Armchair photo tours: A brew tour on the Exobus in Vancouver, Washington

Exobus
Photos by Cheryl Landes

For more than a decade, the craft brewing scene has been growing and evolving in Vancouver, Washington. More than two dozen breweries and seven taphouses are located in the city, and more are scattered throughout Clark County.

To get a taste of what they have to offer, hop aboard the Exobus. Since this 14-seat tour bus started rolling in January 2019, owner Beny Luca has shown guests some of the best breweries on the north side of the Columbia River. Before he started the Exobus, he worked as a bartender, brewery manager, and many other roles in the beer industry on both sides of the Columbia River.

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Beny Luca, the owner of Exobus, serving samples of beer at Trap Door Brewing in Vancouver, Washington. Trap Door Brewing owner Bryan Shull is in the background on the right.

Luca’s vast knowledge of the brew scene around the Portland-Vancouver metro area showed during my tour on the Exobus two months after he opened for business. He’s like a human encyclopedia of all things beer around here. And he knew everyone we met during our tour—even people who popped in for a quick chat or to enjoy a beer.

During our five-hour tour, we visited two breweries and a tap house. Our tour included lunch at the second stop.

First stop: Trap Door Brewing

Bryan Shull left a 25-year career in renewable energy engineering to start a brewery, because he loves beer and the “really cool people” that make up the industry.

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Bryan Shull, the owner of Trap Door Brewing in Vancouver, Washington

The result was Trap Door Brewing, which opened in 2015 in the Uptown neighborhood of Vancouver. It has a pub with indoor and outdoor seating, the brewery, a food cart pod on the patio, and board games to borrow. Food is allowed from other restaurants in the area.

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Shull gave us a tour of the brewery, talked about the brewing process, and served samples of their flagship IPA, hazy IPA, and Mango Lassi kettle sour.

Trap Door Brewing makes 500 gallons of beer at a time, and the styles vary each time, All of their ingredients come from within a 33-mile radius of Vancouver, which is unusual in the beer industry, Shull said. Fermentation takes two to three weeks, depending on the style of beer they’re creating.

There are four ingredients in the brewing process, but they produce unlimited possibilities:

  • A starch source (grain)
  • Water
  • Fermentation
  • Yeast

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The brewing process begins when sacks of grain are poured into the mill. Then the grain goes through an auger to the mash tub, where the grains are mashed into short-grain. Enzymes in the grain convert starches to sugars, creating a substance called sugars wort. The sugars wort goes to boiling kettle to sterilize. The sugars wort boils for an hour, when it’s transferred to the fermenters, and yeast is added.

Temperature changes and different types of yeast help create different styles of beer. For lagers, colder temperatures are used and the fermentation process is slower. Higher temperatures are used in the fermentation process for ales.

At the end of the fermentation process, Trap Door Brewing uses a process called crashing, which drops the temperature to remove the yeast. A cone shape at the bottom of the fermenter allows the yeast to drop. This also allows recycling the yeast for up to 10 brews. To do this, they store the yeast in a yeast brink and pour beer on it to keep the yeast alive. The yeast needs the beer to survive.

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Trap Door Brewing produces unusual varieties of beer based on inspiration. Shull mentioned a few examples:

  • The Mango Lessie, which contains cardamom, sea salt, and yogurt. It’s a kettle sour based on a non-alcoholic drink from India.
  • Super Treat, a Neapolitan stout consisting of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla with sprinkles and cake cones
  • Zest Fest, a grapefruit pale ale. They used the grapefruit zest (peels) and gave the grapefruit meats to the local bars and breweries to use.

Sometimes they’ll do a cool ship, which means they throw a bunch of random ingredients in a tank to see what happens.

Trap Door Brewing’s address is 2315 Main Street.

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Second stop: Loowit Brewing Company

Loowit is the Native American name for Mount St. Helens. The brewery is the first of a new generation of breweries in Vancouver, according to Matt Freeland, the general manager. Loowit Brewing Company‘s first brew was in 2010, and it opened for business in 2012. Their flagship beers include IPAs, lagers, and porters.

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Matt Freeland, General Manager of Loowit Brewing Company in Vancouver, Washington

During our stop, Freeland showed us around the brewery, located in a room behind the pub, and talked about the brewing and carbonation processes. He also shared samples of some of the flagship beers, the 2-16 Red Ale named after the trail around Mount St Helens, and a new blueberry thyme kettle sour called Miss Lazarus.

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Freeland said the brewers’ inspiration for new beers come from just about everywhere. He mentioned music, movies, and toys as examples.

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After our tour, we enjoyed lunch in a space in the brewery. Freeland said the space is used for special events, such as stand-up comedy and concerts.

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Loowit Brewing Company is located in downtown Vancouver at 507 Columbia Street.

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Third stop: Final Draft Taphouse

Final Draft Taphouse opened in July 2017 in an unusual location just east of I-205—a strip mall between a U.S. Coast Guard recruiting station and a tanning salon. Despite that, it’s the highest-rated taphouse in Vancouver.

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This taphouse focuses on Washington and Oregon beers and has from 29 to 32 varieties on tap, depending on what’s available. Owner Kimberly Johnson believes in small businesses and high-quality beer, “where people can explore their palettes.”

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Kimberly Johnson, owner of the Final Draft Taphouse in Vancouver, Washington

She’s also a strong believer in fostering community and storytelling, and that’s why the taphouse has a storytelling theme. It even has its own decks of storytelling cards with questions to start a conversation.

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The taphouse hosts several activities to bring the community together:

  • Couve Brew Bevy, a women’s beer social group
  • A ukulele group
  • Brews and writing, where people gather to write and enjoy their favorite beers
  • Beer story open mics
  • Darts and drafts

Johnson commissioned beer artist Matthew Ward to create pictures of local breweries for a permanent exhibit at the taphouse. He also has a few pieces on display for sale.

Final Draft Taphouse is located at 11504 SE Mill Plain Boulevard.

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The Brewcouver community

One thing was clear throughout our tour: Although the Brewcouver scene has a range of brewers creating innovative, unique varieties of beer, they don’t compete against each other. “It’s more about breweries helping each other and doing it right,” Freeland said. “There’s a lot of collaboration, and everyone helps each other out.”

Shull agreed. He said that when breweries run out of supplies and can’t restock right away, they’ll borrow from each other. Sometimes the brewery owners get together for a drink or two and kick around ideas. They create colabs, or collaboration beers—unique, limited-edition brews.

They also raise thousands of dollars for humanitarian causes, such as helping the people who lost their homes from the California wildfires in 2018 and someone they know to pay for her cancer treatments.

What’s the Exobus like?

The Exobus is not a party bus. The goals are to learn about the craft brewing industry, appreciate the varieties of beers it offers, and learn about the brewing process. The rules on the bus are strict and clearly stated on a sign at the front of the bus.

But having strict rules means that the tours are fun—even for non-drinkers like me. A sip of beer or wine can trigger a migraine that wipes me out for a day or two, so I couldn’t try any of the beers. My interest was learning more about the brewing process and how so many different combinations of beers evolve from using only those four ingredients Shull mentioned during our visit at Trap Door Brewing.

Luca plans to add more themed experience tours to his roster, such as:

  • Wine
  • Coffee
  • Brews and views on Sundays, which might include hikes
  • Parents’ night out with babysitter provided
  • D.B. Cooper, an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 jet in flight between Portland and Seattle in 1971 and vanished
  • A “cannabus” tour

Watch for updates on the Exobus website and Facebook page.

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