Beer Battle

Northern Lights Brewing Company made news a couple of weeks ago when it overhauled its branding and changed its name to the strikingly similar “No-Li Brewhouse.” Confused? We were, too.

First, the reason for the overhaul. Brewmaster and owner Mark Irvin, who started the Gonzaga-area brewery 18 years ago in a little building in Airway Heights, has teamed up with John Bryant, a veteran of the beer industry (Rainier, Weinhard’s, Deschutes, Odell, Oskar Blues) who is moving to Spokane from Colorado to be closer to his wife’s family. They’ve purchased a new bottling line and plan to up production from 1,500 barrels per year to 4,500 in the next 12 months — making more beer overall, and putting more of their beers into bottles (only three are available now, in 22-ounce bottles).

Though the line-up of beers won’t change much, says Irvin, the packaging will. Their look was re-imagined by British Columbia designer Riley Cran, who has jettisoned the old borealis for a clean, modern look that emphasizes the company’s Spokane roots.

So, too, will the brewhouse change. There are plans to renovate the back patio space with gas fireplaces and a pergola strung with hop vines.

Irvin says they plan to grow their distribution, too — a new contract with distributing company Odom will expand its reach in the Inland Northwest and hopefully, eventually, push them into Colorado and even to New York City where, Irvin says, Bryant has connections.

But that’s where the name change comes in. Irvin says when they began to discuss future plans for the brewery, they discovered a company on the East Coast that bottles and distributes a “Northern Lights IPA.”

And the company is partially owned by Anheuser-Busch, one of the biggest beer companies in the world. Cue the lawyers.

Though Irvin had been trading on the “Northern Lights” name for almost two decades, Irvin and Bryant quickly realized they didn’t have the firepower to fight the industry.

“‘You know, we’re not sleeping well, we’re spending money and we’re getting nowhere,’” Bryant recalls saying to Irvin over beers one evening. “‘Let’s take the high road here.’” The “No-Li,” then, while still alluding to the company’s former name, is also a hint at that forthrightness in the face of a giant conglomerate. There’s also an inside joke in the new moniker for the company’s pale ale. It’s named after the response their pleas got from the big-city lawyers. It’s called “The Silent Treatment.”

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