Leading up to Lee Ellis’ move from the Lower 48 to take the reigns as head brewer at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. in Anchorage, Alaska, the Washington State native’s storied brewing career included an early gig at Redmond-based regional kingpin Mac and Jack’s. Now, he has piloted Midnight Sun through its 20th anniversary (celebrated by beer lovers all over the greater Northwest in 2015) and into continued success with a robust line of longtime favorites and off-the-cuff creations: from Belgian-style and barleywine to porters and pale ales.
We picked Ellis’ brain and learned about his methods for curing a case of bone-chilling winter blues with a bottle or thermos full of liquid sunshine, plus got a peek at how he and his neighbors party it up Alaska-style in the mountain community of Girdwood.
1) Which of your own current offerings are you digging the most?
This time of year is my favorite for drinking beer outside in subfreezing temperatures around a fire. Every year at this time we release Termination Dust barrel-aged Belgian barleywine, whose name is a reference to the first snowfall to cover the mountains around Anchorage in September. Nothing keeps the soul warm in the sharp season change of Alaska like a strong beer with big plum, caramel and whiskey flavors. So that’s what I’m drinking, once I get home and I don’t have to operate machinery of any sort.
2) Any brewing pipe dreams you’re dying to make a reality?
I probably have one of the best brewing gigs a guy could ask for. Our brew crew gets all sorts of opportunities to brew whatever crazy ideas come to mind. My previous pipe dream was to make a chocolate porter with Mexican spices, which we now release every year as our Valentine’s Day beer, Modern Romance. This year I get to brew a beer for the only celebrity that matters, and that is Mr. Whitekeys! A man I’m sure nobody outside of Alaska has ever heard of. Of course, since Alaska fully legalized the use of pipes, we frequently develop new dreams on a daily basis, but rarely is a good dream something we can’t make into reality.
3) What non-beer beverage is in your glass most these days? What is your favorite way to enjoy it and where?
American whiskey and some Canadian whisky. Alaskans consume a lot of whiskey. Usually once the weather gets cold, outdoor travel requires a thermos full of Hot Toddy. After a freezing afternoon of hunting, it’s imperative to get the fire going first, then boil water and cut lemons second.
4) Favorite song, album or artist to jam out to while throwing a few down the hatch?
That depends, am I throwing a few down the hatch alone or with friends? In Girdwood, where I live, the wandering neighborhood cocktail hour usually involves a JammyPack [a fanny-pack speaker system) and the sweet funk sounds of our local DJ EZ Rick. Around the house during evening bonfires, the usual go-to is Lucero, Hank Williams III or the Drive By Truckers. But it changes all the time. If I am just hanging out by myself and waxing skis with a drink, then I revert to my Northwest roots and listen to inappropriate amounts of Built to Spill.