Something’s brewing in Vancouver

Beer-making scene getting a boost from veteran brewers and newcomers

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Drink Locally

By the Bottle, 104 W. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver; http://bottledbrews.com/; 360-696-0012

Hazel Dell Brewpub, 8513 NE Highway 99, Hazel Dell, http://www.hazeldellbrewpub.com/, 360-576-0996

Laurelwood Public House & Brewery, 1401 SE Rasmussen Blvd., Battle Ground, http://www.laurelwoodbrewpub.com; 360-723-0938

McMenamins East Vancouver, 1900 N.E. 162nd, Suite B107, Vancouver, http://www.mcmenamins.com/; 360-254-3950

McMenamins on the Columbia, 1801 S.E. Columbia River Dr., Vancouver, http://www.mcmenamins.com/; 360-699-1521

Mt Tabor Brewing, 113 W. 9th St., Vancouver, http://www.mttaborbrewing.com/

Salmon Creek Brewery & Pub, 108 W. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver, http://www.salmoncreekbrewpub.com, 360-993-1827

25 Beers to Try Before You Die:

(based on nostalgia, exclusivity and originality)

  1. Allagash Curieux Abbey Trippel-Maine
  2. Amber Grand Imperial Porter-Poland
  3. Anchor Steam Lager-San Francisco, CA
  4. Avery Maharaja Imperial IPA-CO
  5. Bell’s Hopslam Imperial IPA-Michigan
  6. Boon Brewery, Oude Gueze Boon Lambic-Belgium
  7. Cantillon Iris Lambic-Belgium
  8. Carlsberg Carnegie Porter, Sweden
  9. Deschutes Black Butte Porter XX-Bend, OR
  10. Dogfish Head Red & White Witbier-Milton, DE
  11. Dubuisson Scaldis Prestige Pale-Belgium
  12. Full Sail Top Sail Imperial Porter-OR
  13. Goose Island Bourbon County Imperial Stout-Chicago
  14. Great Divide Oak-Aged Chocolate Yeti Imperial Stout-CO
  15. Kalnapilis 7-30 Lager-Lithuania
  16. Ommegang Hennepin Saison-Maine
  17. Orval-Belgium
  18. Port Santa’s Little Helper Imperial Stout-CA
  19. Rochefort 10 Trappist Ale-Belgium
  20. St. Bernardus Prior 8 Dubbel-Belgium
  21. Samichlaus 2009-Austria
  22. Stone Arrogant Bastard-CA
  23. Traquair Jacobite-Peebleshire, UK
  24. Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne Flanders Red-Belgium
  25. Well’s Banana Bread-UK

Source: Arlene Nuñez, owner of By The Bottle

DON’T TOUCH MY BELGIAN

Secure in the vaults of the Salmon Creek Brewery, Brewmeister Larry Pratt keeps a close eye on a beer he calls Brother Larry’s Belgian.

It’s a special brew, high alcohol content, with a light, sweet taste that doesn’t come cheaply, he said.

“I use German Hallertauer hops, Belgian grains and Belgian rock candy to make it,” Pratt said proudly.

He generally only makes it once a year, and he doesn’t let customers take it out of his pub, not even when they offer to pay large sums of money for a growler, Pratt said.

“I don’t want them to have it,” he said.

He sells pints of it at the pub, but he keeps a close watch on his most special beer.

“I don’t want it to be a beer you can just swill,” Pratt said. “It’s not about the money. I just think you have to have standards.”

This year he plans to make seven cases worth of bottled Brother Larry’s Belgian, but at most, people will be allowed to buy two bottles, he said.

“I want people to appreciate it,” Pratt said.

VARIETY, THE SPICE OF BEER

Brewing up a bigger beer scene in Vancouver requires a bit of strategy, and what the public demands most, especially in the Pacific Northwest, is variety.

“In this area, you expect change all the time,” said Larry Pratt, owner and brewmeister at Salmon Creek Brewery. “To me, if I had to brew the same thing every day, I’d get bored.”

One of the drivers behind Pratt’s experimentation is Vancouver’s weather, he said.

There’s a seasonal rhythm to brewing at your own pub, and odd as it might sound, regional climate can subtly change the taste of your beer, he said.

“Everything affects the beer — we’re talking about chemistry and microbiology,” Pratt said. “You have to keep your micros working, and they only work at certain temperatures.”

Pratt’s summer ale, called Hellas, can only be made if the outdoor temperature is lower than 80 degrees, he said.

If it ferments at a higher temperature, it doesn’t taste right.

His Octoberfest is brewed in August, when outdoor temperatures slowly start to cool down, he said.

“I have to be careful when I brew it,” Pratt said. “But in August, the days aren’t quite as hot.”

The delayed seasons this year have altered the beer lineup at Salmon Creek, he added.

He’s been able to brew more Hellas than he usually does, because the spring temperatures have stuck around longer.

Other brewers use technology to create strict indoor temperature controls when they brew, which lets them make any beer they want at any time of year. But Pratt said he prefers to work with Vancouver’s weather and use local ingredients, when possible, mostly just because it feels right.

Phil Stein, the brewmeister at Hazel Dell Brewery, said he also tries to create as much variety as possible in his beer lineup.

“We have a lot of IPAs, a lot of high alcohol beers,” Stein said.

His most unusual beers are his Hazel Dell Summer Ale, which he brews with honey, his Imperial IPA, which uses 14 pounds of hops and has a high alcohol content, and his Steinbock, which is a high alcohol beer that is dark, sweet and smooth.

One benefit to brewing in Clark County is that you don’t have to go far to get ingredients, Stein said.

Great Western Malting, the biggest seller of malt on the West Coast, is in Vancouver, and farmers in Yakima grow some of the best hops in the world, he said.

“We have real good ingredients, real close,” Stein said.

The faint sound of whistling echoed from cluttered back rooms and out into the downtown brewpub’s narrow outdoor dining area.

Larry Pratt, the source of the whistling, was in the zone.

The owner and brewmeister at Salmon Creek Brewery & Pub hustled back and forth, pouring grain in one room, stirring it into a vat in another.

“He has three loves,” Pratt’s wife, Ana, said with a smile as she watched her husband work. “He loves to talk beer, make beer and drink beer. As long as I get to drink what he makes, that’s OK.”

Pratt is one of only a handful of commercial brewers that still make their own beer in Vancouver.

But after 20 relatively quiet years with a fledgling beer scene and only a few microbrew pubs and tasting rooms, it looks like Clark County’s finally on the verge of a growth spurt.

Another craft brewer plans to open his doors downtown by the end of the month. Two more may be on the way by early next year. By The Bottle, a specialty beer store that opened four years ago next to Salmon Creek Brewery, has a new tasting room that is giving local brewers a larger venue to show off their beers.

Nationally, even though imported and domestic beer sales have dropped, the market for craft beer has grown — with retail value increasing from $7 billion in 2009 to $7.6 billion in 2010 — according to statistics collected by the national Brewers Association.

That could be an indication that Clark County could later support even more local brewers.

The growing scene also marks a return to Vancouver’s roots. Back in the days when Fort Vancouver was hopping with troops, our city was a much bigger draw than neighboring Portland.

Brewers would like to see the city’s historic beer culture return and thrive, perhaps with the addition of a beer fest and other celebrations of all things beer.

And they plan to welcome any new brewers on the scene with open arms — or taps.

“The more, the merrier,” Pratt said.

The old masters

Pratt and Phil Stein, the brewmeister at Hazel Dell Brewery, own Vancouver’s two oldest standing brewpubs.

Stein became the city’s first modern commercial brewer when he started operations 1993. Back then, the local beer scene was pretty much barren.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and we used to have to go to Portland all the time to get good beer,” Stein said. “So we decided to start our own brewpub in Vancouver.”

Stein got some help and advice early on from friends across the river at McMenamins, the Portland chain that now operates two brewpubs in Vancouver, and Bridgeport Brewing Company. Now newcomers come to him for advice, he said.

Pratt came into the scene shortly after Stein, and the two remain friendly and occasionally go to brew fests together, they said.

Pratt made his first beer in 1994, after he and a friend from work at United Airlines decided to try opening a brewpub.

The operation’s first location was supposed to be in Salmon Creek — hence the name — but his rent for the space increased at the last minute, so the Salmon Creek brewery had to move elsewhere, Pratt said with a laugh.

“Well, we started in Woodland, and neither of us had ever brewed beer before,” he said. “The first batch we made was awful.”

The two stayed in Woodland until 1997, then found a site downtown and reopened at the current location, 108 W. Evergreen Blvd., in 1998. Pratt eventually ended up buying out his partner and now has full ownership.

The new kid

Eric Surface could be considered the new kid on the block in the city’s up-and-coming beer scene, although he recently operated a brewery in Portland.

He closed that shop and for several months has been preparing to reopen his Mt. Tabor Brewing at 113 W. 9th St. in Vancouver.

Surface said he decided to move the brewery and tasting room because he grew up in Clark County and wanted to be closer to home and to provide more beer drinking options for people who live on this side of the river.

Clark County restaurants have been supportive, adding beers from the city’s small collection of brewpubs to their offerings, he said.

“It doesn’t get any more local than when I can bring beer over to downtown restaurants on a hand truck,” he said.

Surface, who’s been installing equipment and getting his final paperwork in order, expects to open by the end of July, he said.

He’ll kick off production with four beers, an India pale ale, two other pale ales and a blonde ale, he said.

“I’ll have a stout and a porter right behind them, and hopefully a black IPA right after that,” Surface said.

More on the way

Two more brewers are quietly sizing up the Vancouver scene and hope to add to the area’s beer diversity soon.

Loowit Brewing is in the process of looking for a good spot downtown to set up its brewery and tasting room, and Heathen Brewing is preparing a production-only operation in Hazel Dell.

“We’re hoping to kind of feed off each other,” said Devon Bray, who hopes to open Loowit Brewing with partner Thomas Poffenroth in early 2012. “If we’re walking distance from Mt. Tabor, from By The Bottle, from Salmon Creek, we can all build off that. It also helps to revitalize downtown.”

Others on the scene have been helpful, with tips and suggestions on how to set up shop, Bray said.

“Eric Surface has given us a lot of advice,” Bray said. “It’s a huge task. With breweries, you need a lot of specialized equipment.”

Setting up a brewery also involves working through a lot of paperwork with local, state and national governments — but the hassle seems to be worth it because the demand is there, said Bray, who grew up in Vancouver.

“For a brewery that’s not open yet, we’ve had a huge amount of interest,” Bray said. “I feel like Vancouver’s wide open. Everyone I talk to asks why there aren’t more breweries here.”

Bray and Poffenroth are working on four staple recipes for their opening beer lineup, including a golden ale, IPA, porter and black IPA, Bray said.

“From there, we’ll rotate other seasonal and experimental beers,” he said.

Sunny Parsons, the owner of Heathen Brewing, is also busy setting up shop in an old barn on his property in Hazel Dell and is looking for a potential business partner.

“I’ve got my licenses, I’m just going through and acquiring larger equipment,” Parsons said.

Right now, he has a smaller setup and is talking to some restaurants about selling his products. He hopes to have his first releases, probably an IPA, nut brown and blonde ale, in the next month or so.

“For the next year, my thing will probably be events — I’m trying to get into brew fests,” Parsons said. “By February or early 2012, I’ll be going full bore.”

He plans to release seasonal bottle packs by the fall of 2012.

“I’m changing some things around and trying to keep my ingredients really local and organic,” Parsons said. “When you start as a home brewer, it’s all about budget, but once you go professional, it’s about ingredients, quality. You want to keep everything as local as possible.”

Other brewers are also checking out the scene who don’t yet want to come forward, Surface said.

“There are a lot more people out there who are thinking about it,” Surface said.

Back to the future

Vancouver didn’t always play second fiddle to Portland’s brew scene.

In the 1800s, Fort Vancouver was considered a prime target for beer sales, said Maj. Jeff Davis, a historian and chairman of the Vancouver Barracks Military Association.

“You would have found more breweries over here in the 1800s than you would down in Portland,” Davis said. “There were more customers at the garrison. And every two months, when the soldiers got paid, they’d spend plenty of money at those breweries.”

The city was also Henry Weinhard’s first stop when he came west to get into the beer-making business. He started out as an apprentice with John Muench’s Vancouver Brewery in the mid-1850s and ended up buying the brewery in 1859. He operated it until 1862, when he sold it and moved to Portland to begin his beer empire.

In the 1800s, low-alcohol beer called “small beer” was popular, especially with soldiers, Davis said.

“It was popular for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because it was a way to make sure your water wasn’t contaminated,” Davis said. “The beers were maybe one half to one percent alcohol.”

Of course, soldiers also liked stronger beers for their down time, he added.

As the city evolved through the early 1900s, the brewery once owned by Weinhard continued to operate — and moved and changed names a few times, also shutting its doors during prohibition. It produced bottled beers under the names Star Brewery, Interstate Brewery and Lucky Larger before it shut down in the mid-1980s.

Since then, the scene has been left to a handful of microbrewers to carry on the city’s beer traditions.

Growth sought

What Vancouver’s 21st century beer scene needs to grow, pretty much all the brewers agreed, is for even more beer makers to come join the party.

“We need more breweries,” said Arlene Nuñez, owner of By The Bottle. “When you think of how many breweries and beer stores there are in Portland, and when you think of what this area has to offer, it only makes you realize how many more breweries we really could support.”

Part of By The Bottle’s goal with its tap room, which is one year old, is to encourage more local brewers by giving them a place to let the public try their beers.

A selling point for a beer trip to Clark County and to the By The Bottle tap room is that, due to different state laws, the beers you can find here are often different than the ones you can find in Portland,

“Geography plays a huge role for small breweries,” Nuñez said. “Small breweries north of us, they have problems selling beer in Oregon, but they can sell here and still have access to the Portland market. We’re sort of a gateway for that area.”

By The Bottle rotates more than 2,000 beers through its shelves throughout the year, and keeps about 600 beers in the store at any time, many from small Washington brewers.

Despite the growing beer scene, the biggest problem facing Vancouver, at least in Pratt’s eyes, is the lack of a brew fest.

“Just one a year, that’s all we need,” Pratt said. “We don’t even need a big one. It could be in Esther Short Park. There’s a wine fest, after all. But no beer fest.”

One of the odder rules out of Olympia is that you can’t run a beer festival if you own your own brewery, Stein said.

“Basically, that means somebody else has to put it on,” Stein said.

One group tried to set up a beer fest in the park several years ago, but it failed miserably because it conflicted with another event and was poorly publicized, Pratt and Stein added.

Setting a real brew fest up would require quite a lot of work, but it would be worthwhile, the two said.

“We’d really need to promote it, put it together, get an OK from the city,” Pratt said.

For his part, Surface said he thinks Vancouver is just about ready.

“We’ve kicked around ideas for brew fests, and I think if we get at least six brewpubs going, we could be in pretty good shape,” Surface said. “A year from now, we could see up to eight breweries in Vancouver. That would certainly be enough.”

By The Bottle, which could be a good host for a brew fest, has been trying to add more local beer-tasting events each week, in part as a way to test the waters and build up demand for a festival, Nuñez said.

The taproom’s popularity has been growing steadily, mostly through word of mouth.

“We only have things there that we know nobody else will have,” Nuñez said. "And we always have something that’s not available in Oregon."

Surface said he wants to do all he can to support By The Bottle’s plans.

“I talk to them quite a lot, and the first keg I make in Vancouver is going to go to them,” Surface said. “I’ve already told them that. The stronger the beer scene is in Vancouver, the more we’re all going to thrive.”