Customers crowd Slate Creek's taproom for its closing night last Wednesday. (Carolyn Lamberson photo)
Two weekends ago, No-Li’s John Bryant participated in a panel discussion at the Great American Beer Festival about the challenges facing breweries today.
“In this room, we can look left and right, and we probably all won’t be here in three years,” he told fellow brewers in the audience. “I hate to take the romance out of what we’re doing, but we’ve gone from a couple thousand breweries (nationwide) to coming up on 6.000 and it’s getting really crowded out there.”
They’re the fifth and sixth local breweries to hang it up over the past four years, following BiPlane (Post Falls) in 2013, Ramblin’ Road (Spokane) in 2015, and Budge Brothers (Spokane) and Zythum (Fairfield) last year.
Declaring trends can be tricky. Most of those decisions have involved personal and family issues beyond any business concerns, and each brewery has its own financial needs and goals.
Downdraft, the only one to publicly discuss its reasons for closing, said it simply can’t afford to invest the time and money it would take to succeed in an increasingly competitive market.
“From a business perspective, we had our best year this year, so we’re really proud of that,” Downdraft’s Aimee Brayman says. “We’ve just been burning our candles at both ends working full-time jobs on top of running the brewery.”
And with competition continuing to grow, she says, “Sadly, I think we won’t be the last to make this type of decision.”
Five years ago, there were nine operating breweries in Spokane and Kootenai counties. Now, even without Downdraft and Slate Creek, there are 33 with at least nine more in various stages of progress.
“Unless there’s a burst in the population of craft beer enthusiasts, every time a new brewery opens, there’s a brewery somewhere else that struggles,” says Jeff Whitman, owner of Kootenai County’s oldest brewery, Selkirk Abbey, which opened in Post Falls in June 2012.
“It’s a tough business,” Whitman says. “We’re struggling. I know a lot of other people are struggling. It comes down to who can stay the distance until things shake out.”
North Idaho can be a particularly challenging market, he adds: “There are still a lot of fizzy yellow beer drinkers over here.”
Local brewers who distribute also face outside competitors, including breweries bought and backed by industry giants Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors.
No-Li’s Bryant tells of going to a recent Washington State University football game and finding six beers on tap, all from MillerCoors properties: four Hop Valley handles and one each for Leinenkugel and Blue Moon.
“There wasn’t even a local beer there,” he says. ”The money being pumped in by MillerCoors, that’s creating some barriers out in the market now. They’re quietly just pushing people out of the way.”
Whitman says anyone opening a brewery today needs a solid business plan, plenty of funding and the proven ability to make commercial-quality beer. “If you come in thinking you’re going to wing it, learn as you go, that’s not going to wash,” he says.
And you have to be committed as a craftsperson, Bryant says. “Unless you’re passionate about it, it’s not worth the sacrifice. It’s not just for the money, it can’t be,” he says.
“It does test your spirit. You have to realize it might be a few years before you see daylight. How much is it worth to you to keep going? There are no assurances that it’s going to work.”
Despite the challenges, Bryant remains positive. Craft beer culture is growing locally, he says, and he hopes No-Li can help make the area a visitor destination for beer drinkers to bring outside dollars into the market.
“I’m still incredibly optimistic about Spokane,” he says. “A number of breweries here are going to do well. There are headwinds to anything, but there’s definitely an upside.”