Introducing Camp Colvos Brewing, a new brewery that recently opened its taproom on Vashon Island. The brewery is located down the road a spell, but the taproom is right in the heart of the village (AKA, “downtown” Vashon) just a couple blocks south of Vashon Brewing‘s taproom. Also, meet Clint Brownlee, a guest contributor here on the Washington Beer Blog.
Camp Colvos: a Brewery of, by, and for the People
by Clint Brownlee
Matt Lawrence didn’t have time to run a brewery. He had a day job, a family, and the minor everyday complications inherent with living on an island. Still, he felt compelled to devote any slice of free time he could find to brewing. For years.
Now with his Camp Colvos Brewing leasing three spaces on Vashon Island and residents flocking to its just-opened Campsite taproom (in a former pizza restaurant), he continues to maintain a career in commercial janitorial services, shuttle his family to school and extracurricular functions, and keep a handle on everyday logistical challenges. But thanks to a little bit (or a whole lot) of help from friends, he now contemplates a day when his brewery becomes his day job.
The seeds for CCB, as Lawrence and his crew call it, were sowed several years ago, when he started a club for beer-thirsty Vashonites. He delivered brews to his members on a schedule, and used the fees he collected to fund a 1 bbl (40 gallon) brewing system. The effort, which Lawrence dubbed CSB (for Community Supported Beer), was a success. “I was making beer every month for almost two years, [which] helped get me the experience I needed to get the idea [of a brewery] off the ground.”
That happened fairly quickly, thanks to the complementary skill set of long-time friend Lara Feltin (labeled “The Architect” on the brewery’s website).
“I called her with the idea, and a few calculations on a spreadsheet,” says Lawrence. “I asked her to talk me out of it. We spent the summer of 2016 calculating every possible scenario, every hop, every speck of grain.”
Instead of deciding a brewery was prohibitive, the duo found a way to convert Lawrence’s home-based, community-beer concept into a brick-and-mortar operation—as partners.
“I realized there was no way I could do this alone, nor would I want to,” Lawrence says.
Thus began a fortuitous alignment with other friends and contacts who added integral pieces to the fledgling enterprise. There were Tami and Paco Joyce, owners of Vashon-based Seattle Distilling Company, who’d been members of Lawrence’s beer club. When they vacated their island headquarters, Lawrence moved in—and the brewery had a home. An added bonus, according to Lawrence, “Part of that transition allowed us to start barrel-aging beer right out of the gate.”
Lawrence sought out another CSB member and friend, the voluminously bearded Scott MacLaughlin. He instantly became a constant presence at the new space, which they casually called the “Log Cabin.” He would do anything and everything: build and repair equipment; brew; clean; cook. And with the addition of the Campsite taproom, MacLaughlin now pours beer, delivers kegs, and handles the brewery’s social media accounts. Though he’s known by all as Scotty, his title on the Camp Colvos site, “The Fixer,” seems more apt. And it’s not his day job, either. (He’s a professional videographer.)
Brewmaster Nathan (“The Maker”) Schafer is an entrepreneur himself. He and his wife Melissa own a landscape design company, which is why he and Lawrence crossed paths. During a stint at Vashon’s Sea Breeze Farm years ago, Lawrence became aware of the mild-mannered Schafer’s business—and, eventually, his shared interest in brewing. Now the two brew at all hours of the day and night to keep up to eight taps flowing at Campsite (and more at locations both on and off the island). “Beer brought our families together,” Lawrence says.
Beer and ambition. The two ingredients have accounted for much success in a relatively short time. Camp Colvos currently produces beer in the Log Cabin, hosts guests at Campsite (on a one-year lease), and is plotting the future home of the taproom, in a former general contractor’s headquarters several doors south.
Lawrence is tight-lipped on specific plans for the eventual space, perhaps more because of the vast possibilities than a desire for secrecy. He’s also maintaining tandem focus on the day-to-day, by necessity. “It’s sort of like going to taproom school,” he says. “I am learning so much about the needs of a seven-days-per-week retail venue, and managing all the aspects that go along with it.”
And there’s the year that Campsite will be open to think about. Food service will factor into that, thanks to another relationship Lawrence has struck up. “I didn’t know Jen or Matt [Harvey] when they took over Island Queen,” he says, referring to a burger joint across the street. “But I had the oddest feeling I would be working with them. As it turns out, Jen is a pastry chef, and loves making meat pies, which is exactly what I wanted for our food menu. We are super stoked to be working with her.”
And though it may seem distant now, warm days will introduce possibilities, too. “I’m really excited for the summer months with the awesome patio out front,” Lawrence says. Asked what to expect from Campsite into that season and beyond, he flips the question around. “Really, what does Campsite have planned for me?”
It’s an apt and somewhat sly thought from the man labeled “The Visionary” of the brewery. No doubt the future will be shaped by contributions from friends aligned with his vision. Like MacLaughlin and Schafer. Like Feltin. Like the Harveys. Like Marcus Daly, who carved the brewery’s sign that hangs behind the Campsite bar. Like the folks behind Westland Distillery, which has partnered with Camp Colvos to release barrel-conditioned libations. And the list goes on.
Last year at the Log Cabin, a small crowd of islanders denuded hop bines they’d harvested from their home plants while they sipped draft beer. Why? Because Lawrence and his partners were brewing a beer using only local, crowdsourced hops: Saison Du Vashon. Lawrence stood outside the cabin and surveyed the scene with a smile. “It takes a village,” he said.
The village of Vashon rewarded Lawrence’s vision when Campsite opened on January 4, doubling the island’s number of craft taprooms. (Vashon Brewing’s aptly named Community Pub was the first.) Though it was cold and wet, the place was overrun by beer enthusiasts, curious residents, and scores of kids (many hanging with the crew’s own contingent of offspring). People crowded the small interior and the larger, tent-covered outside patio. There were party planners and school principals. Writers and painters. Coaches and commuters. A hearty cross-section of the island was in attendance.
Lawrence, his wife Mary, MacLaughlin, and Schafer vacillated between tasks—taking orders, pouring beer, grilling sandwiches, shaking hands—and mixing with the crowd. Exchanging a few words with them that evening, two things were obvious: they were thrilled to be open, and were overwhelmed by the response. “It’s been humbling,” Lawrence says.
Since opening night, Campsite has been open 1–8PM every day, enhancements have been made to their taps and signage and space, they’ve added bar staff—and business has been booming. Seeing Lawrence and his stalled truck on the side of the road one recent evening, this writer pulled over and talked with him. (The Fixer—who else?—was en route to help.) Lawrence said that sales had been well beyond the conservative figure he and his team had ballparked ahead of their opening. The neighborly village, it seems, works up quite a thirst.
Camp Colvos is poised to satisfy. Available in January were Rye IPA, Winter Warmer, Munich Lager, Saison Du Vashon, Dark Lager, Pale Ale, a Session IPA, and a limited bottling of Sheepdog, a woody, barrel-aged Pale Ale named after the island’s annual Sheepdog Classic event. They also released a batch of Resilience IPA, the philanthropic juggernaut launched by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. which raises funds for Paradise, CA residents impacted by the devastating Camp Fire. (CCB’s January 24 “Resilience Night on Vashon” supported the beer’s release.) Lawrence says contributing to that effort “Didn’t even require any consideration.”
He does consider the beer lineup carefully, of course. He intends to keep things varied for the time being, having only a few permanent handles. A Belgian Pale Ale is in the works, among other brews. And Lawrence daydreams about lagering. “I lean toward traditional German beers,” he says. “I would love to devote more time to lagering. But lager requires space, and time to perform its magic in the tank.”
Given the fast pace of developments for Camp Colvos Brewing to date, that magic may yet come to pass. No doubt there are some in the village of Vashon who will step forward to assist in some way. “In a time like this, if we pause to think about how we can help, rather than just helping, then nothing gets done,” Lawrence reflects, referring to their Resilience IPA contribution. The sentiment, though, could be applied to his island community—or the culture at large. And it’s spoken like a true visionary.