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‘It leaves a hole’: Jim’s HomeBrew closing on North Division after 70 years, marking end of an era for local brewers

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 12, 2021

James Johnson, owner of Jim’s HomeBrew Supply Inc. on North Division is closing the business. He’s owned it for 32 years, but the business has run consecutively for 70 years, and they claim it’s the oldest such business in the country.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
James Johnson, owner of Jim’s HomeBrew Supply Inc. on North Division is closing the business. He’s owned it for 32 years, but the business has run consecutively for 70 years, and they claim it’s the oldest such business in the country. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Untold gallons of homebrewed ales, mistakes and blue ribbons originated from a store located on a stretch of North Division Street that anchored leaders of Spokane’s stout collection of breweries.

Touted as one of the oldest, continually operating brewing shops in the country, Jim’s HomeBrew Supply, 2619 N. Division St., will be closing Sept. 4 to make way for a parking lot for used cars, owner James Johnson said.

“It’s the end of an era,” Johnson said. “It’s been a family business. And people who do this, do it out of passion.”

The building, located near the former White Elephant and the current General Store, has been sold, and Johnson received a 30-day order to vacate the premises that will end the business’ 70-year run.

“I’m out at the end of the month,” he said. “I’m selling everything I can possibly sell. I’m extending hours as I get closer to my deadline. I’m reaching out to breweries and wineries for bulk sales.”

Founded in 1952 by namesake Jim Dauber, the business changed hands a few times until Johnson bought the place in 1990 with partner Robert Ketcham, who died last February after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Johnson, 62, had taken over the primary duties of running the business in 2014 as Ketcham battled his illness.

“It’s just me running it … and two part-timers,” Johnson said. “The feasibility of trying to move and getting into a place is making it harder and harder to continue.”

Ketcham’s family moved here from Indiana when he was a child. They lived near Okanogan and often would drive to Spokane.

“When he was like 12 years old, (Ketcham) told me he remembered driving up Division and seeing Jim’s HomeBrew,” Johnson said. “He didn’t realize that someday he would own it.”

Pickle barrel beer

Mark Irvin, 57, said he met Bob Ketcham at Eastern Washington University in the late 1980s. They found a kit to make a home beer and decided to make it in an old pickle barrel.

“We called it Greenhorn Ale,” Irvin said. “It turned out all right.”

But they made the mistake of telling the first person who tried the beer that they used a pickle barrel. “They said they could taste it. We should have kept our mouth shut,” Irvin said. “But we both made our livings in beer.”

While Ketcham and Johnson bought Jim’s HomeBrew in 1990, Irvin founded Northern Lights Brewing Company in 1993. He sold the business, now known as No Li Brewhouse, in 2012.

“My palate was developed with the beers we drank and brewed together,” Irvin said. “Anytime we were short of something, we could rely on each other for what we needed.”

In the late 1990s, several small breweries started up in the Spokane area. Many of them relied on the expertise or ingredients they could obtain at Jim’s HomeBrew, Irvin said.

“You don’t go into home-brew supply to get rich,” Irvin said. “You love the craft and the patrons. That’s what really kept those guys in the game for as long as they had it.”

Brew Ha Ha Beer Club

Joe Kramarz, 78, said he started shopping at Jim’s HomeBrew about 21 years ago.

“The kids got me a Christmas present back in 1999 of a home brew kit,” he said. “I really enjoyed.”

Kramarz then started going to Johnson and Ketcham in 2000 for all kinds of accessories.

“From then on, I was hooked,” Kramarz said. “I’ve made 75 different kinds of beers over the years. I go way back with Jim.”

The former Michigan resident loved making beer so much he founded the Brew Ha Ha Beer Club for folks, like him, who loved making beer at home with ingredients they obtained from Jim’s HomeBrew.

“We ended up with about 20 different brewers,” he said. “We got together twice a year to have a contest.”

One of the club members was Craig Deitz, a former teacher who later built his own business, Big Barn Brewing Company in Green Bluff.

Ketcham “was instrumental,” Deitz said. “One of the biggest things he told me, when we started thinking about brewing ourselves, was you had to sell your own products.

“The big distributors don’t care a whole lot for the small guys,” he continued. “They want a big chunk of what you do.”

Ketcham and Johnson were always available for advice to help tweak a brew or find different ingredients, Deitz said.

“Like many people, I’m sad to see what I consider an icon of the Spokane community go by the wayside,” he said.

The Brew Ha Ha club disbanded a few years ago. But in its prime, the group had Ketcham come speak to the brewers, who then invited all their friends.

“We had 45 fellas attending these twice-a-year parties,” Kramarz said. “We got too big for our house.”

The parties also spawned competition as the home brewers would compete at the Spokane Interstate Fair. The judges always included, until he couldn’t continue, Johnson and Ketcham.

“They have been so connected with our community, the fair and microbrewing,” Kramarz said. “It’s a tragedy that this is happening. I always tried to spend all my money with them.”

Bonnie Sewell, the superintendent of the Agricultural Building at the fair, said she’s known Johnson and Ketcham for 30 years.

“Both of them have graciously been judging for me and putting up displays,” Sewell said. “We’ve always had a beer and wine display from the home brewers.”

But even that history is changing. With Ketcham’s death and Johnson’s pending closure of the shop, the fair will for the first time in decades mix the home brewers in with other displays.

“Yeah, it leaves a hole,” Sewell said. “We are one big happy family. We only get together once a year, but we all know what everybody is doing all year long. It doesn’t end just because an era ends.”

For years, Johnson and Ketcham fought hard to make sure their customers had a chance to compete. Their judging would then give the brewers tips about how to improve their beers, she said.

“We are really going to miss them at the fair,” Sewell said. “We were all hoping that Jim would decide to find another store. But all we can do is hang in there and be his friend.”

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