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 the former Saucy Sisters 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,” he says.
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. 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 an 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. Added bonus: “Part of that transition allowed us to start barrel-aging beer right out of the gate,” he said.
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 efforts are reflected in his title — “The Fixer” — on the Camp Colvos site. And fixing is 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.
Camp Colvos currently produces that beer in the Log Cabin, hosts guests at Campsite (on a one-year lease), and is plotting the future home of the taproom, in the former Kimmco Inc. general contracting 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, as a result of another relationship Lawrence has struck up.
“I didn’t know Jen or Matt [Harvey] when they took over Island Queen, 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,” Lawrence said. “We are super stoked to be working with her.”
Working with islanders and friends has been the modus operandi for Lawrence and the Camp Colvos team all along. They enlisted coffin maker Marcus Daly to carve the brewery name and tap list signage hanging behind the Campsite bar. They have partnered with the owners of Westland Distillery to produce barrel-conditioned libations. They call on local experts for help with electrical and plumbing issues. And the list goes on.
This grassroots approach was clear last September at the Log Cabin, when a small crowd of islanders denuded hop bines they’d harvested from their home plants while they sipped draft beer. Why? Because Camp Colvos was using only local, crowdsourced hops to brew Saison Du Vashon. Lawrence surveyed the scene with a smile that day.
“It takes a village,” he said.
The village of Vashon rewarded Lawrence’s vision when Campsite opened on Jan. 4, doubling the island’s number of craft taprooms. (Vashon Brewing’s 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 among 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 to 8 p.m. every day, enhancements have been made to their taps and space, they’ve added bar staff — and business has been booming, Lawrence said.
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.
In January, Campsite visitors sipped pints of 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 Sheepdog Classic. CCB also released a batch of Resilience IPA, the philanthropic juggernaut launched by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which raises funds for Paradise, California, residents impacted by the devastating Camp Fire. (A Jan. 24 “Resilience Night on Vashon” supported the beer’s release.)
Lawrence says contributing to that effort didn’t require any consideration.
‘In a time like this, if we pause to think about how we can help, rather than just helping, then nothing gets done,” he said.
And as “The Visionary” of Camp Colvos, getting things done is always on his mind.
Like plotting the beer lineup. Lawrence and his partners intend 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 he 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,” he said.
Though there may be little time to devote to slower-to-mature beers, and precious spare time in Lawrence’s life, he’s no less thrilled to consider a future where he’s not working full-time elsewhere. The immediate future remains his focus, though.
Asked about plans for Campsite’s coming year, he flips the question around. “Really, what does Campsite have planned for me?”
— Clint Brownlee is a marketing copywriter and freelance writer fueled by grunge-era music, craft beer and his family’s patience.