This is the first in a series of occasional 7 Sips interviews, where we sit down for a pint and seven questions with someone active in local craft beer. Our obvious choice was Mark Irvin, the elder statesman of the scene, who started Northern Lights Brewing in late 1993 and partnered with beer business veteran John Bryant (Deschutes, Odell, Oskar Blues) to launch the rebranded No-Li Brewhouse in spring 2012.
Q: When you started out back in 1993, did you ever think you’d be selling beer around the country and winning awards in Belgium, Japan and Australia?
A: Maybe – I had kind of that youthful enthusiasm, anything is possible. But if you would have asked me that same question three or four years ago I would have said no, no way. Then I met John, and everything kind of changed from there. … As far as the awards go, probably not, I probably wouldn’t have anticipated that at all. I’d never felt the need to have awards to validate the work that I do, but I do see the tremendous value in them – as the brewery grows, and you have more people working for you, it is validating. … I’d really love to win another award at the GABF (Great American Beer Festival), that’s the most prestigious, probably, competitive award that we’ve won (a gold in 2012 for what’s now Spin Cycle Red). There’s a lot of breweries there and a lot of great beer.
Q: What’s the biggest difference in the local craft beer scene these days compared to when you started?
A: The first thing is the number of breweries, also the beer environment, in other words the demand for craft beer is greater now than it was at that point in time. I think people are more educated, the craft beer scene has matured, and along with that maturation process, not only are the brewers and the breweries becoming better and more educated, but the consumers are becoming more mature and more educated, too. … I felt like there were some pretty good beers being brewed back then, though everybody had their misses, and there were some breweries that maybe weren’t brewing quality beer all of the time. But the overall economic climate was a big deal, and also I don’t think Spokane was quite as ready for that craft beer movement at that time. There weren’t that many craft beer places – the Viking was the very first place I delivered a keg of beer to, and that was the craft beer hub for Spokane.
Q: What do you think is the most important thing that can happen to move the local beer business forward?
A: I would say the most important thing would be that local retailers embrace local craft beer. If the places that aren’t craft beer-centric start saying, well, we’ve only got eight handles here, but I’m giving three to the locals, and everybody did that, all of a sudden, the craft beer scene would start to thrive. And you’re going to start to see tourism dollars increase – Spokane will be seen as a place with a viable and thriving craft beer scene, which is attractive to people driving by on I-90 or they’re flying in from Detroit for a business meeting, or just a family vacation from Canada or wherever. … I can tell you personally, it’s been a battle a little bit, like, it can’t be good if it’s from Spokane. It’s gotta be from Seattle or Portland, or California, or somewhere else. … It’s just making good beer, and hopefully eventually somebody will respect you for it, and decide that they want to buy it. And hopefully we can lead the way a little bit as the brewery that’s been around the longest, that’s been plowing that road, trying to break down some of those barriers. And I think as the whole scene grows, pretty soon, every time Terry (at Twelve String) puts out a great beer, every time that Iron Goat puts out a great beer, every time River City, whoever it is, puts out a good beer, and they’re able to get into those places, all of a sudden you’re going to find that we’re getting, as a community, validation, and I think it’s going to get easier for everybody.
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