By Chris Furnari
Let’s face it – Spokane probably isn’t on your bucket list.
Tucked away in Eastern Washington, the city of a little more than 200,000 sits on the Idaho border, about an hour away from popular resort destinations to the East. Nationally, Spokane’s best known institution is likely the Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball program; every March, expert analysts pick the Jesuit University to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
But beyond March Madness, Spokane is rarely in the national spotlight; it isn’t home to any professional sports teams or Fortune 500 companies. In some circles, it’s jokingly referred to as “Spokanistan.”
For years, Spokane’s had a craft beer scene that’s been in line with the nickname. Despite the presence of mature beer towns like Seattle or Portland a few hours away, and despite the fact that it’s located within 100 miles of the freshest hops and malts in the entire country, Spokane isn’t home to any large regional craft brewers. In fact, the small craft companies that did operate in or near Spokane, until recently hadn’t even bottled a single beer.
But economic development takes many forms, and right now the eagerness of the city government to put Spokane on the map has combined with the arrival of a strongly-credentialed craft beer veteran to create a strategy: make Spokane a beer hub.
“We have a passionate group of relatively young entrepreneurs in this city now that want to create a vibe in a place like Spokane that hasn’t really had a craft beer scene,” said John Bryant, the co-owner and president of No-Li Brewhouse, who is the credentialed veteran in question. “I think Spokane is searching for an identity and I think craft beer can be a part of it.”
Spokane wouldn’t be the first town to try to remake itself as a brewers’ paradise. Smaller towns than Spokane, like Asheville, N.C., now home of secondary breweries for big craft companies Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues, and Bend, Ore., which has Deschutes Brewery to act as a mother ship for newer brands – have built themselves into legitimate craft beer hubs through cooperation with expanding or existing breweries and local promotion. Whether Spokane is able to do so will depend on many factors, but the plans are in place.
“I think Spokane is representative of a lot of small communities that are discovering craft beer from small and independent breweries,” said Charlie Papazian, the president of the Brewers Association. “I think there are some very enthusiastic entrepreneurs in Spokane and I’d say that consistently, everyone that has jumped into the scene is passion. Some have more experience than others and they will all be challenged with growing their businesses in a different economic environment.”
The New Kid in Town
John Bryant has a resume that reeks of craft: he had previously worked at relatively big operations as the president of Oskar Blues, as well as the COO of Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. and VP sales and marketing at Deschutes Brewery.
Early last year, however, Bryant moved his family to Spokane in an attempt to rebrand the tiny Northern Lights Brewing Company, a business founded in 1993 by his current partner, Mark Irvin. In the last 18 months, he’s rebranded the company to No-Li Brewhouse, received federal approval to label beers made with local ingredients with the phrase “Spokane-Style” and helped No-Li become the first Spokane beer company selling beer in something other than a keg.
“Until we introduced bottles, 100 percent of the beer sold in Spokane, that was packaged, was brought in from another city,” Bryant said. “We have great craft beer brands here like New Belgium or Sierra Nevada. So craft beer is being sold, it’s just not local.”
So to create a beer scene, there has to be local beer – and that’s something that Bryant has tried to change. Indeed, since he has moved to Spokane, 15 new breweries have sprouted up within a 40-mile radius of the city.
“Spokane has wanted this to happen,” said Greg Brandt, the co-founder of Iron Goat Brewing, which opened in 2012. “When John Bryant came to town, it got people excited and it opened the door for a lot of us to step in and start brewing professionally,” he said. “Now, I think people are finally starting to take pride in local craft beer.”
Around town, there are signs that both on and off-premise retailers are investing behind the continued growth of the craft segment. Gary Gill, the owner of JB’s Bottleworks, recently added 30 feet of cooler space and a growler filling station with 20 draft lines.
“There is a high demand for craft beer,” he said. “I carry about 3,000 different beers now, and it’s almost 45 percent of my total sales.”
In the downtown area, the Post Street Ale House has changed its menu to accommodate more local products.
“Four years ago, there were a lot of domestic brands on tap,” said Lloyd Keehner, the restaurant’s general manager “Since then, we have changed what we carry. Our vision was always to be an ale house with local craft beers. Now we can focus on having those types of beers on draft.”
Keehner said that overall beer sales represent about 38 percent of the restaurant’s business, of which about 75 percent comes from craft.
A Civic Effort
To help galvanize the group of new brewers, Bryant and the other local owners have recently created the Inland Northwest Ale Trail – an informational guide and map featuring 16 craft breweries in Spokane and Western Idaho.
That guide and map also features another important part of growing the association between the area and its brewers: Visit Spokane, the city’s primary programmatic arm for tourism promotion, contributed $13,000 of grant funding for the development of the Ale Trail.
“The craft breweries are something of an asset that we feel is promotable,” said Tim Robinson, the director of communication for Visit Spokane. “The scene has matured and there is something going on here that we want to share.”
Craft’s growth hasn’t gone unnoticed by Spokane’s mayor, David Condon.
“We are having this resurgence in our neighborhood business districts,” he said of the influx of new breweries. “As a mayor, you want to create identity in your neighborhoods. I think it [craft] is a great opportunity for us. Typically, craft brewers are very involved in the community and it can bring back that excitement.”
But to bring the excitement, you’ve got to spread the word, which is where another joint effort between Bryant and Visit Spokane has come into play: they teamed up in late summer to invite beer journalists – like us at Brewbound, as well as freelancers like Kendall Jones, who covers the growing Washington beer industry – to visit Spokane and look at the developing beer culture.
While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that that culture is brewing in Spokane, Jones said it still lags behind some of the country’s more developed beer metropolises.
“I’d say it is catching up,” Jones said. “Right now, Spokane might be a little bit behind the curve and I think that some have some work to do. Ultimately, I think craft beer needs to be established as part of the reason why people come to Spokane. There are reasons why people visit Bend or Hood River and craft beer is a part of that. Spokane needs to embrace the brewery business and have it become part of its identity.”
But it’s going to take more money, more knowledge, and even more effort.
“I notice it a lot in the brewing industry and everywhere I go,” Jones said. “Some of the brewers in Seattle have done a fantastic job of getting the funding they need to grow, but in other places it’s been problematic.”
In Spokane, Jones added, “Some of the businesses were underfunded. But there are people in Spokane, like John Bryant, who know what it takes to grow a business. Hopefully he passes on some of his knowledge to other breweries in the area.”
Papazian, who visits many communities across the country and samples beer from small brewers said he was impressed with the quality of beer coming from the Spokane area during his own recent visit.
“When I visit breweries, I am tasting beer as fresh as it could possibly be,” he said. “Everything I tried was pretty good, but making good beer and serving it at the brewery is one thing. Making sure it can survive all of the conditions between you and the customer will be the challenge of technology.”
Still, he said, there’s precedent – and inspiration – that can be drawn from the towns that have pulled it off.
“I would say that towns like Grand Rapids or Asheville or Portland, Maine, in last 5-to-7 years have all come from nowhere to being some place,” in the beer world, said Papazian. “Spokane can do it as well.”
“I would guess that Spokane isn’t roaring back from the economic depression but it is coming back slowly,” he added. “If there was a thriving beer scene, it wouldn’t surprise me to see it become a beer destination. It is a beautiful place to hang out.”