Check out our story from Sunday’s paper about the growth of the craft liquor industry in Clark County:
Alcohol having spirited growth in county
Recent proliferation of breweries, wineries, distilleries helping to put growing craft scene on the map
By Sue Vorenberg
Over the past few years, the malty smell of brewing beer, the earthy air of growing grapes and the coppery scent of distilling vodka have spread across Clark County like a permeating fog.
But there’s something more growing in that quiet mist — in the form of a scrappy young industry and culture that could be a big part of Southwest Washington’s future.
There’s no question that our beer, wine and liquor industry is taking off.
Since 2010, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has recorded applications from Clark County for nine new microbreweries, eight new wineries and two new distillers, with most of those requests coming in between 2012 and 2013.
There are now at least 13 breweries, 18 wineries and two distillers licensed in the county, with more on the way.
And the past three years have seen at least seven new locally focused outdoor beer and wine festivals, with others in the planning stages for 2014.
Joining them are a handful of new gourmet beer and wine shops carrying Southwest Washington products.
And there’s room for more — of everything — people in the industry say.
“It’s just been booming,” said Andee Mowrey, manager of English Estate Winery. “It’s pretty cool to watch.”
It was a very different scene four years ago, when the area had three breweries, three wineries, no distillers and no locally focused outdoor festivals.
“Four years ago, when Rusty Grape came in, it was just us and Bethany Vineyards,” Mowrey said. “Within a year of Rusty Grape opening, there were seven or eight new ones. And the list keeps growing.”
At the same time, new businesses started to appear in the beer scene, which had seen limited growth until Eric Surface moved Mt. Tabor Brewing from Portland back to his hometown of Vancouver in 2011.
“When Eric opened Mt. Tabor (here), we thought, ‘This is great. Vancouver has something local,’” said Devon Bray, co-owner of Loowit Brewing, which opened in 2012. “And now there are a lot of new breweries. I think part of the success is that Vancouver never had much compared to Portland and now we do. It’s ours, and we don’t have to go to Portland to find it.”
Behind the growth
The rapid expansion could be credited to a variety of things, including a more supportive and affordable environment for downtown businesses, a growing emphasis from the community on buying local products and, of course, a strong desire to not have to drive south over that bridge.
“Vancouver, especially downtown, hasn’t always been a friendly place to start a small business,” said Perry Bee, a Vancouver resident who blogs about regional beers at http://www.brewmancenw.com/. “Only recently has the city realized how it could benefit from lowering prices and trading off perks to new business owners.”
Part of that was the introduction about four years ago of “pre-lease team meetings” between property owners, small businesses and government officials, said Lee Rafferty, executive director of the Vancouver Downtown Association.
“If somebody’s thinking about bringing in a business, the property owner and tenant meet with every department of the city, state and county to make sure that every single issue about that space is talked about,” Rafferty said. “It saves a lot of time because the business doesn’t have to go out and meet with everyone individually.”
One of the first businesses to take advantage of that was Niche Wine Bar on Main Street. And many others have followed, including Mt. Tabor Brewing, Loowit Brewing, Burnt Bridge Cellars, East Fork Cellars in the Slocum House and the newly opened Cellar 55 tasting room, Rafferty said.
Other things including tax breaks, improvements to Esther Short Park and the restoration of downtown buildings have also helped draw new businesses to the industry, Bee and Bray said.
“I don’t know if you remember what it was like here (downtown) 15 years ago, but it wasn’t pretty,” Bray said. “Esther Short Park was scary. It was dangerous. Now, everything is much nicer. Even the new residential projects coming downtown, it’s just exciting to see.”
New brewery tap rooms and wine tasting rooms have turned into neighborhood gathering places, where workers, residents and a small but growing number of tourists are coming to hang out and enjoy the scenery, Rafferty said.
“It doesn’t mean our community is becoming booze dependant; we’re becoming relationship dependant,” Rafferty said. “It really is the ‘Cheers’ (TV show bar) model. These new breweries are very good at the social part. They’re cross-promoting with other businesses, restaurant owners, and we’re starting to get a very good reputation for being a place to have a good time with good beer and great food.”
And the homespun liquor industry growth isn’t just happening in downtown Vancouver.
John Vissotzky, owner of the recently opened Double V Distillery, said he was drawn to locate his distillery and tasting room in Battle Ground because of its business-friendly environment.
“I’ve lived in Brush Prairie since 1986, but Battle Ground had the right zoning for us,” Vissotzky said. “The rules are a little different for us as a distiller. Because it’s hard liquor, we can’t partake of brew- or winefests, but we are selling to about a dozen bars already, mostly in Clark County.”
Wineries are also part of the countywide equation, cropping up in a variety of spots including Ridgefield, Yacolt and Battle Ground and bringing a more rustic, rural feel to their customers, Mowrey said.
“I think people love the romance of a winery,” Mowrey said. “I think the general public, they want something local. I know I do. When I eat dinner out, I want my money to go to the local economy.”
Many of the businesses in the wine industry are homespun, run by small entrepreneurs who are following their bliss as a retirement career, Mowrey said.
“A lot of the people that are starting wineries here are in their second stage of working, after having jobs in the computer industry or other sectors,” she said.
Vissotzky’s distillery also falls into that later-life career stage. He’s using money he saved through his career to build an occupation that always fascinated him, he said.
“I’ve been interested in distilling since I was young,” Vissotzky said. “This is a fun retirement for me. It’s not making money yet, but it will.”
He also hopes it can turn into a career for his son, who works with him, Vissotzky said.
Clark County’s brewers tend to be on the other side of the spectrum. They’re mostly younger people in their 20s through 40s looking to build a dream career while also holding a regular job to pay the bills.
Loowit’s Bray and his partner Thomas Poffenroth are in that category — at least sort of. They have yet to be paid after a year in business, but both credited their ability to spend time growing the brewery to their “very generous wives,” who have good jobs and can support them while they get Loowit off the ground.
Mt. Tabor’s Surface also has a day job that pays the rent, although his brewery tap room continues to expand.
Sunny Parsons of Heathen Brewing, which is probably the county’s fastest-growing brewer, is in the same boat. He has a side business that supports his family.
But Parsons’ business has grown enough to let him hire three paid employees in its first year, he said.
“I think what (draws people to the craft-brewing industry is) that we all fall in love with this social-business model,” Parsons said. “You think it should make money, but you really don’t care because you just love it so much.”
Nobody really goes into the industry expecting or even wanting to get rich. It’s more about creating a job that doesn’t really feel like work, Parsons said.
Still, it’s nice when things start to take off, he added.
One reason he isn’t drawing a paycheck yet is because the brewery is growing so fast. Any profit has been put back into the business to buy more equipment.
In December 2012, his monthly sales were about $1,800 a month. In September 2013, he was averaging about $20,000 a month.
“That doesn’t mean it’s just profit, but the numbers are certainly good,” Parsons said.
Both Heathen and Loowit are in the early stages of selling bottled beer after doing business mostly through keg and growler sales at their taprooms.
“I’m really excited to see what’s happening here,” Bray said. “With the wineries, too. Burnt Bridge Cellars just got into Fred Meyer. We just started ramping up our bottle production. Things are going well.”
Parsons is also looking at opening a brewpub that sells his beer and offers a variety of food. Right now, he’s looking at Salmon Creek, but he may consider other areas in the county depending on how things work out, he said.
“If that happens, we’ll probably be adding 25 to 35 jobs to the area,” Parsons said.
The rapid growth is a bit different than what he was expecting, but it’s certainly not a bad thing, he added.
“When I started, I was worried about dumping beer, wasting beer,” Parsons said. “Clark County, it’s doing so well that I actually can pretty much pre-sell all our beers. That appetite is only growing.”
Into the future
It’s no coincidence that “Cheers” bar references crop up often when people talk about the emerging sector.
At its core is the local community coming together to support local businesses and create something that has a very specific Clark County feel.
That’s evident at English Estate Winery on a Friday afternoon, when visitors trickle in, swap stories and share a few glasses of wine on the patio. The winery has been expanding Friday evening events with food and music, which has been popular.
“Going to a winery, it’s something fun to do in the neighborhood,” Mowrey said. “It really is like ‘Cheers’ in Boston. People come, meet friends and neighbors. It’s great.”
Krista Ravengael, who recently moved into an apartment near English Estate, agreed with that sentiment on her first visit to the East Vancouver winery.
“This is great,” Ravengael said. “We’ve driven by a few times and I decided to come in and check it out. I think I’ve found our new neighborhood bar.”
Mowrey grinned as she answered Ravengael’s questions about the winemaking process and let her sip a wide variety of vintages. As other customers stopped in, Ravengael turned into a wine ambassador, sharing what she’d just learned and telling others which wines she liked best.
It’s that sort of word-of-mouth, check-this-out synergy that is pumping through much of the Clark County industry.
Parsons notes the same “Cheers”-like feel at his Glenwood-area brewery. He sells kegs and growler fills from his business, which runs out of a barn on his property.
“No matter what, people are always happy to see you when they come to the brewery,” Parsons said. “It’s a meeting place and somewhere that’s fun to hang out.”
And where the locals are going and growing, tourist revenues are also starting to follow, which is never a bad thing, Mowrey said.
“You have to understand that we feed off of Portland, too,” Mowrey said. “It’s a quick trip over the bridge to come check out our wineries and breweries.”
“Yes, it’s just a bridge,” she added with a quick eye roll.
In some ways, it’s about time the region took off on its own, Bee said. Despite the new growth, Clark County still lags behind our larger neighbor to the south, he added.
“Portland blew up over the last decade or so, and is now only finally starting to slow a little,” Bee said. “Vancouver has only just blossomed, with new breweries, winemaking establishments and soon-to-be distillers.”
Clark County is in a good position to draw people from the slowing scene in Portland, Bee said. Members of that crowd love to be the first to explore new venues, and they’re just starting to learn that there’s high-quality breweries and wineries to their north, he added.
“(At the same time) people in Vancouver are getting tired of dive bars that simply serve plain macrobrews,” Bee said. “I see a huge trend of (beer and wine drinkers) always going right for the local stuff. Even if there is a beer they may like better, they want to support the local guy.”
That said, there are still some business areas where Clark County is lacking, most specifically in local brewpubs that serve beer made on the premises, he said.
Right now, those venues are limited to McMenamins on the Columbia Brewing, the rebooting Old Ivy Tap Room downtown and possibly Heathen’s new brewpub, if things work out.
The rest are mostly taprooms or tasting rooms that don’t have kitchens or much entertainment.
“It takes a lot of capital to fire up a kitchen and a brewhouse,” Bee said. “Many are just starting with beer, and it is working because the beer is good.”
The small businesses — wineries, breweries and distillers — also tend to be supportive of one another.
“To just start with a small system and make only beer is a rough thing to do, especially when the competition is full steam ahead now,” Bee said. “(But) it’s nice to see a more established brewery such as Loowit Brewing host an event for people to taste the beer from a brand new brewery which is about to open, Dirty Hands Brewing. That to me just screams good and friendly business. Locals like that.”
Loowit isn’t the only one that’s more than willing to help newcomers. Mt. Tabor helped Loowit with brewing when it first got off the ground, and new breweries just entering the market often seek out the advice of Surface or Bray. Heathen has worked with local businesses including Northwest Liquid Gold to come up with unique products. The Old Ivy Tap Room often sells beers from other local brewers at its pub.
It’s kind of a love fest, Bray said with a laugh.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Bray added. “Vancouver is finally coming into its own. I don’t know why it took so long.”
Have a drink in Clark County
Bethany Vineyards and Winery, 4115 N.E. 259th St., Ridgefield, 360-887-3525
Burnt Bridge Cellars, 1500 Broadway (15th and Broadway), Vancouver, 360-600-0120
Cellar 55, 1812 Washington St., Vancouver, 360-693-2700
Confluence Vineyards and Winery, 19111 N.W. 67th Ave., Ridgefield, 360-887-2343
East Fork Cellars, 24415 N.E. 10th Ave., Ridgefield, 360-727-3055 (also East Fork Cellars Vancouver, Slocum House, 605 Esther St., Vancouver, 360-750-8000)
Emanar Cellars, 1113 SE Rasmussen Blvd., Battle Ground, 360-513-2448
English Estate Winery, 17806 S.E. First St., Vancouver, 360-772-5141
Evergreen Wine Cellar, 2608 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver,
Gouger Cellars, 126506 N.E. 10th Ave., Ridgefield, 360-909-4707
Heisen House Vineyards, 28005 N.E. 172nd Ave., Battle Ground, 360-713-2359
Moulton Falls Winery, 31101 N.E. Railroad Ave., Yacolt, 360-713-3616
Olequa Cellars, 24218 N.E. 142nd Ave., Battle Ground, 360-666-8012
Rusty Grape Vineyards, 16712 N.E. 219th St., Battle Ground, 360-513-9338
Seventh Son Cellars, 120 N. Third Ave., Ridgefield, 360-887-2901
Three Brothers Winery, 2411 N.E. 244th St., Ridgefield, 360-887-2085
Amnesia Brewing, 1834 Main St., Washougal, 360-335-1008.
Beerded Brothers Brewing, Vancouver, 206-235-6106.
Brothers Cascadia Brewing, 1120 S.E. Rasmussen Blvd, Battle Ground, 360-771-3479.
Dirty Hands Brewing Company, 114 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver, 360-258-0413.
Doomsday Brewing Company, Vancouver. (Coming soon)
Ghost Runners Brewery, 2403 N.W. 125th St., Vancouver, 360-573-4872.
Heathen Brewing, 5612 N.E. 119th St., Vancouver, 360-601-7454.
Laurelwood Public House & Brewery, 1401 S.E. Rasmussen Blvd., Battle Ground, 360-723-0937.
Loowit Brewing Company, 507 Columbia St., Vancouver, 360-566-2323.
McMenamins on the Columbia Brewing, 1801 S.E. Columbia River Drive, Vancouver, 360-699-1521 (also McMenamins East Vancouver, 1900 N.E. 162nd Ave., Suite B107, 360-254-3950).
Mill City Brew Werks, 325 N.E. Cedar St., Camas.
Mt. Tabor Brewing, 113 W. Ninth St., Vancouver.Old Ivy Tap Room, 108 W. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver, 360-696-0012.
Rail Side Brewing, 421 C St. 1B, Washougal, 360-907-8582.
West Highland Brewing, 18012 N.E. 22nd Way, Vancouver, 360-883-5357 or 360-433-7147.
Double V Distillery, 1315 S.E. Grace Ave, Suite 118, Battle Ground, 360-723-5282.
Craft and other stores:
A Beer at a Time, 2926 E St., Washougal, 360-835-5200.
Bader Beer and Wine Supply, 711 Grand Blvd., Vancouver, 360-750-1551.
BevMo, 700 S.E. 160th Ave. No. 111, Vancouver, 360-553-4910.
By The Bottle, 108 W. Evergreen Blvd., Suite C, Vancouver, 360-696-0012.
Caps ‘n Taps Camas, 337 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas, 360-210-7244.
Northwest Liquid Gold, 11202 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-326-4281.
Total Wine and More, 4816 N.E. Thurston Way, Vancouver, 855-330-6673.
Holiday Craft Winefest (Nov. 3, 2013), http://www.facebook.com/CraftWinefest or http://thecraftwinefest.com
Vancouver Winter Brewfest, Esther Short Park. (Dec. 13-15, 2013), http://energyevents.com/
Who’s Your Daddy Brewfest (in association with By The Bottle), Turtle Place Park. (June 2014), http://bottledbrews.com/
Vancouver Summer Brewfest (in association with the Vancouver Marathon), Esther Short Park. (June 2014), http://energyevents.com/
Craft Winefest of Vancouver (June 2014), https:// href=”http://www.facebook.com/CraftWinefest”>www.facebook.com/CraftWinefest or http://thecraftwinefest.com/
Vancouver Brewfest, Esther Short Park. (August 2014), http://vancouverbrewfest.com/
Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival (August 2014), http://www.vancouverwinejazz.com/
Shorty’s Garden & Home Oktoberfest (September 2014), http://www.shortysgardenandhome.com/
Oktoberfest at Alderbrook Park (September 2014), http://visitalderbrook.com/