Mike Healy started out in Skagway making smoothies.
Now he specializes in smooth beers. And bitter ones.
Healy, of Skagway, former owner of Glacial Smoothies and Espresso, is now owner of The Skagway Brewing Company, which he said is tied for the title of smallest brewery in Alaska. But, he might argue, it is also among the most popular.
“We have a little four-barrel system that creates 124 gallons of beer at a time,” he said. “When we first opened capacity problems never crossed our mind. We thought there would be plenty of fermentation space and tank space. Within three years we had outgrown our brewing capacity. That forced us to step up our game a little bit. We became more efficient in our brewing process but we still cannot entirely keep up with demand.”
As a result of the demand, Healy plans to build a new “brewery/pub/restaurant” in Skagway and open it by 2019 with a 10-barrel system that will significantly increase capacity. The new pub will include an indoor hydroponic garden for greens for the restaurant.
Healy and brewer Trevor Clifford brew nine different ales, but during the summer they only brew Chilkoot Trail IPA, Boom Town Brown, Blue Top Porter and Spruce Tip Blonde Ale, although they keep other, non-Skagway Brewery beers on tap, including the popular Alaskan Amber, from Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company.
“We do one batch of amber a year ourselves just to remember how to do it,” he said. “Typically in a year’s time we make nine different ales.”
Skagway, he said, attracts thousands of visitors every day in the summer, but many have never been exposed to craft beers such as the ones he brews and serves. So Healy offers an “introductory beer,” Spruce Tip Blonde, that is “not too complex.”
“By doing that, we think we’re converting people to craft beer,” he said. “Our Spruce Tip Blonde, well, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like that beer. It has citrus notes with raspberry undertones. It doesn’t taste like a pine tree, like people might think.”
Spruce Tip outsells all of their other beers four-to-one, he said, adding that he and his staff go out and pick new growth on spruce trees every spring for use in the brewing process for Spruce Tip. “It changes the nature of the beer entirely,” due to the freshness of the ingredients, he said.
Not only is the spruce an important part of the Alaskan landscape, it is also a natural source of Vitamin C. Early explorers in the area such as Captain James Cook and his crew fermented spruce not only as beer but as a way to fight scurvy.
Another popular brew is the Boom Town Brown Ale, which Healy calls “our biggest converter.”
“When they taste our brown ale, people say, ‘Wow is that smooth!’” Healy said.
Healy got his start in brewing after arriving in Skagway in 2002 for what turned out to be a permanent vacation. He had been working in construction in Arizona when he got laid off and he decided to take a road trip to Alaska.
“We planned on seeing more of Alaska but we stayed in Skagway the whole time,” he said. “We thought it was the greatest place on earth. That vacation is lasting.”
He said he had always wanted to go into business for himself and spotted a flatbed truck loaded with brewing equipment from the original Skagway Brewery along the White Pass. Having been exposed to home brewing about 18 years prior, he had become interested in craft brews.
“Seeing that equipment got the wheels turning,” he said. “I had been doing some home brewing, and everything just came together. I decided ‘this is what I want to do.’”
But Healy has no aspirations other than being a local establishment where locals and tourists can gather and enjoy good beer and food.
“Our goal, and I think we’ve succeeded, is just to become a neighborhood pub with a brewing site and fresh beer available,” Healy said. “We see ourselves as a social hub in the evening when the tourists are gone, and during the winter when most of the other restaurants in town close.”
According to Healy, Skagway itself prides itself on its palate. Not necessarily as a beer town, but as a foodie town, he said.
“I wouldn’t describe Skagway as a beer town, but I would say it’s a flavorful town,” Healy said. “The food options in Skagway are just as good as in (much larger) Juneau. It’s a foodie town, and good food goes right along with good beer.
“There’s a sense of pride here you don’t find in many other places. The restaurant owners don’t just want to make money, they want to showcase their flavors. At the brewery we pride ourselves in our kitchen. Nearly everything is made from scratch. That sets us apart from the typical fare.”
Healy is no beer snob — “I’ll drink a Hamm’s if I’m out mowing the lawn,” he said, referring to a rather pedestrian St. Paul, Minnesota-based brew ”born in the land of sky blue waters.” But if you press him for a favorite he would say it’s usually a beer that’s out of season and unavailable.
“In the summertime we generally just keep four of our beers going,” he said. “My favorite beer honestly switches. In the summer it’s usually one of the beers I can’t get. Right now I’m missing our Prospector Pale Ale, which has a nice, citrusy flavor. It’s delicious.”
The Yankton, South Dakota native loves Skagway not only for its it foodie nature but for its open attitude and its amiable atmosphere.
“One of the reasons I settled down in Skagway is that it has a friendly attitude that reminds me of South Dakota,” he said. “I believe South Dakota is the friendliest place in the world. Skagway is right behind it.”