SNOHOMISH — Bend, Oregon, sits in close proximity to the wilderness. With outdoor activities like rock climbing, river kayaking, skiing, hiking and more just a short drive away, the city’s residents are known for their healthy and active lifestyles.
It also has a quaint downtown filled with tourist shops, saloons and eateries that crowds of visitors enjoy just feet from a flowing river.
Sounds a lot like Snohomish.
Two decades ago, breweries started popping up all around Bend, including craft beer stalwarts Deschutes Brewing, Crux Fermentation Project and Good Life Brewing. Eighteen craft breweries call the central Oregon town home today. The city’s tourism council, Visit Bend, embraced the growing industry and created the Bend Ale Trail, a program centered around the town’s craft beer culture.
Since 2010, the Bend Ale Trail has transformed tourism in Bend. According to Tawna Fenske, a Visit Bend spokeswoman, more than half the city’s visitors go to least one brewery during their stay and nearly 10 percent visit because of craft beer.
Snohomish has much in common with Bend. Known for its outdoor activities, it’s a short distance from a major metropolitan area and is a tourist destination with a walkable downtown. Now, it has a major craft beer scene that could challenge Bend.
Since last July, six breweries have opened in Snohomish, seven if you count Old Man Brewing, a completely automated brewery operated out of Collector’s Choice restaurant. That brings the city’s total to nine, giving Snohomish more breweries than any other city in Snohomish County.
“It’s very exciting to see these breweries popping up all over Snohomish,” said Debbie Emge, the town’s development manager, who in 2007 spearheaded an initiative to attract brewers to the city. “I’d love to see even more and for the brewers that are here to keep growing.”
The breweries are a wide-ranging bunch. John Spada, of Spada Farmhouse Brewery, brews farmhouse-style sour ales on his family’s farm outside of town. Dan Worthen and Mike Sexton opened Prison Break Brewing among the antique shops along First Street. Barry Galen’s Old Man Brewing is one of only five automated brewing facilities in the country.
Four other recently opened breweries, Lost Canoe Brewing, Three Bull Brewing, Haywire Brewing and Scrappy Punk Brewing, are sprinkled around downtown and in the farmland surrounding Snohomish. They joined Sound to Summit Brewing and SnoTown Brewing, which opened in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
“It seems like overnight Snohomish became a craft beer mecca,” said Bryant Castle, who opened Haywire Brewing with his father-in-law, David Jez, in a farmhouse barn just outside of town earlier this spring.
On a recent evening, owners and brewers representing six of the Snohomish breweries gathered in the tasting room at Lost Canoe Brewing to talk about how to work together and create something akin to the Bend Ale Trail, which uses guided tours, a stamped passport program and a mobile app to encourage craft beer lovers from all over the Pacific Northwest to visit “Beer Town USA.”
Lost Canoe head brewer Will Hezlep said reaching out to craft beer fans beyond the city is key.
“I think if we were isolated and just a town of 10,000 people having this many breweries would be rough,” Hezlep said. “But so many people in Snohomish County and the Seattle area come here to visit, that if we do it right and work as a team to bring in those from outside, then the market’s 20 times larger.”
The results already are showing up. Amy Carruthers, part owner and a production brewer at Lost Canoe Brewing, recently served two craft beer lovers from Vancouver, B.C., who had driven south to find good beer. They initially weren’t sure where to visit, but after opening a craft beer mapping app on their phone and seeing all of the pins surrounding Snohomish, they decided to visit.
Visit Bend’s Fenske said the key to the success of the Bend Ale Trail was collaboration among the brewers. Lost Canoe co-owner Adam Hayes compared the teamwork he sees in the Snohomish craft beer community to an artisan’s guild. It’s a group of like-minded business owners and stakeholders joining together to talk about the industry and form partnerships.
That collaboration is what attracted John Spada, owner and head brewer of Spada Farmhouse Brewery, to the industry and Snohomish in particular.
“The better we’re all making beer, the more of a destination it is for everybody, the better it’ll be for everybody,” Spada said.
Long before craft brewers took over Snohomish, craft beer already had a home in the valley thanks to a number of committed taprooms like Trail’s End Taphouse, Fred’s Rivertown Alehouse and Josh’s Taps and Caps. All three regularly put on local craft beer and host Snohomish County breweries for special events.
“I have to give credit to the bars around Snohomish. My kegs have to be sold somewhere and those places make it possible,” said Spada, who is currently working to open a taproom. “These bars creating a craft beer culture has made that possible.”
To capture that excitement around Snohomish beer, Fred’s alehouse recently dedicated one of its taps to a rotating selection from Snohomish brewers.
Along First Street, Snohomish and alcohol have had a bit of a sordid past. A number of people have been injured or killed in booze-fueled fights on First Street over the years and the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board announced it was targeting downtown Snohomish for extra enforcement last year.
When Bend put an emphasis on attracting beer drinkers, Fenske said that residents worried “frat parties” would take over the town. But, interestingly, according to the tourism board’s data, more married couples with children take part in the Bend Ale Trail than any other demographic.
The Snohomish breweries are taking a proactive approach to keeping imbibers safe. Cary Pritzkau, co-owner of Three Bull Brewing, said the brewery recently ran week-long service announcements on the radio espousing the dangers of drunken driving and has made fighting drunken driving and overserving one of the young brewery’s focuses.
Fenske said Bend officials were surprised by the number of businesses that opened after the creation of the Bend Ale Trail. The Bend Brew Bus began offering guided tours of the breweries. The Growler Guys and other growler fill stations popped up around town to sell beer and beer paraphernalia to visitors. Dawg Grog started making “beer” for dogs from brewer’s wort.
In Snohomish, Vince Applin has a similar idea. Applin, who has worked as a sales representative at Sound to Summit Brewing since 2015, is launching Snoho Brew Tours later this month. The tour will ferry guests to a number of Snohomish breweries in a 15-passenger bus, allowing them to sample beers, explore the breweries and query brewers.
“I was surprised at how many people didn’t know about the growing brewery community in Snohomish,” Applin said. “I see this as my chance to spread the love of craft beer in a responsible way.”
For most businesses, the rapid influx of competition would be worrisome, and SnoTown Brewing owner Frank Sandoval admitted he was a little concerned when he started noticing the new breweries last summer. But he quickly came around.
“I started to think if this was happening in Monroe, I’d be devastated,” Sandoval said of the sharp increase in craft breweries. “I’m much happier that it’s happening in my hometown. There are two breweries in Monroe. If you’re going to go to taste beer, you’re not going to go to Monroe, you’re going to come to Snohomish.”