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7 Sips With … Mark Irvin, No-Li Brewhouse

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. 

Q: So if we’re talking about growth, how big do you want No-Li to get?

A: John and I, from the beginning of our company, we kind of threw a barrel number out there – we both agreed that we’d like to get to at least 20,000 barrels. (Note: No-Li will produce an estimated 7,500 barrels this year, up from 2,400 in 2012.) But we kind of stepped back a little bit from that, in the sense that we both learned that maybe the barrelage number shouldn’t be our goal as much as a certain level of profitability and prosperity. We want to build a very strong, prosperous business that has enough volume to be able to do things that we’re already starting to do – health care, dental plans, being able to give to the community enough to more than where it’s just a nice thing to do, it has some value to it. And then also have something that we can carry over not only for our families but maybe for Spokane as a little bit of a legacy in the craft brewing industry. … You can’t grow like you used to – what John’s doing now here would have produced probably three times the growth seven, eight, 10 years ago. But there’s so much competition, it’s just more difficult. … John doesn’t want to be a 50,000 or 100,000 barrel a year brewery, he says at that point it’s no fun. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been associated with anything like that. He knows exactly what that’s about, because every brewery he’s been with has been like that. So when he came to Northern Lights and we did this thing, we wanted to stay small, top tier price-wise, and try to do the most special and innovative and cool things with beer we could, and still have a profitable business.             

Q: Do you remember the first craft beer you ever had?

A: The first one that I remember has got to be (Redhook’s former) Ballard Bitter – I remember drinking it there in the pub. I remember drinking some Thomas Kemper, too, at the 619 (South Washington) location, where the original Viking was. … It was like, domestic beers, and then imports – imports is what really drew me into craft beer, tasting those beers, because there were no craft beers, originally. Anchor Steam was one of the very first ones that I recollect.

Q: And then sort of the flip side of that, if you could be drinking any beer right now, other than something you make, what would it be?

A: My favorite new beer comes from Prost Brewing in Denver, and it’s their Kolsch. It is incredibly well-balanced, delicately hopped and true to style. They brew German-style lager beers and do it right.

Q: So what question should I have asked you that I didn’t?

A: I always ponder, what is the next style that maybe takes off like IPA? I almost feel like stout might be it, because of the diversity of it – it can be so many things. It can be very low-alcohol, it can be high-alcohol. There’s so much in a great stout, and there are enough of them that almost anybody can find one that they like. It’s a beer, too, that if you go and take a bunch of women who say, oh, I like a Bud Light, and you give them a stout – more of a fuller, nicer, fruitier, sweeter sort of stout – you give that to them and they’re like, oh, I had no idea I would like this. … There’s also the wow value: What are you drinking, you’re drinking a black beer? It could be different enough that if there was the right beer with the right amount of push and marketing, all the intangibles, the right label … I just think the stout category could surprise some people.