Dave Parker could have been a woodworker, a chef, or just about anything else—but he decided to brew beer instead.
He works in Anchorage, next to the muddy banks of Ship Creek, in an obscure industrial area that’s home to trucking companies, old railroad yards, and some small manufacturing plants. The seemingly ordinary, metal-sided building that Dave has entered for the last fifteen years blends in with its surroundings. But when you walk inside, you realize there’s nothing ordinary about the place. The understated exterior hides the soul of a complex and artistic biological process, one where the end result is actually more than just good beer.
You see… despite being somewhat reticent, Dave Parker is also a cultural engineer.
Inside the brewery, beautifully crafted stainless steel tanks fill the building from floor to ceiling, while a network of large water hoses crisscross a nearly sterile concrete floor. Iconic kegs line a 30ft high wall. Neatly stacked hardwood casks contain stouts and barley wines, aged till they reach the zenith of maturity.
Among the unusually ornate brewing architecture is a near perfect orchestration of effort by an eclectic, almost eccentric, crew of guys wearing frayed Carharts, Extra Tuff boots, listening to Indie Rock on their headphones.
On one hand the atmosphere is laid back. But on the other, it’s undeniably intense. There’s no real schedule and no time clock, but the work gets done. It’s a place full of irony, and it smells really, really good. If you love beer, the aroma produced in this space is absolutely intoxicating. Enough that it might make a sober man climb into the 8 foot tall mash tank with a spoon in his hand, just like a stoner eating corn flakes from a giant mixing bowl.
But this isn’t a story about beer. This is about a man who just happens to make beer, and his story about finding his way when there seemed to be no way at all.
When I showed up at the small Alaskan brewery with my camera gear in hand, I had never met Dave Parker before. I merely had an interest in the “people behind the scenes” and Dave agreed to show me around. I got a crash course in Brewing 101. It only took a few minutes to realize how inconsequential the brewing process is compared to the level of intention Dave devotes to it. This is a man who prides himself on making something he can be proud of. As I watched him work, I was reminded of more traditional craftsmen. Like a fine woodworker, carefully sanding a tabletop so that the grain and character of the material is showcased apart from the actual construction, being so focused that he doesn’t even realize the sun has gone down. In a similar way, there was something profound about the quiet intensity of Dave’s attention to detail, especially set against the stainless steel landscape that surrounded him.
When I asked Dave why he was so passionate about his job, his answer set me off on an unexpected course of research that made me realize how little I actually knew about craftsmanship. I later learned about ideas that seemingly have nothing (and everything) to do with microbreweries and the making of really good beer. Concepts like “Truth to Materials,” and the history of the “Arts and Crafts Movement,” or even how the modern definition of “Craftsman” belies a complex subject with rich origins involving capitalism and the industrial revolution.
I began to realize that modern craft brewers aren’t that much different from the craftsmen and artists in the late 1800’s who responded to the advent of the industrial revolution by developing strict standards for their chosen trades. In short, they resisted industrialization by passionately adhering to traditional methods and a strict aesthetic code. These were craftsmen and artists making things of beauty, often functional works of art, and making them with the intent of both honoring and preserving a culture. In an altruistic sense, one could say their efforts failed because the industrial revolution proceeded like a runaway train. Attention to detail became secondary compared to manufacturing capability and the volume of units made. But the vestiges of that movement spawned the same thinking that ultimately led to contemporary, functional art. And in an indirect way, to the creation of craft beer brewing. Discerning people seem to appreciate things that are handmade by genuine craftsmen, and craft beer is no exception.
The truth is, when I asked Dave why he is so passionate about his job, he didn’t really have an answer. The words seemed to elude him. It’s not that he didn’t care about my question, but more that he seemed unable to access an answer that fit. He couldn’t describe his passion in a way that reflected what I was able to observe. I wanted to hear poetic waxing about the level of care and patience I was able to see. I wanted insight. I wanted to understand. But instead, I left feeling empty-handed.
It took me several days to recognize that I wanted an easy answer to a metaphysical question. Why does anyone do what they love? Could it be that the essence of one’s purpose transcends readily accessible thought and language? It occurred to me that sanding a piece of wood to perfection isn’t a cerebral process and neither is the reason why a craftsman becomes obsessed with revealing the true character of the materials he chooses to work with. Obsession with the details of craftsmanship seems best described as a spiritual process, where the manifestation of one’s vision of perfection becomes secondary to all of the work required to actually get there.
It took another week before I realized that Dave’s actions are his vocabulary.
Dave didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a craft beer maker. Over fifteen years ago he was taking college classes because he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Nothing was clicking and he couldn’t see a path forward. He felt like school was a waste of time, but he didn’t know what else to do. Then he got a phone call.
There’s a saying that “art finds the artist.” The brewery certainly found Dave. He started by cleaning floors and doing deliveries, and for a couple of years he never made any beer at all. Now, he’s the head brewer, artistically expressing a careful blend of alchemy that thousands of Alaskan’s enjoy every day. The important part of Dave’s story is that he didn’t even know he was a craftsman.
Not until he was first exposed to the art that would eventually become his passion.
People like Dave Parker are doing more than just becoming masters of their chosen crafts. They are helping to shape our culture and showing the world that carefully making things by hand is a worthwhile endeavor. And there is great value in that passion.
Value in the things made with deep purpose and intention; things made with love and care.