John Bryant’s first taste of the beer business was pouring pints for fellow Washington State University students at the Cougar Cottage. Since then, the 1988 communications graduate has helped build microbreweries in Oregon and Colorado into some of the most successful and respected in the country.
Now he is hoping to do the same in Spokane with the recently rebranded No-Li Brewhouse. Since he arrived, sales have soared and the brewery is winning awards and attention across the United States and overseas.
“The guy is moving 100 miles per hour all the time,” says Jeff Allen of the Odom Corporation, which distributes No-Li beers in Washington and Idaho. “He just knows the right people, the right buttons to push, the right avenues to go down.” Adds No-Li founder and partner Mark Irvin: “When John Bryant comes to them with a brewery, people listen.”
Bryant, 46, grew up on the Olympic Peninsula, the grandson of a lumberjack, the son of a teacher and football coach. A jeans-and-T-shirt type, he’s plainspoken but passionate—passionate about beer, passionate about people, passionate about the word “passionate,” which frequently crops up in his conversation.
His interest in the beer world began in junior high, when a friend invited him to the Olympia Brewery’s employee picnic. “You saw all these families just laughing, having a good time,” Bryant says. “Just seeing the smiles I think penetrated my psyche to say, ‘Maybe there’s something good going on here.’ ”
Then came college and “The Coug.” He flipped burgers, tended bar, and eventually lived upstairs, helping to manage the tavern for then-owner Warren Holtz.
“I kind of just fell in love with the culture of that environment,” Bryant says. “I loved the people who came in, I loved the people I worked with.” He also fell in love with his future wife, Cindy Gracio ’89.
Bryant began his post-collegiate career in wine, with Gallo. But before long he landed a job with G. Heileman, which brewed Rainier in Seattle and Henry Weinhard’s in Portland. The latter, a premium label, was a forerunner of the microbrew craze.
He parlayed his Henry’s experience into a position with craft brewing pioneer Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. During his nine years there, production rose from an annual 17,000 barrels to 140,000 and Bryant worked his way up to vice president of sales and marketing.
In 2004, eager for a larger leadership role, Bryant moved on to Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he became chief operating officer. His next stop was in Longmont, Colorado, as president of Oskar Blues Brewery. In both places, the pattern was the same: Sales increased, and the breweries began winning awards.
Bryant says he simply put into practice the lessons he’d learned: Treat workers well, break down “silos” within companies, create a common vision. “It’s just like coaching a team,” says the coach’s son. “If you can respect the individuality in people but put them all together when you’ve got to come together, you can do a lot of cool things.”
By summer 2011, he was ready to take a step back. The pace was getting to be a grind. His and Cindy’s parents were aging, and a lot of her old friends were returning to Spokane. Their oldest son would be graduating from high school and their youngest from junior high (there’s also a middle daughter), so the timing seemed right to follow suit.
Bryant found a kindred spirit in Irvin, whose small Northern Lights Brewery had survived since 1993 but was treading water. Last May, they launched the rebranded No-Li Brewhouse.
In its first three weeks, No-Li sold as much bottled beer as Northern Lights had the previous year. Bryant led teams “hand-selling” to customers in stores.
A favorable blurb in Esquire magazine was followed by awards in Japan, Germany, Belgium and, above all, a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the nation’s most prestigious beer event.
The approach is two-pronged, Bryant explains: convincing the local community that Irvin’s beers are worth drinking, and spreading “Spokane goodness” to the outside world. That includes selling beer in a pair of strategically selected markets: Denver, home to the Brewers Association, and Washington, D.C., where the Visit Spokane tourism organization has an office.
Bryant, a former Brewers Association board member, is working to bring the National Homebrewers Conference to Spokane in 2015, with his long-range sights set on a bigger target, the Craft Brewers Conference. He has also initiated talks with other area brewers about joining forces to boost their businesses.
“How great would it be when people arrive (in Spokane) and here’s your top 10 tourist destinations, two or three of them are breweries,” says Bryant. “We’ve got a ways to go, but I think it can happen.”