I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for long enough to know better, but until a recent trip, I never realized that Spokane was such a great beer town.
In truth, I had never really been to Spokane at all, except once on a layover on my way to a wedding. So it was high time I high-tailed it over to Washington state’s second-largest city (with a population of just over 200,000 for those who are counting) to check out the beer scene.
According to the visitors bureau, the Lilac City is named for the Native American Spokane tribe, which means “children of the sun” in the Salish language. And, indeed, it is a dryer, sunnier climate than what those of us Pacific Northwesterners who dwell west of the Cascade Mountains are accustomed to. But it does snow in Spokane. And while my traveling companions Dan, Susan and I lucked out and saw little in the way of white stuff on our entire trip, we were told throughout our trip that we had just missed a big snow storm.
Apparently snow used to not be a problem for the folks in downtown Spokane. Up until 1986, a giant steam plant provided heat and electricity to most of that area. One nice benefit of having the steam plant downtown was that all the pipes providing the heat ran under the sidewalks to various buildings. Those pipes were warm enough to melt the snow, keeping the city’s downtown walkways clear for more than 70 years.
But, in the 1980s, it became uneconomical to run the steam plant, and it was closed in 1986, forcing the downtown denizens to buy snow shovels and find other sources for heat. The building sat idle for almost a decade before finding its new purpose – housing the Steam Plant Grill brewpub along with tons of office and retail space.
The Steam Plant Grille is the product of an architect owner, and attention to detail shows in every corner. It is obvious that extreme care was given to protect the integrity of the structure’s previous function – there are catwalks that stretch high into the 80-foot ceilings, small nooks and crannies for private gatherings, pipes and dials and portholes and other interesting items at every turn. One room, which staff sometimes calls the “proposal room” because of its intimate environment, has a porthole on one end where the coal was fed into it and pipes covering the walls; it almost feels as if you are sitting inside a pipe organ. This place definitely gets high points for uniqueness.We sat down on a quiet evening for dinner and to try the beers at the Steam Plant. The beers are mostly made in neighboring Idaho by Couer d’Alene Brewing Co., which is owned by the same folks, but five are brewed on-site. The sampler tray fairly groaned with nearly a dozen 5-ounce taster glasses, all arranged by number on a piece of wood that is shaped to look like the Steam Plant’s twin smokestacks – one of Spokane’s most recognizable landmarks.
Standout beers, for me at least, were the Huckleberry Ale, subtle on the berry flavor with a nice, crisp finish; Lakeside British Ale, a richly flavored nut brown with a nimble body that makes the beer quite sessionable; Rockford Bay IPA, with its Northwest hop finish that isn’t too in-your-face; and the Pullman Porter, a chocolaty offering with enough roast in it to keep things from getting too sweet. I was most looking forward to the Vanilla Bourbon Stout, which is the most popular beer on the menu, but found it to have an artificial cream soda flavor derived from the use of extracts.
The food menu is varied, and each of us enjoyed what we ordered so much, there was little chit chat during the meal. A brief tour showed us that in addition to the restaurant area, which is divided into four “rooms,” there is also a pretty cool-looking bar downstairs which was hoppin’ that evening.
We needed a walk after our meals and sampler trays, so we set out to find some of Spokane’s other downtown beery delights. Close by, we found the Post Street Ale House, right next to the Hotel Lusso. It was packed with college students on this Thursday night, but the wait staff got to us right away and presented a beer list when we asked for it. There are 20 beers on tap with about six or so featuring locally made beer. The others seemed to be rotating taps from familiar names like Stone, Rogue, a few macros and so forth. The food menu looked pretty promising with usual offerings and a few unique items like a fried pickle. I thought at the time that the atmosphere seemed a bit stark, but read later that the place only opened in fall. Perhaps with time, its surroundings will help the place take on more character.
We somehow managed to find Baby Bar, the very aptly named side closet, nearly, of Neato Burrito restaurant. Getting into Baby Bar requires a GPS or tracking dog, but once you are there, you can see why everyone raves about this longtime Spokane hideaway. It’s tiny, so don’t bring a big crowd; you won’t fit. The bartender greeted us warmly as we walked into the neon glow and seemed happy to answer my questions, despite being pretty busy. There are about six to eight taps of mostly local beers, plus the ubiquitous Pabst tap that’s de rigueur in the Northwest.The next morning, we set out early to hit as many pubs as we could in the few short hours before our plane brought us back home. First stop was The Viking Tavern, mostly because it was close to our hotel and opened at 11 a.m. – two pretty compelling reasons! The place has been anointed “best beer bar” and “best beer selection” and such for several years by the locals, so it was a must-stop on this trip. Driving up, we wondered if we had gotten a wrong address; this place looked like a double-wide on steroids, not a beer bar. But the signs out front reassured us that we were, indeed, at the right spot. If we still had doubts, they were assuaged when we walked in. Yep, it still looked like the inside of a double-wide, complete with faux-wood paneling, but there were taps everywhere!
We bellied up to the bar. The bartender plunked down a big bowl of popcorn for us and we placed our orders after perusing a list that featured 34 taps (no crap) and 108 bottles – only a few of which were macros. It’s easy to see why this place always wins the city’s “best beer” competitions – the bottle list included a nice selection from Belgium, India, England, Italy, Germany, Croatia and many other countries, including 11 U. S. craft breweries.
The juxtaposition between the perfectly kitschy beer paraphernalia, the trailer park interior and the relatively snobby beer list was enough to get me giggling. Or maybe it was the morning beer and the amazement that the place was packed at 11 a.m. with more folks streaming in as the lunch hour neared.
Talking with the two busy bartenders, it was hard to nail down exactly how long The Viking had been around, but the younger of the two said when she told her grandmother that she got a job at The Viking, Grandma knew where it was. Apparently, it had moved, though from a previous location. Judging from the looks of the place, that was a while ago.Our next stop was Northern Lights brewpub, which is located in a small mall right next to Dry Fly Distillery, a craft spirits maker (side trip!) that makes a tasty vodka and gin, but was out of its whiskey. Dry Fly has a storefront and is not in the mall. But to get to Northern Lights, you have to find your way to the back of the mall. Follow the glow of the neon sign past the smattering of small shops and businesses.
Housed in what used to be the Bayou Brewpub — which explains the Gator mural and French Quarter trappings nearby — Northern Lights moved in seven years ago. Before that, it was a production brewery on the outskirts of Spokane for nine years.
The place was packed with the lunch crowd and the food looked great, but we were on a beer mission. The sampler trays offered a huge selection of beers. I liked the 16—an anniversary beer celebrating 16 years that used nine hop varieties. Surprisingly, because I tend to not go for fruit beers, I also enjoyed the blueberry ale, which incorporates nearly 400 pounds of blueberries added at the beginning of fermentation. Susan liked the winter ale, a seasonal that’s easy drinkin’ at 7.5 percent ABV and Dan enjoyed the IPA, with a subtly different hop profile than many Northwest IPAs. It is also the best-seller. Northern Lights has recently started really pushing to distribute its beers, so a number of them are available throughout most of Washington.
Another great beer bar, the Blue Spark, was next on our list. We zipped in and took a look around. With 32 beers on tap – and all the taps reserved for imports or craft beer — plus a good number in bottles, this is a bar that could rival The Viking. The friendly bartender was very helpful, and gave us samples of anything we wanted and a few others he thought we should try. He also told us a few other places to hit in our diminishing time frame, which, to me is always a sign of someone who is enjoys promoting craft beer. I would definitely hit the Spark again on another trip to the Lilac City.Time was drawing near, and we ended our trip with a late lunch at the Elk Public House. It’s situated in a stand-alone brick building that used to be the drug store for the surrounding cute, older neighborhood. The place was packed on a late Friday afternoon, and promised to get even busier. The harried server was helpful and patient, and all three of us enjoyed our meals (the corn pasta side came highly recommended by everybody we talked to).
We didn’t have enough time and the staff was too busy to get details on all the beers, but there were a good number of them, mostly Northwest beers, and the above-mentioned Northern Lights IPA was on draft. Again, this will be a stop I make the next time I head to Spokane, because now that I have been there, I definitely want to go back!
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