Up until about five years ago, Clark County craft beer fans had few options for enjoying locally brewed beer. McMenamins on the Columbia marked the chain’s first brewpub in Washington when it opened in 1995; Hazel Dell Brewpub served thirsty patrons for nearly 20 years before closing in late 2011; and the long-running Salmon Creek Brewery & Pub shut down in mid-2012–only to reopen later as the Old Ivy Taproom.
But while these enterprises opened, closed, or operated with varying degrees of success, a new generation of home brewers plied their trade in basements and garages around Clark County. Today, roughly 20 breweries are either open or have plans to open throughout the county — with no slowdown in sight.
The scene has grown so much, so quickly, a local marketing firm is finalizing a so-called “Brewcouver Passport” to spotlight Vancouver’s myriad breweries and showcase the region as a beer-centric tourist destination.
Vancouver’s slow embrace of brewing is not rooted in the city’s history. Henry Weinhard got his start by investing in a Vancouver brewery in 1857, and a brewery that would become Lucky Lager opened a decade later near Esther Short Park, where it would brew until 1985.
But Clark County’s craft beer growth stunted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even as Portland seemingly couldn’t open breweries fast enough just across the Columbia River, observed Pete Dunlop, author of “Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana.”
Breaking down craft beer
What is craft beer?
The Brewers Association, an industry advocacy organization, says a brewer’s beer is considered “craft” when less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcohol beverage entity that it is not a craft brewer; production is 6 million barrels of beer or less each year; and a majority of a beer’s flavor comes from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.
What sets craft breweries apart?
Craft breweries enjoy certain advantages over beer conglomerates such as AB InBev (brewer of Budweiser and other major brands) but also face unique disadvantages. Smaller craft breweries, for instance, can more nimbly brew beers with seasonal or otherwise curious ingredients, and can more quickly respond to changing tastes among their clientele. Craft breweries also tend to brew a wider variety of beers, from hoppy IPAs to chocolate-flavored porters to fruity radlers. Larger breweries and beer companies have the advantages of a well-developed distribution infrastructure and easier (if not cheaper) access to key ingredients, such as hops and malts.
What, exactly, is a beer bar or brewpub?
The terms “beer bar” and “brewpub” can be used interchangeably and typically signal that a particular establishment specializes in serving craft beer from throughout the region and beyond. A brewpub doesn’t necessarily brew its own beer, but many do; Old Ivy Brewery & Taproom in downtown Vancouver, for instance, pours its own beer, in addition to libations from regional outlets.
— Matt Wastradowski
“For so many years, ‘the Couv’ was a laughingstock,” he said. “Vancouver was a little bit slow to embrace craft.”
During that period, Dunlop said, the few craft brewers in Clark County often produced inconsistent beers. Portland cast a long shadow, he added, and the demographics, although rapidly shifting today, didn’t support a thriving craft beer scene then.
Wider trends spur local scene
Clark County’s growth certainly plays a part in the gradual embrace of craft beer. The county experienced a net gain of more than 3,000 people from throughout the Portland area between 2009 and 2013, according to U.S. Census estimates released this year.
As the county grew, so too did the number of breweries. About 15 brewers have opened in Clark County since 2012, whether by brewing and selling from home (Heathen Brewing has offered samples and growler fills out of a converted horse barn since 2012, for instance) or by opening pubs throughout the county. Another handful of brewers are in the midst of opening new outposts.
In another respect, Clark County brewers are riding the waves of a larger trend: 136 breweries operated throughout Washington in 2011, according to the Brewers Association. But by 2014, that total grew to 256 breweries, placing the state fifth in the nation per capita for craft brewers.
One of the new breweries to be counted in 2015 will be Trap Door Brewing, which opened in late October in Vancouver’s Uptown Village. Bryan Shull, one of four owners, saw potential in the trendy neighborhood and recognized the opportunity to join a burgeoning scene. “Uptown Village really endeared me as it changed from a pawn shop alley to a vibrant subculture of the city,” said Shull, a 46-year-old Hudson’s Bay High School graduate and nearby resident. “It was really important for me to be on this street in this part of town.”
Opening and operating a brewery isn’t without challenges. Shull predicts that choice locations around Clark County will be snapped up as craft brewing grows over the next few years, forcing brewers to find new models as they try to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. And even established brewers must contend with an unpredictable market for various varieties of hops and changing tastes among beer drinkers.
Passport showcases brewers
Despite those challenges and risks, the local scene shows enough promise for a local marketing company to unveil what it calls the Brewcouver Passport, inspired by similar efforts in the Columbia River Gorge and Central Oregon to encourage beer-centric tourism.
Michael Perozzo, founder of Vancouver-based Zzoom Media, is a craft beer enthusiast whose company works with several local and regional breweries. Perozzo noticed in recent months that Vancouver suffered from an image problem: The more he talked with fellow beer fans at bottle-share events and beer-release parties, the more he realized that few people outside of Clark County knew of the quality of craft beer in Southwest Washington.
He hopes to change that with the Brewcouver Passport — currently on Twitter and Instagram: @brewcouver.
Perozzo plans to distribute a free “passport” by the end of November showcasing 10 Vancouver-based breweries to pubs, bars, and hotels throughout Clark County. Interested imbibers will be able to pick one up and get a stamp at each participating brewery. After getting stamps from at least eight of the 10, they’ll redeem it for a Brewcouver-branded beer glass at an as-of-yet undetermined location.
Perozzo plans to feature 10 Vancouver-based breweries, including Loowit Brewing Company and Old Ivy Brewery & Taproom, rather than produce a countywide passport, given the logistics of traveling to far-flung breweries in rural communities. Zzoom Media is covering the program’s startup costs, and participating breweries will chip in going forward.
He hopes the passport brings attention — and traffic — to some quality breweries. Marketing efforts will target out-of-town visitors and Portlanders as well as locals, he said.
“There hasn’t been anything that unites these breweries,” Perozzo said. “We want to shine the spotlight on Vancouver breweries and the Vancouver beer scene and really help folks understand that there’s a reason to stop here.”
Dunlop thinks the time is right for a passport program. “Vancouver is a destination at this point, and I wouldn’t have said that 15 years ago,” he said. “It’s really cranking up now. They have a real stable footing, and there’s a lot of good stuff happening.”