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Bobby Wilken hopes to open Hoo Doo Brewing Company this summer

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Posted: Sunday, June 3, 2012 11:38 pm

FAIRBANKS — Like many young men, Bobby Wilken spent a lot of time during his college years interested in beer. In his case, however, it looks like those countless hours pursuing a good brew may have been well spent.

Considering his current occupation, you could justify those pints of ale and pilsner as research. Wilken, 32, plans to open the Hoo Doo Brewing Company late this summer, providing a brewery in the city of Fairbanks for the first time in 70 years.

The West Valley High School graduate said his interest in beer began during his college years at the University of Montana, when he lived conveniently close to the Big Sky Brewing Company in Missoula. He remembers his first experience sampling some of their beers, which immediately sparked an obsession with homebrewing.

“It was awesome,” Wilken said with a grin. “We immediately made a batch — then we were making beer all the time. It was the best thing ever.”

Wilken and his friends began to talk dreamily about opening up a brewery of their own after graduation. But despite his enthusiasm, Wilken’s business degree led him in a different direction.

After he earned his diploma he returned to Fairbanks to work as a research analyst for the consulting firm Information Insights, with his beer experience limited to making constant batches of homebrew.

The job was great, Wilken remembers, but it couldn’t compete with his dream career. Still intrigued by the prospect of becoming a professional brewer, he took a three-month break from his job in 2005 to attend the Siebel Institute of Technology, a prestigious brewing school in Chicago. It concluded with a month-long working journey to breweries throughout Europe.

John Hannafan, a Chicago brewery consultant who attended Siebel with Wilken, said the course drove home what a daunting task it is to launch a brewery. It began a five-year quest by Wilken to gain enough experience to pull it off.

“I could tell he was restless,” Hannafan said. “Even when he was working full-time, you could tell it was a stepping stone for him.”

After the course, Wilken began applying to breweries all over the country to gain more experience, eventually settling on Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing Company as his preferred destination. When he was told there were no openings, Wilken continued to call every few weeks for the next eight months to keep them aware of his interest before finally getting a job.

Wilken recalls the disappointed response he got when he told his supervisors at Information Insights he was leaving — until he told them he had landed a job at a brewery. He said they immediately let out a loud cheer.

“I remember they were just the happiest people,” he said. “They were psyched for me.”

Wilken spent more than two years as a brewer at Alaskan, before moving up to a quality-control position. He’d set up a tasting panel each morning at the brewery, where the group would analyze beer for its color, flavor and mouth feel. Any inconsistencies would lead to tiny tweaks in the process or blends with other batches of beer.

Seeing the mundane day-to-day workings of a brewery might diminish the magic for some beer enthusiasts, but Wilken said it had the opposite effect for him.

He said the small details — the flavor of a specific malt, the qualities that different hops offer — added depth to his interest.

“I think I just became so fascinated by it and passionate about it,” he said. “You can never make perfect beer.”

With his experience at Alaskan, Wilken said he finally felt ready to venture off on his own. The result is the Hoo Doo Brewing Company, named after the Hoo Doo Mountains, a popular snowmachining spot he used to frequent.

Wilken and his wife, Jessica, were both raised in Fairbanks — Bobby’s parents are businessman and ex-legislator Gary Wilken and former school board member Sue Wilken — and they decided to return to their hometown to begin the new venture.

During the past year, Wilken has transformed a building in the railroad-industrial area that once contained a children’s play room into a future brewery. Stainless steel vats and vessels fill the building, surrounded by pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of malt.

A small batch of Bavarian Hefeweizen brews in the corner of the building, one of many test recipes Wilken has made before the opening. He notes the subtle characteristics a specific yeast delivers to the brew, including hints of banana and clove.

He’s emulating the German style of brewing at Hoo Doo, which uses three vessels instead of the two-vessel English style. Wilken said that difference should set Hoo Doo apart from other breweries, which virtually all have a two-vessel system.

He plans to start with just two or three styles of beer before finding what works. What those will be still remains uncertain, although an India pale ale and a traditional ale will likely be the top candidates.

“I like everything, but I really like German beers,” he said. “It’s just so delicious, especially when it’s fresh over there. They really know what they’re doing.”

Wilken expects Hoo Doo to begin selling beer by August, with hopes to work up to annual production of about 30,000 gallons of beer within a few years.

Just don’t ask him when the first bottle of Hoo Doo beer will be available. He plans to offer kegs and half-gallon growlers, but there aren’t any bottling plans in his near future. He said the expense and logistics aren’t worth the trouble for a small brewery like the one he’s planning.

“If you want to make a brewer cry, give him a bottling line,” Wilken said. “And brewers are pretty happy people.”

Wilken said he’s had nothing but good feedback about his brewery plans, even from people at Alaskan Brewing Company, and Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox, who could be considered rivals. He said there’s a friendly atmosphere among many brewers who generally believe growing interest in craft beers helps boost everyone’s business.

Even before Hoo Doo opens, Wilken said he’s hopeful more will follow.

“I think there’s definitely room for a few more,” he said. “Really, it’s kind of like the more breweries the better.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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