Op-Ed: Alaska Beer Week Celebrates Alaska Small Business

Alaskans like to work hard and play hard -- and sometimes there is a market waiting to be tapped where the two overlap. Case in point, Alaska’s thriving small brewing scene: a great example of Alaskan small business success.

One of the little known facts about our state’s economic picture is that we currently have 22 licensed breweries making high-quality craft beer, from Sitka to Silver Gulch, and I understand there are another eight in the works to be built and developed -- even in Hoonah! In the middle of a sluggish economic recovery, breweries are a growth industry for Alaska, capped off by the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival In some ways, this weekend’s event is like the Olympics of Beer -- the best from all corners of the country come to compete, and our Alaska beers show that they are more than up to the competition. I hope to be able to personally have the honor of handing out some medals to Alaska brewers this weekend.

Empowering Alaska’s beer success stories -- and similar small business enterprises in the Lower 48 -- is why I serve as co-chair of the Senate Brewers Caucus. My colleagues and I on the caucus believe that we should eliminate needless regulatory impediments that prohibit small business owners from producing a great product creating jobs and instilling a sense of local pride in our communities. I have visited breweries across the state, asking them about the challenges they face, and about what impacts them and their operations.
So far, I have visited and learned from the people at HooDoo in Fairbanks, Kodiak Island Brewing Company, Haines Brewing Company, Alaskan Brewing Company, Baranof Brewing Company in Sitka, and Talkeetna’s Denali Brewing Company, along with a few others. I obviously have more visits to make with great breweries all over Alaska -- and I’m looking forward to meeting them.

These 22 breweries (and counting) around the state are not just breweries, they are employers, job creators, manufacturers, and innovators. These businesses are committed to their communities and giving back. This is the heart and soul of the American small business spirit, and a big part of why I’m committed to protecting against unnecessary overregulation of our small businesses.

Talking to these small and craft brewers about the daunting task of competing with international conglomerates is what led me to co-sponsor the Small BREW Act last year, to help them write off some startup costs and cut taxes on their first qualified barrels of production. Helping these businesses helps their communities -- the money they save goes right back into the local economy through purchases, expansion or hiring more staff.

We talk a lot about "government overreach" on Capitol Hill, but there was a recent ridiculous example that raised the blood pressure of brewers statewide. A regulation proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would have forbidden the practice of breweries donating their spent grain to farms to feed livestock unless they could prove that they were fit for consumption by animals or have them dried and treated to the government’s liking – an expensive proposition. Yes, that’s right. The FDA was saying that the brewers would have to prove that the grains they’d already used to brew beer for us to drink was suitable and safe for animals to eat. Thankfully, I was able to work with my Senate Brewers Caucus Democratic Co-Chair Ron Wyden to lessen the impacts of this new proposed regulation on our small operators.

Also, I just recently became Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and I plan to share stories of the first-of-its-kind “Beer Powered Beer” technology being used at the Alaska Brewing Company in Juneau to keep energy costs down by using spent grain remains to power their operations.
On Capitol Hill, we like to point out that states are the laboratories of democracy, where new ideas and laws are tested -- with the best ones rising to the top. In Alaska, our breweries are the laboratories of innovation and community identity, where creativity and commerce are coming together to create some of the best ales and lagers you can drink in the world.

This week, I hope to see many of you celebrate this success story with me responsibly at the Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival in Anchorage. Cheers!