Northern Lights' Brews Brighten the Inland Empire

Brewpublic co-founder and Marketing Director Aaron Miles visits Spokane and the Inland Empire: part 1 of 2, Northern Lights Brewing.

Northern Lights Brewing Company of Spokane, Washington is a brewpub with which some folks from the Northwest beer scene, specifically Portland, may not be very familiar. This is because it is a good five to six hours away from Portland, and less than three hours from Missoula, Montana, by car. Located at the heart of the Inland Empire, Northern Lights is an area favorite, with solid craft brews on tap that are also available in bottles and throughout Eastern Wash and the Puget Sound area. Their brewpub is a recommended destination for craft beer lovers visiting Spokane (“capital of the Inland Empire” and the region’s most populated area).

Northern Lights has been brewing since 1993 and is one of the first craft breweries this writer has enjoyed. On this recent visit to the area, I was pleased to find out that in 2002, the brewery had moved from a suburban warehouse production operation to a spacious brewpub. My mother is quite fond of the place and highly recommended we visit. She liked to tell me about their chocolate beer, which she thinks is the coolest thing since chocolate milk.

brew crew - owner Mark Irvin (center), and brewer Bryan Utigard (right)
brew crew - owner Mark Irvin (center), and brewer Bryan Utigard (right)

The news of Northern Lights’ success inspires some hope for an Inland Empire Brewpublic. Recent closures of old favorites such as the Fort Spokane and Birkenbeiner breweries has done little to benefit the Spokane brew scene. Northern Lights is today the largest and most respected craft brewery in the Spokane area, and the only one that distributes its product. Owner and Brewmaster Mark Irwin founded the brewery in 1993 after working at Hale’s Ales, the Pacific Northwest’s longest running craft brewery. I spoke with Irwin and brewer Bryan Utigard during my visit and learned that with tap handles and bottles throughout Spokane, Seattle and soon Portland, the brewery is still shining bright.

Located near downtown Spokane in a semi-industrial East-side area, the brewhouse and restaurant sit on the bank of the Spokane River. It is a peaceful location offering a great atmosphere for quaffing Northern Lights’ craft brews or enjoying some decent American brewpub fair with friends or family. This is especially prevalent in the warmer months when you can enjoy outdoor seating situated on a grassy lawn literally 20 feet from the river.

With beer sampling in mind, we decided to go for the biggest of three sample trays, experiencing eleven of Northern Lights’ offerings in total. They were all prudent and drinkable and I would give the package deal an overall average rating of a B+. I will certainly return again for some of the solid, balanced and clean brews. With a broad variety on tap, it’s easy to find one for any palate and one to pair well with the restaurant’s conforming selection of sandwiches, salads, appetizers and pasta dishes.

Here are some of our favorites:

Solar Winds – Billed as an APA, this seasonal is blonde with a thin but present head. Super crisp and refreshing for how hoppy it is. Some subtle citrus and piny undercurrents. Similar to IPA with more complex flavors. Our favorite for a hot day.

IPA – Hoppy throughout with a dry hop finish backed by a mild and barely noticeable malt presence. Clear, amberish, thin head. Good overall IPA.

Chocolate Dunkel – My mom goes crazy for this one. I could stop right there, but I’ll add that it’s smooth and creamy, but pretty thin-bodied. Good balance of chocolate and malt characters. Obviously a good dessert beer and winter beer. In summer try mixing with Blueberry Creme for an interesting blend.

Blueberry Crème Ale – Normally I don’t go for fruit beers, but it was hot and this one hit the spot. Maybe it’s because I love blueberries and they have a star role in this one. Not overly sweet, with a big but smoother and balanced berry attack. Any berry attack should be smooth, and this one hit the spot. This was my mom’s second favorite.

Some additional brews that should be on tap now: a whiskey barrel aged version of they flagship Crystal Bitter, and an Anniversary Double IPA as well as Oktoberfest beers in Fall.

Fun with Blends – We tried a blend of the Chocolate and Blueberry. It made me smile, and of course, my mom liked it a lot. She talked about it for a while – apparently one of the coolest things since chocolate blueberry pie. Brewmaster Mark Irwin said he’s heard of people also trying blends of: the Blueberry and equally refreshing Summer Wheat; and a black and tan of Summer Wheat and Stout. Irwin seemed a little leery of all this beery blending but said: “As long as people are having fun with beer, I’m happy.” Then he went mountain biking. It was the weekend.

The food was adequate but underwhelming. It was a creative and fairly balanced menu, but for us, the delivery was lackluster. A calamari appetizer was predictable, but tasty enough to do the trick. A Greek chop salad had potential but failed to impress. It seemed to have been made with lettuce that had been sitting out for a while. The accompanying perfectly-cooked salmon saved the day. The Reuben was just fine, juicy in all the right places. And the sausage sampler appetizer paired well with the hoppy ales. Food prices were a touch high for what you’re getting, and for Spokane in general, but overall it was much better than standard fried pub grub.

Brewer Bryan Utigard
Brewer Bryan Utigard

The large building the brewpub is in also houses a Thai restaurant and other businesses you have to walk past before reaching the brewhouse and restaurant. The cavernous, high-ceiling bar area’s indoor seating has a great bar atmosphere for gathering with friends and reportedly can really fill up on the weekends. Large windows behind the formidable wooden bar provided a glimpse into the brewery where the large tanks glean mightily. This made the ales taste even fresher, knowing they came from 20 feet away. In the summer the outdoor seating can’t be beat. While the plastic patio tables leaves a little to be desired in comfort and aesthetics, the spacious lawn on the bank of the Spokane River provides a stellar gathering atmosphere. There is some residual traffic noise from a nearby bridge, but this is hardly noticeable. I took a break from the meal and walked to within two feet of the river…pretty nice. Definitely a good place to bring your mom, especially if she likes chocolate and blueberries.