Tasha Graeff took the plastic card, walked to the beer tap and poured a locally brewed IPA into a glass.
It seems like the typical transaction at a public house, except Graeff isn’t a bartender; the pub owns the card, and the beer she poured was for herself.
At Barlow’s Public House at The Waterfront Vancouver, 801 Waterfront Way, Suite 203, a new beer experience lets customers draw their own beer, cider and wine out of 23 taps mounted on a wooden wall.
“How are they able to get away with this?” Graeff said. “You’re able to taste before deciding on what you want.”
The beer wall, which opened last month, is the first of its kind in the Portland metro area. In addition to its outdoor patio with a near-180-degree view of the Columbia River, Barlow’s and its beer wall is drawing drinkers from Portland and beyond, building on Vancouver’s growing reputation as a destination for beer tourists.
One year at the Waterfront Vancouver
The self-pour system is more akin to the self-checkout line at a grocery store than a traditional taproom. Upon seating customers, a host gives customers a beer card linked to their bill. They go to the beer wall, take a glass, place the card on a sensor above each tap, and pour their drink.
A computer and LED screen calculates the amount of beer poured in the glass to a tenth of an ounce. A bar graph shows the limit of alcohol left on the card, usually amounting to two drinks.
After that two-drink limit runs out, customers can get their cards refilled after a judgment call by the waiting staff to make sure they’re not drunk. The restaurant also gives customers the option of ordering beer from the servers.
A Chicago-based business called Pour My Beer developed the system and has contracted with dozens of breweries and tap houses in the country, but Barlow’s is the second in Washington. The first was The Woolley Market in Sedro-Woolley, about 70 miles north of Seattle.
Skeptics to change
Michael Perozzo has his finger on the pulse of the microbrewery scene in Vancouver. He said Barlow’s beer wall has drawn fire from critics from local online forums who say that it’s taking away from the personalized experience of a proper taproom.
“What I found when I went was in opposition to that,” he said. “It was very friendly. It’s cool to stand there with other people, almost like a miniature beerfest.”
As a writer for New School Beer, an online news source for local beer and cider, Perozzo also founded the Brewcouver Passport, an app and paper pamphlet that allows drinkers to win prizes for visiting Vancouver’s breweries.
The beer wall “has definitely got the beer industry talking,” he said.
Michael Palensky, the owner of Couve Cycle, a business offering multiperson, pedal-powered vehicles to tour downtown’s micro breweries, said he’s wary about the tap wall because it’s losing communication between the server and customers.
“I like to have conversations across the counter with someone who knows what they’re pouring,” he said.
However, Palensky can see how the idea of patrons pouring their own “two-ouncer tasters” is pleasing.
“Some people really, really like it,” he said.
He also said Barlow’s and other restaurants at The Waterfront Vancouver have become a more common request for people pedaling through downtown Vancouver on the Couvecycles.
Barlow’s owner Brian Rummer moved from Dallas to Vancouver with his wife, Alicia, about two years ago after visiting family in the area. With the waterfront’s development on the rise, he liked what he saw.
“It was a growing suburb that was changing rapidly but still had a small-town feel,” he said.
Rummer said he heard about the beer wall idea from his dad, who saw one while on a trip in northern Colorado years ago. After researching the concept, Rummer flew to Chicago to meet with the team at Pour My Beer and see it for himself.
In addition to its Waterfront Vancouver public house, Barlow’s is slated to open a brewery near the intersection of Mill Plain Boulevard and Southeast Park Crest Avenue this year.
Barlow’s head brewer, Eric Van Tassel, said he’s hoping to be brewing at the Mill Plain location before the end of the year. He also aims to have 12 to 16 beers at a time, many of which will be available at Barlow’s tap wall, he said.
The new brewery will be the latest to join the ranks of 14 breweries in Vancouver, according to Perozzo, adding to the growing scene.
Beer Tourism grows
Vancouver’s beer industry experts say the city’s growing number of micro breweries are drawing more tourism from across the metro area and beyond.
Palensky, who owns Couve Cycle, said about 20 percent of his customers are from Portland. Sunny Parsons, co-owner of Heathen Brewing, said about 20 to 25 percent of customers come from out of the area. Barlow’s general manager Jeff Keenan said about 25 to 30 percent of weekend customers are Portlanders who make the drive north.
Perozzo, founder of the Brewcouver Passport, said the app shows the data of users who complete the challenge, and roughly half are from Oregon. In addition to that, he said he’s continually seeing more people from farther away showing an interest in Vancouver’s beer tourism.
“I think that’s growing all the time,” Perozzo said.