Spokane’s oldest operating brewery is throwing itself a huge 15th birthday party on Saturday.
If we were talking about your little brother, that might not seem like a big deal. It’s not even old enough for a learner’s permit.
But for Northern Lights Brewing Company, 15 years of survival – no, prosperity – in such a turbulent market makes for a big birthday.
“I keep checking to see if the math adds up and it’s actually 15,” said owner and head brewer, Mark Irvin. “I can’t believe it, but it’s true.”
Now 44 himself, Irvin opened the brewery as a production facility in Airway Heights back when he was 29.
As he tells it, it’s been a challenging but rewarding trip so far.
The addition of the brewpub and restaurant seven years ago earned Northern Lights a name as not only one of the best breweries in the region, but as the place to get some of the best fish and chips – and, as far as this writer’s concerned, the best hot wings – around.
“(There were) a lot of challenges along the way there,” Irvin said. “Especially in Spokane, with the restaurant business here. … I don’t think you could have any serious longevity unless you have a really good product.”
As any of his loyal customers will tell you, Northern Lights does have that.
Not that the rest of the world knows much about it.
Distribution and brand recognition outside of the Spokane area – particularly the Seattle market – have always been rough, even though the brewery garners praise when it enters regional brewfests.
But difficulty in finding a way to elbow some shelf space for Northern Lights bottles in markets with far more local beer options – and do so without comprimising his vision – forced Irvin at one point to hunker down and keep business hyper-local while he waits for the right time.
“Eventually I just said, ‘I need to focus on Spokane,’ ” Irvin said. “I can’t worry about sending kegs to Seattle when there are places around here that don’t carry our product. I’ve tried to make the brewery more regional, but at the same time I didn’t want to sell off part of the brewery to get the assets needed.”
On that front, Irvin did point out that he recently hired a full-time Seattle sales rep and, as of this week, has products being distributed on the West Side by World Class Beverages, a subsidiary of The Odom Corporation.
But that’s likely to be the far from his mind during the Octoberfest birthday party this weekend.
Irvin teamed with Northern Lights’ boozy neighbors, Dry Fly Distilling, for Saturday’s nine-hour throwdown, from which a part of the proceeds go to Ronald McDonald House.
It made sense to party with Dry Fly, not only because they’re neighbors – and not only because that means the Dry Fly Girls will be in attendance – but because this month marks the one-year anniversary of production at the distillery.
Along with a number of local contributors, Northern Lights and Dry Fly will be handing out raffle tickets with each drink purchase while revelers hang out under big tents out back next to the river, and dance to the sounds of the Cowboy Robots and Milonga in the building’s Sapphire Room.
Party-goers also will have the chance to buy $25 martinis or $15 steins of beer from the Dry Fly girls (regular-priced drinks also will be available), with the entire cost of the drink benefiting Ronald McDonald House.
For the steel-stomached, Irvin said he plans to hold a hot wing eating contest, with an undetermined prize – “something big,” he said – going to the winner. (As of press time, Irvin still hadn’t decided whether it’ll be judged on heat or on quantity, but as someone who’s eaten the hottest wings the kitchen can make, it might be less hazardous to go with quantity.)
And as icing on the birthday cake, fans of the companies will get the chance to try something new.
Dry Fly has tentative plans to dip into one of its whiskey barrels for the occasion, so folks can get a – very young – preview of its future. (Co-owner Kent Fleischmann says their goal in the coming years is to “get a little more into the whiskey business.”)
And, as he does every year, Mark Irvin created a beast of an anniversary Imperial IPA.
This year, it’s called the 15.
For a mere 20 kegs, he used 88 pounds of pellet hops – which, in layman’s terms, translates into “a crapload” – including his last case of the Cascade varietal, which he’s been hording during the hop shortage.
“I just sampled it when we kegged it. I reserve judgment. I don’t really know,” he said.
Then, as a man who loves his craft, Irvin added, “But it was wonderful. It’s huge and full-bodied. It’s like candy.”
Yep, this weekend marks the anniversary of two pillars – one green and one 15 – of the Spokane drinks scene.
And the Dry Fly guys can look to Irvin and the time he’s spent living the dream for inspiration.
“Fifteen years is a damn long time, no matter how you slice it,” Irvin said. “But when you’re busy, and you’re engaged, and you enjoy what you’re doing, and you have the ups and downs, all the troughs, the good and the bad … It’s still a lot of fun. I love what I do.”