Merger helps local brewer embrace roots, look to future
Spokane’s newest brewery is also its oldest.
Those bottles of No-Li Brewhouse beers that are starting to show up in stores are a blend of homegrown pride and imported expertise.
It all began early one morning last November. Mark Irvin was alone in his Northern Lights brewpub, running reports from the previous day, when the phone rang.
Ordinarily, he wouldn’t bother picking up, but this time he did. “The guy on the other line said, ‘Hi, my name is John Bryant, if you’ve got a minute I would like to speak to you. I’d like to join forces with you, grow your brewery,’ ” Irvin recalled.
They chatted briefly, but he didn’t think too much of it until Bryant left another message a week or so later. That prompted Irvin to finally take a look at the email Bryant had sent.
“I opened up his résumé, and literally, my jaw dropped,” Irvin said.
Turns out Bryant was the microbrewery marketing guru who had helped Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore., rise to national prominence before moving to Colorado and overseeing similarly impressive growth at Odell and Oskar Blues.
“This guy had really done it. He was one of the pioneers of marketing and development for craft beers nationally,” Irvin said.
And after talking more with Bryant, he added, “It was obvious we had pretty similar backgrounds, value systems.”
Bryant, 45, was raised on the Olympic Peninsula and received a communications and business degree from Washington State University, where he met his wife, Cindy, a Spokane native. The father of three teens resigned as Oskar Blues president last summer in search of a simpler life for his family.
The world of bigger breweries involves “a lot of drama, a lot of emotional energy,” Bryant said. “At some point you wake up and say, ‘What’s important?’ Let’s get off the merry-go-round a bit and get rooted.”
He first met Irvin (although Irvin doesn’t remember it) in the mid-1990s at Airway Heights, where Northern Lights launched as a small production brewery before moving in 2002 to its current location in the Riverwalk complex at Trent and Hamilton. Bryant would stop at the pub for a pint during later visits to his in-laws’.
“I’ve always loved Spokane,” he said. “I have a lot of deep respect for Mark and his beers. I think we can do something very special here.
“If we can bring craft beer into the mainstream in Spokane in a healthy way, give back to the community while we’re doing it, so much good could happen from that.”
But their ambitions extend beyond the Inland Northwest. They plan to distribute their beers – and spread the word about Spokane – in the Denver area and New York City.
Beyond being able to build on his Colorado contacts, Bryant points out that Denver is home to the Great American Beer Festival and its host, the Brewers Association. The association also puts on the national Craft Brewers Conference, which took place earlier this month in San Diego.
“Why couldn’t that be here (in Spokane) someday?” he said.
As for New York, he said, “There’s a lot of dramatic growth on the East Coast. If we could get some of our beers up to speed there, if Spokane started to get covered on a national scale … it’s something to think about.”
But that also led to an unexpected wrinkle: Another brewery back East – one partially owned by Anheuser-Busch – was using the Northern Lights name for its IPA, and Bryant and Irvin’s attempts to negotiate trademark rights were met with dead silence. They could have taken their chances legally but decided it was simpler and cheaper to change the name to No-Li.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Irvin, 48, who remembers sitting around with his wife, Stacy, doodling designs for the Northern Lights logo in the early days.
“There’s a really fine line there,” he said of the switch. “It’s hard. It’s gut-wrenching.”
It’s also an opportunity to rebrand the brewery for new customers to come, at home and beyond.
The new bottle caps say “No-Li” on top and greet drinkers with “Fib Free Ales” underneath. Hand-painted labels for the first three bottled beers – Crystal Bitter, Born & Raised IPA and Silent Treatment Pale (a sly reference to the trademark issue) – feature such scenes as Riverfront Park and pine trees.
“If you’re from Spokane, you’re going to know it’s Spokane,” Bryant said. “If you’re in New York City, maybe you’ll want to be in Spokane.”
While his recipes for the most part remain the same, Irvin says the beer inside will be better than ever thanks to a newly installed, state-of-the-art bottling line. The full line of draft beers will continue to be available at the pub and elsewhere.
The pub is getting an upgrade as well, with a remodeled outdoor patio along the Spokane River and Centennial Trail that features new furniture and landscaping, a pergola and gas firepits.
More changes lie ahead. If all goes as planned, No-Li will outgrow its current brewery, located behind the bar, which is capable of turning out some 5,000 barrels of beer per year.
Production has plateaued at around 1,500 barrels in recent years, but Irvin and Bryant want to boost that to between 10,000 and 20,000 barrels – which would officially move No-Li out of the microbrewery category and into the realm of larger regional breweries. That would require a new, separate production facility.
It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to big boys like Deschutes, the nation’s fifth-largest craft brewery, which churned out 222,000 barrels last year. But it would be plenty large enough for Bryant’s taste.
“We want to make beer that makes people proud, but also have a good quality of life,” he says.
Along with their own operation, he and Irvin also hope to help further Spokane’s craft beer culture by cooperating with the growing number of local breweries.
“The sky’s the limit here,” Bryant said. “How cool would it be if you went into the Post Street Ale House and saw 15 craft beers all from Spokane breweries. That’s what Bend is like, Portland is like, Fort Collins (Colo.) – why couldn’t it happen here?”
It’s a tall order, but Stacy Irvin has faith in her husband and his new partner to pull it off.
“They’re two peas in a pod – their work ethic, their family ethic, their commitment to the community,” she said.
“It gives both me and Cindy (Bryant) confidence that what we’re going to be doing will be fun, with family at the core – the way we’ve always wanted to do it.”
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