rhubarb hefeweizen for summer. Marenco said there will probably be a pilsner as well. He appreciates having the freedom and curiosity to experiment by brewing a variety of beers that do not necessarily conform to standardized style definitions
“We don’t really brew true to style,” Marenco said. “We look at the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines for beer styles. With some of ours, we have to finagle them to fit into any one style. It’s what I enjoy about brewing. It’s kind of like a culinary experience. It’s just tweaking the recipe a little bit to change the flavor profile.”
Marenco said the best part of their business model is they get instant feedback from customers and employees rather than a beer sitting on a shelf for a few months and reading an online review about it. He also pointed out how he appreciated the effect GBC has had on the community.
“We saw the need in Girdwood, a ski town without a brewery,” Marenco said. “There’s a huge tourism base too. For me, it’s about living where I work and loving what I do for work. All of the stars aligned for us to create Girdwood Brewing Company when it came about. I’d like to thank the community for the support. We’re stoked that everybody is enjoying it so much.”