Originally published in the Anchorage Press.
As a lover of craft beer, Bryan Caenepeel decided in 2014 to capitalize on an industry that was just beginning to boom.
In 2015, Alaska experienced a large surge in new brewery openings, and was one of the only industries nearly unaffected by the state recession, with 150 percent growth in number of breweries over the last decade, according to a 2017 report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Big Swig focuses on small group tours through Alaska’s brewery scene. Since starting his company, craft breweries and distilleries have sprung up all over Anchorage, and Alaska.
“Business is good, and I have been slowly adding new itineraries each year,” Caenepeel said.
Caenepeel, who worked as a guide in the tourism industry for 10 years, wanted to show a part of the state that often went unseen, and untasted.
“I feel that visiting local breweries allows folks to really experience a local perspective into a place. Our tours are off-the-beaten path from a lot of other tourist attractions,” Caenepeel said. “Our guests get to experience Alaska through the eyes of a local.”
Big Swig is much more than a pub crawl. Guests on Caenepeel’s tour get an opportunity to meet the brewers, taste the beer and learn about the industry as it takes place in the Last Frontier.
“[Guests] leave feeling like they have connected with Alaska and the people who call this breathtaking state home,” Caenepeel said.
Big Swig tours visit some of Alaska’s bigger, more popular breweries like Midnight Sun Brewing, Denali Brewing and King Street Brewing; but they also visit smaller craft breweries such as Cynosure Brewing and Resolution Brewing in Anchorage; and Arkose Brewing and Odd Man Rush Brewing in the Valley.
“Despite our low profile it was striking how many enthusiastic tourists sought us out,” Clark Pelz, owner of Cynosure Brewing, said.
Caenepeel says he chooses the breweries for his tours based on several factors, including how much a brewery values tourism.
“Most importantly [I choose], breweries that… see the benefits of bringing locals and visitors in the front door and treating them to a true VIP experience,” Caenepeel said. “I want our guests to feel like family when they walk into a brewery.”
Over the years, June Gerteisen, the Co-founder and Creative Director of Arkose Brewing in Palmer, has seen a popularity increase in what she calls beercations.
“Arkose Brewery is certainly a destination for many visitors over the summer months. We get visitors from all over the world,” Gerteisen said. “Beercations are a growing trend and make all breweries and brewpubs in Alaska tourist destinations.”
Both Gerteisen and her husband, who is the co-founder and head brewer, lived in Europe for many years and speak German. They say they get especially excited when German tourists visit the brewery.
“Having lived in Europe many years, we have a good understanding of the European beer drinker,” Gerteisen said.
Caenepeel’s tours range from a four-hour Anchorage focused brewery tour, to a full-day rail excursion, called “Hops on the Rail,” that takes visitors through the breweries that Talkeetna and the Valley have to offer.
“My most popular tour… the Anchorage Brews tours… allows people to dip their toes in the water and see how good our beer scene in Alaska really is,” Caenepeel said. “I truly believe our Hops on the Rail tour is a world-class beer tour.”
As brewing beer is a full-time industry here in Alaska, so is Big Swig.
“Of course, I’m more busy in the summer with the visitors, but the winter is actually a better time to visit the breweries. Winter allows our breweries to stretch their creative legs more, rather than keeping up with the high production demands of summer,” Caenepeel said.
In addition to Alaska’s beer scene, Caenepeel is adding local spirits and ciders from Anchorage Distillery and Double Shovel Cider to his tour offerings this year.
“I’m really excited about this new tour offering. Alaska Crafted highlights the entire craft industry: beer, spirits and cider. Not only will guests be able to visit one of each craft, they will get to soak in views atop Mt. Alyeska with an included tram ride and lunch atop the mountain,” Caenepeel said.
For now, Big Swig Tours is operated solely by Caenepeel and is one of the only tour operators in the state offering this type of experience.