‘Community living room’ brewery hopes to reopen soon

Ben Millstein, owner of Kodiak Island Brewing Company.

The Kodiak Island Brewing Company, Kodiak’s only microbrewery and tasting room, could soon reopen after four months of continuing to do slow business filling the to-go orders that have trickled since their tasting room closed.  

“I’m hoping to open any day now,” said Ben Millstein, who had to close his brewery to indoor seating after Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy mandated the closure of dine-in service at restaurants and bars in mid-March to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Still ambivalent about reopening his brewery in the middle of the pandemic, Millstein said he does not see an end in sight and needs to start making revenue to survive. 

“I can’t forecast survival without income,” he said. 

His business has stayed afloat with funding from the federal paycheck protection program and the Kodiak Economic Development Corporation. He has also made minimal revenue from beer-to-go orders.

With uncertainty about whether the government aid will continue, he said he has to get creative with his business plan. 

“Right now businesses have to be creative and flexible and really start thinking about business in a different way because the environment has changed,” he said. 

One way to bring in more customers is to create a space for outdoor seating. To accommodate those who want to social distance, Millstein is building a deck on the side of the building. 

He said he isn’t sure when the outside seating will be available, but was hopeful the deck could be completed over the next several weeks. 

The brewery’s spacious interior means social distancing will be possible for customers, and will be made even more possible with new protocols in place — like installing plastic shields at the bar to protect the employees, and changing the flow of traffic so people enter through the front doors and leave through a side door. 

The brewery will limit indoor seating to one-third of the tasting room’s capacity of about 35 people, and discourage customers from using the front bar area to chat in order to keep employees safe. 

With a regulation written into law this past February, the brewery is now allowed to stay open until 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., which was the previous state-mandated closing time for tasting rooms. 

When it reopens, the brewery will be open Monday through Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. 

In accordance with state laws, each customer will still be limited to 36 ounces of beer. 

Although COVID-19 has made bringing in customers tougher than usual, Millstein said business had already been slowing years before the pandemic hit. 

A decrease in fishing and the price of oil — which reduces state spending — has affected Kodiak’s economy, which, in turn, hurt the brewery’s bottom line. 

“What else can we do besides another new beer to really bring people in? I’m constantly in brainstorming mode,” he said. 

Millstein said he has always had to be creative with his business plan because owning a brewery is not an easy way to make money. But with COVID-19, being creative is more important than ever. 

His business has been evolving constantly over the past 17 years. When Millstein first opened his brewery in a small building on Shelikoff Street, the law only allowed breweries to sell beer for takeaway.  

That changed in 2008, when new laws allowed indoor beer sales. With business exploding, Millstein moved his operations to the larger building where it now sits at 117 Lower Mill Bay Road. 

Millstein, who grew up in several areas around the U.S., has been brewing beer since the early 1990s when he began to learn the tricks of the trade. His first batch of beer was in Crested Butte, Colorado. 

He started brewing more seriously in Homer, and when he moved to Kodiak with his wife, Millstein decided to turn his passion into a career, opening the Kodiak Island Brewing Company in 2003. 

With columns, tables and portions of walls in his tasting room built from parts of old Kodiak boats and canneries, the island and its history were built into his brewery. 

“It’s almost like a cannery museum in here,” Millstein said, motioning to a pillar holding up the roof, table legs made from the F/V Pioneer’s mast, and corrugated metal from a cannery at Port Bailey lining the outside of a cooler. 

Over the years, the Kodiak Island Brewing Company has become a community meeting space, and a cozy respite from the sometimes harsh outside elements. He considers the brewery a “community living room.” 

“This is my career and it's my way of fitting into the community … It's also a community asset, it's not just business,” he said. “I have to make it work. It’s not an option to fail.” 

With a resolution to continue to make his business work amid COVID-19, Millstein said he has future projects in the works. 

“It’s a one-step approach. We are unsure how this is going to go,” he said. “I think a lot of businesses won’t survive, but I think we can. It’s going to require the community to think like a family how we can support each other.” 

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