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Monday, July 23, 2018

Whistle Punked in Spokane

Compared to the Portland beer scene, which is spinning wildly out of control with breweries and pubs opening seemingly every week, the scene in Spokane is relatively calm. Nonetheless, there's a quality craft beer culture on the rise there.

Craig Hanson
Last week's trip to the Inland Empire to visit family included several brewery stops. Each of them was impressive in it's own way, but the one that continues to stand out in my mind is Whistle Punk, located in a unique basement space in downtown Spokane. 

Co-owner Craig Hanson, who doubles as the longtime wrestling coach at East Valley High School, was behind the bar and happily chatted me and others up on the Whistle Punk story. As always seems to be the case, there were some interesting twists and turns involved in getting the place up and running.

"I got involved in brewing when I was a college student in the eighties," Hanson recalled. "It was a cheap way to make beer. Later on, my son [co-owner] Matt got interested. Pretty soon, friends started asking us to supply beer for weddings and other special occasions. We obliged."

They were selling so much beer by 2013 that they figured they ought to get a license. At that point, the original name, Hanson Brothers Brewing, resulted in a trademark dispute with the Hanson Brothers singers. Rather than fight it, the brewing Hansons took the path of least resistance and changed their name to Whistle Punk, an old logging term that refers to the guy who blew the whistle on a steam donkey (look it up).

"The name and branding have been well-received," Matt Hanson said. "We get guys here who've been in the logging industry and they know what a whistle punk is. They like it. And it seems to have wide appeal with a lot of our patrons."

With the name in hand, the Hansons began selling kegs to a few key outlets in 2015. The objective was to collect feedback on the beers and build some name recognition. Mission accomplished. But they knew selling beer out of their own space was the future. That's become the Holy Grail of craft brewers in recent times.

In May 2017, they landed in a charming downtown space which formerly housed the Brooklyn Nights lounge. It's a sunken space bathed in brick and rock walls. As with many pubs and breweries, exposed wooden beams complete the visual picture. Tables and chairs of various heights provide apparently ample seating. Nice digs.

No beer is produced  here. The Hansons brew on a tiny 2-bbl system located in nearby Newman Lake, then transfer the beer to the tasting room. Fresh, small batch beers rotate through on a regular basis. Although they will soon upgrade to a 7-bbl system, their goals aren't changing.

"We really like being taproom-focused," Matt Hanson said. "Moving to a larger system will allow us to do a little outside distribution and participate in some festivals, which is tough now. But we'll continue to make a great product and sell most of it in our taproom. That's our profit center."

As for the beers, everything in my flight was solid. Coast to Coast IPA is a juicy hazy with a bit of bitterness. Good stuff. Another one I liked was the Espresso Milk Stout, which is aged on bourbon-soaked vanilla beans and blended with cold brew. This beer is 7.1% ABV, but drinks a lot softer and lighter than that, thanks to the lactose. There's also Spruce Tip Pilsner, a terrific beer.

The beer scene in Spokane remains well-behind what's happening in Portland and Seattle. That, I believe, is because Millennials have flocked to the larger cities and are driving the craziness there. But Spokane is on the upswing, catching up nicely, doing things right.

Whistle Punk visitors can check the current tap list on their website. It's constantly changing and they update it regularly. I advise verifying their open hours the same way.

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