Spokane brews craft community, with more on tap
Beer makers turn passion into neighborhood staplesOctober 12th, 2017
In the past five years, the beer-brewing community here has transformed from a near novelty to a Spokane staple, some local brewers say.
Matthew Hanson, co-owner of Whistle Punk Brewing LLC, of Spokane, says he’s noticed mid-sized breweries diminishing in the area just as the number of craft breweries is increasing.
“All the craft beers are getting more and more localized,” he says. “A lot of the breweries that are starting up aren’t starting up with hopes to do a lot of distribution.”
He says many newer breweries here are “neighborhood focused and taproom focused.”
Cameron Johnson, co-owner of Steel Barrel incubator brewery and owner of Young Buck Brewing, at 154 S. Madison downtown, says Spokane was late to the microbrewing industry.
“About five years ago, we saw a boom of craft beer in Spokane,” he says. “Every year, we’ve seen more and more opening up, to where now we have about 25 craft breweries in the greater Spokane area, with more slated to open up next year.”
Johnson likes to compare Spokane to Bend, Ore.
The latter has a quarter of Spokane’s population and more than twice as many breweries per capita, he asserts.
Because of this, Johnson says, “there’s plenty of room to grow in terms of craft beer in Spokane.”
He says a brew district has developed in the west end of downtown, with a number of breweries near each other.
Iron Goat Brewing Co., River City Brewing, the Steel Barrel, One Tree Hard Cider LLC, Whistle Punk, and Orlison Brewing Co. are some of the breweries there, he says.
Like many in the industry, Whistle Punk’s Hanson started as a homebrewer. He and his father, Craig Hanson, a teacher at East Valley High School, started brewing in Newman Lake when the younger Hanson was 21.
“It was all very shoe-stringed,” says Hanson. The duo used second-hand equipment, such as old soup kettles from California, he says.
“Eventually, it got to the point where we were selling kegs to bars,” he says. “In the meantime, we were looking for space for a taproom.”
In 2015, Hanson and his father opened Whistle Punk’s taproom at 122 S. Monroe, in the old Brooklyn Deli & Lounge spot.
On a typical Friday night, about 150 people will visit the 1,250-square-foot taproom.
Whistle Punk has 14 taps, all carrying beer made by the Hansons, 12 of which are constantly rotating, says Hanson. Some brews on tap could include IPAs, an espresso stout, seasonal beers, and others, he says.
Occasionally, Whistle Punk also offers live music, he says.
A hallway connects the taproom to an empty space previously occupied by Texas True Barbecue, where people could get in-house food, says Hanson.
A few chefs and restaurant owners are looking to fill that space again, he says.
Whistle Punk produces two barrels per batch, totaling about 150 barrels for 2017, he says.
In the brewing industry, a barrel is a unit of measurement equivalent to 31 gallons. A full-size keg, or 15½ gallons, is half of a barrel.
Hanson says Whistle Punk sometimes runs out of beer and is now in the process of purchasing a seven-barrel brewery.
Looking forward, one of his main goals is to be able to refill growler orders more frequently and refill beer at the eight taprooms featuring the brewery’s beverages.
He says a future goal might be to have a second location in Spokane at some point.
Dave Musser, co-owner of Bellwether Brewing Co., at 2019 N. Monroe, says one reason he got into the business was because he saw what an impact a brewery can have on a neighborhood.
Musser says one of his main goals in opening Bellwether is to revitalize the neighborhood it’s headquartered in.
“We wanted to be a neighborhood place,” he says, noting that he lives three blocks away from the brewery.
He says he’s noticed that when breweries move into more industrialized, run-down areas, “it seems like the neighborhood happens around it. People start moving in, and it helps revitalize neighborhoods.”
He and partner Thomas Croskrey, who is also the brewer, opened the business in 2015, says Musser.
Bellwether specializes in “old world beers with a Northwest twist,” and many of the beer types Bellwether brews were invented before the 1500s, he says.
Many of Bellwether’s beverages don’t contain hops, he says.
“It’s kind of trendy right now to make sours, so it fits in well with what we’re doing,” says Musser.
Croskrey, who dabbles in history, loves Celtic and Scottish culture and incorporates that passion into his brews, says Musser.
“I call him a liquid chef because he’s always playing with flavors,” says Musser.
The brewery leases 2,400 square feet of space, split evenly between the taproom and production.
Musser says the business is working toward purchasing the entire 5,100-square-foot building. If the process goes smoothly, Bellwether expects to have construction on that extra space done by the end of the year, he says. The extra space will all go toward production, but Croskrey and Musser aren’t sure what the current production facility will be used for, he says.
Croskrey says he’s been brewing for about five years.
Musser says he has already seen some of the benefits of having a brewery in the area.
“We’ve got to partner with other people as they bring business into the neighborhood,” he says.
In line with Hanson’s observations, Musser says he’s noticed distribution fading and more localized, neighborhood breweries popping up.
Bellwether Brewing also features local musicians playing about twice a month, holds different events, and hosts a church service on Sundays for Altar church, for which Musser is the pastor, he says.
In addition to Croskrey and Musser, who work there full time, the brewery has four part-time employees, all of whom work in the taproom.
Musser says a trend he’s observed is a gravitation toward locally sourced ingredients.
“It’s been fun getting to know the farmers we buy the grains and rye from,” says Musser. “Just the other day, one of them came in with a big bag of rye and some herbs he grew in his garden. He threw it on the bar and said, ‘Can you make a beer out of this?’”
Bellwether produces 115 barrels per year, but it’s in the process of purchasing a 10-barrel brewhouse.
One 10-barrel brew will make more in one batch than what the business currently makes in a whole month, says Musser.
Johnson, Joe Potter, and Peter McArthur own the Steel Barrel Taproom. Located at 154 S. Madison, the 1,200-square-foot incubator brewery aims to provide people who have goals to open their own breweries with opportunities to gain skill and experience in the craft of brewing, says Johnson.
The brewers there share a seven-barrel brewhouse.
Johnson says the brewers spend two to three years building up experience on large-scale equipment. They also develop local account contacts for selling their brews, and begin running a brewery “without a million-dollar loan on the get-go.”
Afterward, in theory, brewers move out of the incubator into their own space. Someone then fills that business’ spot in the incubator, says Johnson.
“It’s very similar to the tech incubators in Silicon Valley,” he says.
Steel Barrel’s incubator can hold four companies, he says. Right now, it has three: Johnson’s Young Buck Brewery, Potter’s Little Spokane Brewing Co., and the recently added TT’s Old Iron Brewery.
Each of the three breweries produce about 200 barrels per year, he says. All three are served in the taproom, as well as at other local establishments.
The Steel Barrel’s taproom occupies 1,800 square feet of space.
Established in summer 2016, the Steel Barrel has three part-time employees in addition to the owners, he says.
As for Young Buck, Johnson says his goal is to have 60 to 70 percent of its production as barrel-aged beers.
Johnson says Young Buck probably will move out of the incubator in about a year.
He predicts continued growth in the industry here, with growing numbers of restaurants and taprooms supporting Spokane beer.
John Bryant, co-owner of No-Li Brewhouse, the largest Spokane-based brewery, says breweries help create culture in a city.
The industry can attract tourism, he says. Those tourists stay in hotels, check out pubs, eat, dine, and listen to music, fostering economic growth in Spokane, he says.
Bryant says the microbrewing industry is the best kept secret in the Spokane area. It creates jobs and generates tax revenue, making a significant economic contribution, he says.
Five years ago, almost all of the beer consumed—and all its revenue—in Spokane came from another city, state, or country, asserts Bryant.
“Today, that’s much different,” he says. “Beer that’s consumed locally here is made by local brewers … (the money) stays right here, and you make your own community stronger.”
Bryant and his wife, Cindy, started No-Li as a very small operation. Today, the business has more than 60 employees, 35 of whom work full time.
Located on the Spokane River at 1003 E. Trent, the business occupies 13,000 square feet. Of that, the taproom occupies 4,000 square feet, and the rest is production space.
Customers can view brewing operations through a large window installed for that purpose.
No-Li will produce 14,000 barrels this year, up from 1,200 barrels in 2012.
The business offers 18 beers on tap, pub fare, and live music on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
After five years as No-Li, the brewery is breaking even, says Bryant, a 30-year veteran of the industry.
The time it takes for a brewery to turn a profit depends on each company’s business model, he says. Factors that could hinder financial profitability include ingredient quality, investing in equipment, and loans.
“We lost money hard for a while. It really makes you decide, is it worth it, or is this for a greater cause?” he says.
He says “expansion” can mean different things to different people.
To turn a hobby into a thriving business, Bryant lists a number of suggestions. He says his main one is that breweries need to have a core purpose to why they’re in the business.
Working toward business growth can take several years and requires consistent, great beer, he says.