A single, lengthy day trip is all that stands between me and achieving my goal of visiting all of the breweries in the greater Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area. Within the past several years, a whole slew of exemplary breweries have popped up all around our fair metropolis. It’s terrific! Besides being able to sample the area’s breweries’ beers at their respective tasting rooms, many local bars and restaurants regularly feature these local brews on tap. It was once a laborious task to scope out any beers made within the confines of the city limits, and what was once a hefty challenge has been replaced with the pleasantly arduous task of selecting one of the myriad regional suds available. I am far from alone in being delighted by these circumstances.
Last Friday, a friend of mine, himself a fellow homebrewer, inquired whether I was interested in venturing out to any of the local breweries that evening. As if he really needed to ask? Being well-travelled across the area’s brewing scene, I was more than happy to introduce him to a brewery I was already familiar with and whose brews I’d not only previously enjoyed, but was eager to enjoy again. Our first stop was the nearby 12 String Brewing Company in Spokane Valley.
If you didn’t already know where 12 String is, you’d be likely to miss it. Nestled in a small industrial park just off of I-90, one would never guess that a bustling brewery occupies one of the spaces in an otherwise docile neighborhood. Upon entering 12 String, one can’t help but take a moment to take in the scene: softly lit, the sleek wooden tables look warm and up to the task of hosting an evening of enjoying bubbly brews and colloquial conversation. A small stage occupies the front corner of the room, where, several nights a week, it’s occupied by musicians who happily strum and sing along between sips of their favorite 12 String creations. Behind the bar, a formidable line-up of twelve taps, eleven of which are occupied by the brewery’s original creations, stands at attention, ready to serve the next eager patron. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the simultaneously opposing and complementary arrangement of elements in the room: a shelf of long-empty growlers, many from breweries located throughout the West, was situated directly across the room from taps that rarely stop flowing. The scene was a feast for the eyes and whetted our appetites for a one of 12 String’s numerous concoctions.
When we arrived early Friday evening, the tasting room was already packed. Unbeknownst to my friend and I, that Friday happened to be the release of 12 String’s new seasonal beer, Dry Fly Whiskey Barrel Aged C#7#5 IPA (6.6% ABV, 110 IBUs). In celebration of the release, Veraci Pizza, a locally-owned mobile pizzeria, (literally) fired up their ovens and set up camp right outside of the brewery’s front door. Retrospectively, it seems that it was only appropriate: there are few pairings more right in the world than piping hot pizza and fresh beer. Having chatted about whiskey (specifically, bourbon) the majority of the drive to the brewery, it seemed only right that we both that we each enjoy a pint of the new whiskey-saturated brew. Spotting a couple of seats at the bar, we moved in, sat down, and ordered one each. When our beers arrived, elegantly peeking their sturdy white heads over the edges of the tulip glasses, neither of us wasted any time sniffing, sipping, and serving our initial analyses to each other. Considering the generous additions of two particularly earthy and high-alpha hops, Summit and Columbus, we weren’t surprised when this ale revealed a bitingly bitter finish that held on with all its might. The addition of Cascade hops to the mix provided a refreshingly sweet quality that soothed some of the unrelenting bitterness of its companion hops and an irresistible grapefruit aroma, a tell-tale sign of many an American IPA. Both my friend and I adore a good barrel-aged beer and the oaky vanilla flavor that whiskey and bourbon barrels contribute to the brews they house; the present example did not disappoint. Subtle, but conspicuous enough, we were able to taste the warm influence of the whiskey barrel on the IPA. This rendition of one of 12 String’s most popular ales showed itself to be a solid example of what many beer-lovers have come to love about the growing trend of barrel-aged beers: the warming influence of the beloved liquor that once occupied the barrel, and the stories of the barrels themselves. We took our sweet time with our pints, sipping away over chit chat and the clamor of the high-spirited milieu. After a bit, we were treated to a concert of crowd-pleasing favorites played by two local musicians on guitars, a combined twelve strings. Perfectly fitting.
After 12 String, it was time to make our way east. Just a few miles to the east, barely over the border into Idaho, is Post Falls, the city lying smack-dab between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. It was in this town that my friend and I were both treated to a novelty: Biplane Brewing Company. Personally, I wasn’t sure whether to be aghast or elated that the brewery ended up being right next door to Starbucks. The identification of Biplane’s location contributed to my hypothesis that Spokane and the surrounding area is home to breweries with some really rather unusual locations. However, that is neither here nor there.
As one would hope, the interior of Biplane Brewing Company is adorned with all-manner of aviation-themed decor: a large model biplane hanging over the bar, airplane artwork on the walls and windows, even a biplane printed on the floor. We seated ourselves at the bar top and were quickly greeted by Nadine, who faithfully tends the tasting room six days a week. She was welcoming and happy to answer our questions about the brewery, informing us that when they say “small batch”, they mean “small batch”: Biplane brews only 10-gallon batches, each one at a time. When I asked how long she’d been there, I received two answers: the physical brewery had been there for two years, but Nadine, herself, had been there since about ten o’clock that morning. The tasting room promptly opens its doors at eleven o’clock each morning, though Nadine and brewmaster Doug, arrive early to start the day’s brewing. The tasting room is open until 7 or 8 most nights, and until 9 on Fridays and Saturdays, resulting in some exceedingly lengthy days for Nadine. As it was already 8:30 when my friend and I arrived, I greatly appreciated her graciousness and willingness to answer our questions, despite her having been at work for the better part of eleven hours already. We took tremendous pleasure in drinking in each of Biplane’s offerings and enjoyed Nadine’s company just as much.
My friend and I both opted for taster paddles, so that, between the two of us, we would be able to sample each of the six beers on tap. I selected Bristol Bulldog Brown Ale and Biplane Pusher Pale Ale, as well as two seasonals, a chocolate stout and a cranberry cream ale. Not wanting to miss out on anything, my friend selected Sopwith Camel IPA and Rumbler Red Scottish Ale, as well as the brown ale and the stout. I started off with the cranberry cream ale. I didn’t abhor cream ales, but it would be an exaggeration of the truth to say that I was a connoisseur of the style. I’d sampled Hale’s Cream Ale before, though I wasn’t enamored with it. My liking of cream ales took a turn for the better last summer when I tried Laughing Dog’s Huckleberry Cream Ale; I found its boisterous huckleberry flavor most enjoyable and a welcome distraction from the somewhat disappointingly light malty flavor. Biplane’s cranberry cream ale proved a magnificent aberration from my previous experiences with the style. The initial sip demonstrated a stronger malty flavor than anticipated, and, just when I had prepared to give up hope that the cranberries would make any sort of notable appearance, there they were: a light tartness began to arrive in this beer’s second act, and by the third, those superbly piquant berries were strutting their stuff all over my taste buds. The cranberry cream ale proved a tough act to follow and would ultimately turn out to be my favorite beer of the evening. Moving on to the pale ale, I found it to be comfortingly familiar; with a healthy dose of Yakima Valley hops and a warm amber color, this could potentially pass for a strong session beer amongst northwest hopheads. The next step up, in terms of color and bitterness, was the IPA. It was a charming ale, though it didn’t provide either of us with the thrill that our initial sample, the cranberry cream ale, had. Progressing through the line-up, the Scottish red ale was next. Nadine wasn’t at all surprised when this one made both my friend and I raise our eyebrows and declare, “Whoa.” A brilliant red color, one can’t help but react as we did when one experiences the startling jolt of roastiness that this beer reveals. Utilizing a recipe from the eighteenth century, this brew delivered a flavorful wallop that was reminiscent of its beloved and well-known cousin, Scotch whiskey. For me, Biplane’s remarkable red ale proved a close second to the cranberry cream ale, though my friend loved it enough that he went home with a growler full of it. Down to the last two brews in the evening’s roster, we prepared to tackle the brewery’s two darkest offerings: the brown ale and the chocolate stout. First, the brown ale: a soothing deep chestnutty color, with hints of roasted nutty spice and a whisper of chocolate, this easy-drinking brew reminded me of the cold winter months we only recently left behind. Though I thought that the brown was a solid brew, I wasn’t looking forward to reliving memories of a winter not-so-long-since passed, and I found myself pining for something hoppier and more indicative of spring. We were ready move on to our final sample of the evening, and Biplane’s seasonal pièce de résistance: the chocolate stout. Without hesitating, we each took a sip; it was just what we were hoping for. Strong and smooth, this stout presented flavors of dark chocolate with just enough roasted malt to reassure you that it deserves to be called a stout. We chatted with Nadine as my buddy finished up the remainder of our samples, unabashedly gleaning as much information as we could about Biplane’s beers and approach to brewing. All in all, the combination of bold ales and charming conversation was a fine way to end the evening.
My friends and I only make it out to a new brewery once every other month or so. While it frustrates me that so much time passes between these outings, I’m also glad for it. The respite provides me with plenty of time to reflect on my thoughts about the brewery’s offerings on tap, what I enjoyed about the physical brewery, and compare other beers to what I tried at the brewery. The fact that we are able to go out on these “brews cruises” and have a different destination each time is one of my favorite things about living in Spokane. Though I never shy away from the opportunity travel to distant breweries or to sample beers from far-off lands, it’s comforting to know that I can always go back home and rest assured that great brewing is happening right down the street.