Brewery founders standing on top of the main brewing machine

Feature

Crafting Her Future

For a young couple bonded by a love of adventure and a decided lack of fear of the unknown, that was enough.
 
By Ron Wagner ’93

When Marcy Larson ’79 and her husband, Geoff, moved to Juneau in the early 1980s, they didn’t know Alaska hadn’t been home to a successful brewery since prohibition began in 1920. They did know, however, that the beer Geoff was making and sharing with their new friends was a hit, and they needed to figure out a way to support themselves.

“One of our friends said, ‘You know, you ought to start a brewery up here,’” Marcy remembers. “It wasn’t really anything we had planned to do, but then we thought, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea.’”Not everyone would have thought so, to say the least. But 35 years later, Alaskan Brewing Company has proven to be a very good idea, indeed. Its products can be found in 25 states, the Larsons employ 110 people, and the company is revered, alongside the likes of Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, as a pioneering trailblazer that fundamentally changed the industry by helping to clear a path for the more than 7,400 craft breweries in the country today.

A state-of-the-art tasting room is one of the newest additions to Alaskan Brewing.

“The whole attention on craft brewing brings attention to everybody,” Marcy says. “Now, suddenly, we’re part of a bigger movement.”

She is the first to admit she would have defined success on a much smaller scale when she took the money she’d saved to finalize her commercial pilot’s license and put it into starting a brewery. In fact, just convincing locals in Juneau to try craft beer was a hurdle when the Larsons and 12 volunteers packaged their first 253 cases of Alaskan Amber for sale in December of 1986.

“Now, suddenly, we’re part of a bigger movement.”– Marcy Larson

Alaskan Amber is based on a Gold Rush recipe Marcy discovered while reading historical records from the early 1900s. Geoff, a chemical engineering major, had become adept at brewing beer with his college buddies at the University of Maryland and was able to bring the flavor back to life. But as much as residents wanted to support their novel local brewery, taste buds accustomed to mass-produced, watery lagers were suspicious.

“People weren’t really interested in spending a whole lot of money on a fancy beer, as it was called,” Marcy says. “It took a while for people to get used to the flavorful craft beer taste, but we got people appreciating it. Patrons thought amber beers were dark beers, and we were like, ‘Well, just try it.’”

And once they did, word got around. Brewpubs weren’t legal in Alaska at the time, so Alaskan Brewing began as a packaging operation, and bottles of Alaskan Amber soon found their way to Seattle by way of fishing boats. That was the good news. The bad news was the brewery couldn’t handle the surge in demand.

“People were super-psyched about (Alaskan Amber), but then we were stuck because we didn’t have the production capacity to keep both the north and the south supplied in the summertime,” Marcy says. “We ran out a number of times in the lower 48, and, boy, it took another five years for those retailers to forgive us. We’ve been gun shy ever since about overstretching our capacity.”

Geoff and Marcy Larson in 1986, taking a break from painting the original 10-barrel brewing facility, which is still in use today. The company was originally known as Chinook Alaskan but became Alaskan Brewing in 1989.

Early years

Marcy grew up more than 4,000 miles from Juneau in Brandon, Florida, where she was such an accomplished backstroker that she was offered an athletics scholarship to swim at Furman. Initially planning to major in math, Marcy showed an early sign of the independence that would eventually lead her to The Last Frontier by deciding to major in photojournalism instead, even though Furman didn’t actually offer a photojournalism major.

Undeterred, she used Furman’s Individualized Curriculum Program (ICP) and the help of her advisor, the late Professor of Philosophy Thomas Buford, to create a path that worked.

“We love having other breweries here because there’s just a lot more empathy.”– Marcy Larson

“The most impactful thing was Dr. Buford. He was the one who came up with the ICP idea and how to put some things together that would keep me engaged,” Marcy remembers. “I did a lot of photo-taking during those years. I provided pictures to (The Paladin) and covered all the sports I could because I was a swimmer.”

Marcy also loved the outdoors and started hiking and working in Montana’s Glacier National Park during the summers before moving there after graduation, hoping “to take wonderful pictures and publish them and make a living that way.” That proved to be more of a challenge than she had anticipated, however, so Marcy used her aptitude for numbers to become a night auditor – and met Geoff.

“I fell head over heels in love with this young man who had been hitchhiking his way up to Alaska but ran out of money in Montana,” Marcy says. “The summer romance blossomed, and that’s what planted the seed for Alaska.”

A family of brewers

The Alaska Brew Crew in 2019.

Marcy’s goal to see all of Alaska was easy to set before she realized just how much there was to see. But while the vast, open landscape actually exceeded her expectations, it’s not why she never left.

“We have the ocean right here, but yet I have a glacier right in my backyard with a freshwater lake in between. I’ve got rainforests and the greenery of a mountainside that goes all the way up into the snowy peaks. The breathtaking beauty of Alaska is what got me here. What kept me here was the people of this state,” she says. “Because there are so a few of us, we’re not burned out. People have time to talk to you, to look you in the eyes and say hi. The people are just amazing.”For the first 10 years of its existence, Alaskan Brewing remained alone in the state. Now there are more than 40 breweries, which Marcy finds especially satisfying.

“I have to say, it’s so much nicer to have company now,” she says. “We love having other breweries here because there’s just a lot more empathy. They share the passion and understand the struggles. It just gives us so much more family.”

And family is how Marcy and Geoff continue to see Alaskan Brewing. They spent weeks traversing the state to land the 88 initial investors who allowed the company to launch.  Now plans are in the works to eventually shift ownership to employees through an employee stock ownership plan.

“We are turning over a lot of the dreams and the ideas to the younger group because those are the ones who are going to carry it to the next reiteration,” Marcy says. “You can’t just stand still. We need to be creative and nimble and thinking ahead.

We still have half the United States – including South Carolina – at their fingertips if they want to do that.”

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