Two of the best ways I’ve found to explore a new place are to run around in it, and to sample the beer from it. And like many in the craft beer community, I constantly exhort anyone who will listen to support their local brewery, while simultaneously seeking out beers from distant lands that are new, novel, and exotically foreign. The Session provides a unique opportunity to explore this connection between the beer in our glasses and the place it comes from with perspectives from all over the world
So I ask for this 42nd Session that you write about a special place in your life, and a beer or brewery that connects you to that place. It can be the beer from your childhood home, a place you once lived, your current hometown, a memorable vacation you once took, or a place you’ve always wanted to go to but never had the chance. Please take a few moments to think about the how the beer connects you to this place, and share this with us. Of course, the definition of “place” is rather open ended, and in some cases, highly debatable, so it will be interesting to see the responses on what constitutes a place.
This month’s topic is perfect because it gives me an opportunity to write about a brewery that I’ve been wanting to cover for a while: the defunct Birkebeiner Brewing Company from Spokane, Washington. (There are a couple of reasons for this. One is nostalgia. The other is in the spirit of trying to document a bit of the history of these breweries that are no longer around, combined with a bit of web archaeology.)
Back through the mid-90s I spent four years in Spokane, Washington, generally going to school and discovering my affinity for craft beer and homebrewing (which I’ve written about before). These were formative beer years for me, and while Spokane wasn’t the beer town that Portland was (or is), there were still several microbreweries, the best of which (in my opinion) was the Birkebeiner Brewery.
It was in fact one of my semi-regular beer haunts, in large part because Tuesday nights they had their $1 pint specials (I would get off work in the evening—I worked late hours while going to school—and enjoy two or three pints for cheap along with something to eat). They also had a tremendous number of beers on tap for a brewpub, a dozen or so, and were always rotating and experimenting with new beers: I remember when they first brewed a chili beer, and one night we were there and a woman at the table next to us had ordered a pint of it. She had barely a sip and didn’t like it, and offered it to me instead (she felt bad about sending it back). Always game to try a new beer (not to mention a free one!), I accepted.
It was awful. I couldn’t drink it either, but I had to give the brewery credit for attempting it.
I drank a lot of their beer, and two that stand out in memory are the Apricot Ale and the Oatmeal Stout. In fact, I even have an old T-shirt for that stout:
The Stout was a great beer, and the Apricot was well-brewed and tasted like an Apricot Ale should (not something I will say about a lot of versions).
The Birkebeiner was located in a (then) sketchy part of town, on 35 West Main, and they lasted from 1994 until 2000 (a few years after I moved away). Despite the fact that the brewpub has been closed for 10 years, there are still a surprising number of regional guide websites that have it listed—it even shows up on Google Maps! But real information online about the brewery is scarce; so far all I’ve found of substance is this article from 1999 that talks about the overall Spokane beer scene:
Just a few blocks away from Fort Spokane at 35 West Main Street is the Birkebeiner Brewing Co. Founded by owner/brewer James Gimurtu in 1994, it is located in an old dry goods warehouse and textile factory. The building has been extensively remodeled inside, with large storefront windows, a handsome bar and marble-topped tables. The surrounding area is sadly in need of refurbishing, however, consisting mostly of a row of crumbling warehouses. Just down the block is the House of Charity, a local mission for the homeless. It is reminiscent of Pioneer Square or the Market Area is Seattle twenty years ago, before its massive renovation.
But Birkebeiner is a bright spot in this somewhat seedy location. Gimurtu, an avid cross-country skier, named it for a legendary group of hardy Norwegian skiers who rescued the infant King Haakon V (birkebeiner means “birch binding”) Originally from Minnesota, James has lived in Seattle and Portland, where he went to hotel/restaurant school in 1992. Afterward, he moved to Spokane to open a coffee bar. James decided to open a brewery after taking brewing classes at UC Davis in California, and getting hands-on experience at a couple of western Washington brewpubs. Gimutrtu opened Birkebeiner in May of 1994.
He has worked hard to make a go of it in an admittedly difficult spot for business. The brewery has a comfortable restaurant, managed by Joe Kaler. It is handsomely decorated with vintage beer posters from old Spokane breweries, advertising Bohemian Club from Bohemia Breweries and Goetz Beer from the Spokane Brewing Co. (with its certificate of excellence from Siebel Institute in Chicago, no less.)
The menu is more adventurous than most pub fare, with choices like Buffalo Burgers and several Cajun items, including andouille sausage and jambalaya. Prices are very reasonable as well. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to midnight weekdays, until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
James brews with a 12 barrel brewhouse (the kettle size) from Century Manufacturing in Ohio, with two 22-barrel fermentation tanks. There are up to 12 beers on tap at any given time, including an American-style Hefeweizen; a somewhat fruity blonde ale; Alien Amber ale ( poured from a twisted rebar-hand tap handle), a nut brown ale, a roasty Scottish ale, a strongly bitter IPA, a seasonal winter dark, a hoppy, dark amber ale, and a roasty but smooth Oatmeal Stout. There are several fruit-flavored brews, including the blueberryish Tough Guy, a golden, aromatic but somewhat thin Belgian Raspberry, and an apricot ale, a cloudy pale ale which seemed to have the best fruit taste. Also available when I visited was a malty chili beer, with a good peppery aroma and not too much heat in the finish.
Good times. The Birkebeiner’s Apricot Ale inspired me to try brewing my own version (with fresh apricots a friend brought back from Moses Lake, Washington)—which turned out just okay as I recall, not great—which I hope gives you an idea of the impact the brewery had on me. It was a great place, and in some ways I wish I could revisit it. But then again, this month’s Session has helped me do just that.