Next time you visit one of the Tri-Cities' three brewpubs, consider toasting Aaron Burks.
He opened the first one -- Atomic Ale Brew Pub & Eatery in Richland -- 15 years ago.
Looking back on the early days, Burks remembers a brewpub was a hard sell in the Tri-Cities.
"Many people had no idea what a brewpub was. I had people tell me, 'I can't go there. We have kids.' They thought Atomic Ale would be a dark, smoky tavern with sticky floors," Burks said, looking around at his bright, clean, smoke-free pub at 1015 Lee Blvd.
Burks and the other Tri-City brewpub owners say the demand for handcrafted microbrews will continue to grow.
"There's been a tremendous interest in them in the past decade. Every year more and more people give them a try and usually end up sticking with microbrews," said Doug Ryder, brewer at Rattlesnake Mountain Brewing in Richland.
"They usually start out with one of the lighter ones, like a golden or a hefe (hefeweizen, a German wheat beer), and gradually work their way into the heavier beers, the porters and stouts. Once you get into those, you never go back," he said.
Ice Harbor Brewing's Mike Hall agreed, saying "microbrews are a growing segment of the beer industry. Mass-produced beers are losing market share to craft brews. Sure, they're still 90 percent of the market. But microbrews, in just a few years, have gone from being 9 percent of the market to being 10 to 11 percent."
"We're converting people, slowly but surely," Hall said.
Hall and Jaquish opened Ice Harbor Brewing when they bought the former Meheen and Collins Brewing Co. in Pasco in 1996.
"It made sense to open a brewpub when we bought the building in Kennewick. We had the space and brewpubs, selling by the glass, is where the money is at," said Hall.
Menus didn't appear on the tables at Ice Harbor in Kennewick until June 11, 2004, when Hall and business partner, Bill Jaquish, bought an old train warehouse in Kennewick. Prior to that, they brewed beer and sold it out of their tasting room in Pasco.
Rattlesnake Mountain Brewing opened July 4, 1997, but the restaurant attached to the brewery, Kimo's, didn't open until 2005.
A brewpub, Hall said, is defined as a business which brews beer on the premises and serves food too.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Atomic Ale, Burks is rolling back prices on several of his most popular brews to 1997 levels from Feb. 17-19. A pint of the pub's big three -- Half-Life Hefeweizen, Atomic Amber and Plutonium Porter -- will be $2.78, instead of today's $4.25.
Several of the pub's pizzas, too, including the popular Godfather, also will have 1997 price tags -- $9.99, instead of $14.99. The pub touts the Tri-Cities' first wood-fired pizza oven.
Atomic Ale's special anniversary release is the Berkelium Blackberry Porter.
"It's brewed with marion blackberries which gives it a slightly sweet, chocolatey flavor something like a cordial," Burks said. "It's a recipe we've been brewing seasonally for years, always timing it for release on our anniversary."
The brewpub also will have anniversary T-shirts, pint glasses and extra large growlers (gallon/liter size glass jugs) with their 15th anniversary logo for sale.
Other brewpubs and breweries in the Mid-Columbia
* Snipes Mountain Brewing, 905 Yakima Valley Highway, Sunnyside. Phone: 509-837-2739. Website: www.snipesmountain. com.
* White Bluffs Brewing, 2000 Logston Blvd., Suite 126, Richland. Phone: 509-521-1589. Website: www.whitebluffs brewing.com.
* Whitstran Brewing, 1427 Wine Country Road, Prosser. Phone: 509-786-4922. Website: www.whitstranbrewing.com.
* Skye Book & Brew Pub, 148 E. Main St., Dayton. Phone: 509-382-4677. Website: www.skyebookandbrew.com.
* Laht Neppur Brewing, 44 Preston Ave., Waitsburg. Phone: 509-337-6261. Website: lahtneppur.com.
* Horse Heaven Hills Brewery, 1118 Meade Ave., Prosser. Phone: 509-781-6400. Website: www.horseheavenhillsbrewery.