49th State Brewing Company
Renovating and revitalizing an Anchorage landmark
Jason Motyka (left) and David McCarthy own the 49th State Brewing Company, with locations in Healy at Denali National Park and in Anchorage on Third Avenue.
© Judy Patrick Photography
There are few buildings in Anchorage or Alaska that can boast nearly one hundred years of history. One of those, built in 1918, is located at 717 West Third Avenue in downtown Anchorage and currently occupied by 49th State Brewing Company, a home-grown Alaska business owned by Jason Motyka and David McCarthy.
“This building was originally built as an Elks Lodge,” Motyka explains. “From what I’ve been told, back in the day one in every six Alaskans was an Elk.” The Lodge was a community center, boasting a theater, fitness center, and bowling alley in addition to the bar and restaurant. Most recently it housed the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewery. “When the opportunity came to be a part of this facility we were really excited because those folks that helped shape Alaska’s future utilized this building; it’s kind of passing on the baton to us to do something unique for Alaska’s future as well,” Motyka says. “The history is unparalleled.”
Moving forward it will be the home of 49th State Brewing Company’s second location; their origins are in Healy in Denali National Park, where their first brewery and restaurant were born. This second location is an opportunity to expand, but, McCarthy says, “One of the reasons we’re growing is actually to stabilize our business in Denali, which is our foundation.” He says one of their challenges in Denali was being able to produce enough of the beer that their guests love. “In order to produce more we had to expand into an area that was going to help reduce our costs so the beer could be more affordable.” One of the benefits of the Anchorage location is a huge storage area on the bottom/basement floor, allowing the company to ship in raw ingredients in larger quantities and store them in-state.
McCarthy and Motyka are passionate about developing the building in such a way that only builds its status as a community gathering place and iconic Anchorage property. So they invited Alaskan artists to be a part of the renovation and remodeling process. “If you build a place for the people, you just have the people help you build it, right?” McCarthy says.
Mark Wedekind installs shelves on the three-hundred-bottle whiskey wall during the renovations at 49th State Brewing Company’s new Anchorage location.
Photo by ABM Staff
The Whiskey Wall
One of the installations is behind the main-floor bar: the whiskey wall by local woodworker Mark Wedekind, who owns Blackstone Design (blackstonedesign.com), a hand-shaped custom furniture business. He says that normally most of his work is from private commissions, and his clients find him through word of mouth.
In this case, Wedekind has had a long connection with Motyka’s family, as he bought his home from the Motyka’s in 1994.
Wedekind says he designed the wall, a tree motif (made of walnut) with shelves across the wall intended to hold more than three hundred bottles of whisky, with input from Motyka and McCarthy. “Jason had seen enough of my work to have an idea that he wanted some sort of aspect of my work as part of the wall,” Wedekind says. Tree forms appear in much of his work, so “Jason thought it would be cool to work a tree in there somehow.” Motyka says, “It’s going to look amazing. Mark is one of the most amazing woodworkers that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Wedekind says that one thing that surprised him on the project is how much time he’s put into it, having worked on it for several weeks. He has done other installation pieces, such as staircase railings and fireplace mantels. “So it’s not like this is too far removed, but it is the first whiskey rack I’ve ever done,” he laughs.
The 49th State Brewing Company’s new convection air pizza oven heats from the top and bottom to cook pizzas evenly while producing a crispy crust. The stone facing was done by Mitch Fairweather.
Photo by ABM Staff
Mitch Fairweather’s artisan stonework for the entry mural at the Anchorage location of the 49th State Brewing Company.
Photo by ABM staff
The Stone Oven and Entry Mural
Neither McCarthy nor Motyka knew Mitch Fairweather (firstname.lastname@example.org), an Alaskan that does stone and masonry work. They were walking down the sidewalk discussing the need for a tile worker. “We’re walking by this building, and it’s midnight, and there’s this guy on his hands and knees tiling at midnight. You can’t make this up,” McCarthy laughs. “But the fact that he was working at midnight shows us that that’s the kind of spirit that we need.”
The two men knocked and in short time had recruited Fairweather, who in the end completed the front entry floor slate mural (49th State Brewing Company’s logo), refaced the new pizza oven (shipped to Alaska in two weeks via Lynden), did the acid stain on the concrete floors on the first and second floors, installed the natural stone located underneath the staircase (fashioned to look like a mine entrance), and installed tile in the first floor bathrooms.
“I had an excellent experience working with the owners of 49th State Brewing Company,” Fairweather says. “On the pizza oven, I sent them some pictures of stone and then I gave them my idea of doing a mixture of the stones. They said go ahead and do your best. That opens the door for someone that likes to do the work and has done it for a long time and can picture what’s going to stand out real nice, so I really hit it off with them.”
McCarthy says of the entrance mural, “Some people will just walk over it and not notice it. But nobody that is connected to him and his family will ever walk over that and not notice it.”
A chalk mural by Abby Cleek, located on the second floor of the 49th State Brewing Company’s new location in Anchorage. It’s a visual aid to educate guests about the brewing process.
Photo by ABM Staff
The Brewing Mural
Upstairs on the second floor Abbie Cleek (on Facebook as Captured by Cleek), an Alaskan artist, completed a chalk mural that depicts the brewing process from beginning to end, starting with growing hops and ending with a glass of beer. The purpose of the mural is as a visual aid for 49th State Brewing Company staff if guests have questions about brewing. “I didn’t know anything about brewing before this,” Cleek says, continuing that she learned a lot during the course of the project.
Cleek was also connected to the project through Motyka, as she was a friend of the family. Motyka and McCarthy had been considering flying an artist up from the Lower 48 to install the mural when Motyka happened to get a text containing some of Cleek’s work. “We gave her some pictures and said: can you draw this? She said yes, I’m the best charcoal artist I know.”
She says that while this isn’t her first mural, it was her first “big” mural, and as such it was a learning experience. “It wasn’t difficult as far as the sketching part,” she says. “I knew that part was going to be easy because I love working with charcoal; the difficult part was doing it on such a large scale.” She says all told she estimates she spent approximately 120 to 130 hours over six weeks on the mural. “It was kind of hard on my body, my shoulders, sketching on ladders and coming up and down ladders. But it was all totally worth it.” Cleek was working a full-time job during the day and ended up working on the mural every night after work.
The Front Range Mural
Motyka says that when the original renderings of the building were done, one of the concepts for the space at the top of the stairs was some sort of mountain art installation. Enter Charlie Renfro (charlierenfro.com), a skiing buddy of Motyka’s, who says, “I take photos of everything; I really like portraiture, but I’m passionate about mountain photography.” As such, he was a natural fit as a photographer.
But the question remained, which mountain(s) should be featured? McCarthy says they asked themselves, “Well, if the wall wasn’t there, what would you see?” The Front Range was the answer.
With that, Renfro began a three-month process to get a photo that would work to create the fifty-foot by ten-foot mural. “I’d never really done anything like that before, so I figured I’d do my best to create something for them.” One of his first major obstacles was where to take the photo. “I needed a location that would be equidistant from the mountains, and because I wanted the horizon to be flat I wanted to be higher, so I had to shoot it from the top of the building.” Getting onto any roof of Anchorage’s downtown buildings isn’t as easy as just taking the stairs, and Renfro says he spent weeks on the phone trying to find a building willing to give him access. Eventually he called Alaska USA Federal Credit Union asking for permission. He received a call back from one of Alaska USA’s security personnel who manages the building and whose child, coincidentally, Renfro used to coach in skiing, and Renfro was able to access the roof.
With the location secured, he ran into additional issues trying to find an appropriate large format camera as well as the good luck of shooting when the mountains, the weather, and the light were all cooperating. “I’m really happy with it,” Renfro says of the final picture. The mural was installed by large-format design and print company GraphicWorks, Inc., owned by Alaskans Victor Alexander and Bonnie Moore. Alexander says the installation took three men approximately ten hours, which doesn’t include the proofing process or any pre-installation work such as the printing, which took about three hours alone.
Charlie Renfro says a friend, Corky Still, installed the wood frame around the mural, “and I’m happy with how the frame turned out. I’m generally just really excited to have something like that visible in a place where hopefully lots of people are coming to see this beautiful space.”
The Antler Hostess Table and Chandeliers
McCarthy is the partner who happened to run into Grady Keyser, an artist that creates furniture and décor pieces out of caribou antlers for his business Antlers of the Far North. McCarthy and his wife were driving down the street in Fairbanks and his wife spotted Keyser in a field surrounded by his furniture. “I slammed the breaks and did a U-turn, and he walks up and has his beaten leather hat, just straight out of some story book,” McCarthy says. The chance meeting resulted in Keyser designing caribou antler chandeliers for the theater as well as a caribou antler hostess table. “I’m a huge fan of using things of nature; a shed from an animal is like a leaf that fell from a tree, it’s a part of nature,” McCarthy says.
Keyser’s wife Jeanie says that Keyser has been making these items for about twenty years; they currently live with their family “in the deep bush” north of Fairbanks. He builds the furniture out there and then hauls it in a boat to town. She says what antlers he doesn’t find on his own he purchases from Alaska Native villages, flying all over the state to do so.
It was McCarthy’s idea to build the hostess table out of caribou antlers, which he proposed to Keyser. Motyka says, “He drove down from Fairbanks. He parked his trailer that he slept in while he was here in my driveway with his family for three days” while he built the table out of caribou antlers (and wood left over from the renovation) in 49th State Brewing Company’s parking lot. Jeanie says that while he had never constructed a hostess table before, “He loved it. He enjoys every piece he does.”
Built by Neighbors
And there are others projects, including walls constructed out of barrel staves salvaged from barrels that 49th State Brewing Company actually used and the “mine shaft door” constructed out of spare beams and wood salvaged from an Anchorage deck. “How all those things come together: to me it’s just hard working people with great intentions,” McCarthy says. “We’re making something, taking a raw ingredient and making something out of it that people can all appreciate.”
Motyka adds, “It all comes down to trying to make something that’s great: so we’ve designed aspects of this building to incorporate stories that we can help share with our guests whether they’re tourists or locals.”
McCarthy says, “Jason and I have always felt essentially what we’re bringing in is a community center. Our business and our livelihood is serving people, but we want a place that people are proud to come and call their own. How do you build something that’s iconic? Because the reality is maybe we’re just a restaurant, or maybe it’s really more than that. It depends on who works on it.”
Tasha Anderson is an Associate Editor for Alaska Business Monthly.
This article first appeared in the August 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.