By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Sometimes a great business idea hangs heavy in the air, just waiting for the right person to pluck it down and run with it. That’s what happened with Portland’s BREWVANA tour company and Ashley Rose Salvitti, a high-energy ambassador for Oregon’s craft beers.
The young entrepreneur started BREWVANA, an obvious nod to Beervana, six years ago with one bus and one employee. In April, Salvitti and friends celebrated the touring company’s anniversary at Breakside Brewery’s new Northwest Portland location.
Ashley, who added Rose to her first name because she liked it, established her LLC in November 2010. “My first tour was on April 8, 2011,” she said.
Today BREWVANA has grown to include public and private tours, bus and walking, with three small buses and one large one, for a total of nine weekly tours that include 26 breweries. And the excursions go beyond just bar hopping. For example, the “Behind the Scenes” tour provides a tutorial on the brewing process with stops at Breakside and Unicorn Brewing Company/Portland U-Brew. “Beers and Barrels” highlights breweries and a distillery where barrel aging takes place. There are now even walking tours where guides talk about neighborhoods and their histories in between brewery visits.
The seeds for Salvitti’s beer-related business took root in college when she started working at Liberty Steakhouse and Brewery in High Point, N. C. She was attending the nearby University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her dad, who was a mug club member at Liberty, suggested she should get a job there. Once she hit 21, she got behind the bar to serve.
Salvitti moved to Portland in 2007 after graduation. “I wanted to go where young people go to retire,” she said. Naturally, she gravitated to beer and her first job was at Laurelwood Brewing Co. Then she moved to Hopworks Urban Brewery when the brewpub opened in 2008. “Christian had a huge following then,” she said.
Salvitti’s sunny personality quickly made her a favorite with guests and those interactions helped her quickly fall in love with Portland’s craft beer industry. “I found that in Portland you would greet a table and people clearly wanted to drink beer and they were very knowledgeable about it,” she said.
The brew tour idea came together after a trip to Puerto Rico with her family. “We wasted a lot of money trying to find fun things to do. On our last night, we met a server at a bar who said she did tours on the side. She could have shown us all the places to go and things to do,” she said.
Salvitti had also encountered a few other local tours that didn’t seem to have a strong connection to the breweries.
“I thought I could do it better. I was optimistic and ready to take a risk with no husband, no kids, no big responsibilities,” she said.
Salvitti wrote up a business plan and took the Business Foundations course through Mercy Corps Northwest and participated in the nonprofit’s matching savings plan. Her initial investment was $20,000 — a $16,000 loan from her father and a $4,000 loan from her best friend’s parents. “That was enough to buy a buy a bus and get my website done,” she said. “I didn’t quit my day job.”
After her first tour, she was on an amazing high after experiencing the success of her idea. But she also worked very hard in the beginning since she was the one and only employee. After seven months, she hired her first tour guide, but continued to work full-time at Hopworks for two more years.
“BREWVANA was created to provide an all-inclusive VIP access fun and educational touring experience,” she said. “We’re working with the breweries. BREWVANA is nothing without the relationship we have with the breweries. It’s our mission to support them,” she said. Because of her background as a server, she is also very focused on the guest experience. You can’t board a BREWVANA bus without smiling—the vehicles are covered in beer-centric graphics both inside and out that beckon passengers to “come join the fun.”
Brewvana has three short 14-passenger buses for the public tours, named Angel, Georgie and Lil’ Johnny, and one standard large school bus, named Pam, that seats up to 44. That vehicle is also used to shuttle people to and from out-of-town festivals like Fort George Brewery’s Festival of the Dark Arts in Astoria.
Salvitti said they got “Pam” because they spent $14,000 during the last couple years to rent buses that arrived dirty, smelly and in unacceptable condition for hosting guests. She wanted a bus that represented the BREWVANA ethic. The buses are one of the company’s biggest challenges because of the constant maintenance needs and the fact that they are all used vehicles with some pre-existing conditions.
While the buses get much of the attention, the heart of the tours are the guides. Salvitti still hosts some tours, but she recently hired four guides. Her challenge with guides is finding the right people and making their jobs sustainable throughout the year. Guides must be multitasking masters, so the training process is lengthy and complex. In addition to studying the training manual, guides learn about local history, undergo bus driving training, and then shadow existing tours before assisting and practicing with an experienced guide.
On a recent “Pacific Northwest is Best Tour” that visits Baerlic Brewing Company, Hopworks, Migration Brewing and Scout Beer, 13 of us were entertained by guides Liz Shihadeh and Kelene Stinson. The easy-going duo had an engaging routine that went from the ridiculous (they gave us the no-vomiting-on-the-bus talk) to the educational when we tasted different malts and passed around samples of hops. In the space of four hours, we became friends — sharing pretzels from our pretzel necklaces and stories about our lives.
Business continues to grow and Salvitti said that demand for private tours is stronger than ever. She also has more responsibility now that there are 10 employees, a fleet of vehicles, a husband, a daughter, a house and a dog.
“We’re proud that we have many repeat customers. On one recent tour with 14 people, six had been on a tour before, and several had been on more than one.” Repeat customers can join the Brew Veteran program.
Salvitti was recently featured on “Start Up,” a series that tells the stories of entrepreneurs. You can watch her segment at pbs.org/video/2365903935/. For tour information, check out brewvana.com.
Tyler Craven, owner and creative director of BeerQuest PDX, is shown here leading a haunted pub tour through Old Town Portland. In addition to stops for craft beer at two locations, participants get to learn about the city’s sordid history and supernatural experiences. Photo courtesy of BeerQuest PDX
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Portland’s Old Town is the kind of area where you’d expect to find 20-somethings lined up outside of dimly lit clubs bumping along to the same incessant electro-beats, bar tops packed as tightly with people as the dance floors and even an increasing number of craft breweries. You might’ve even had the experience of stumbling around some of those cobblestone streets during a 21st birthday or other booze-fueled party.
Old Town has certainly sealed and even embraced its status as an entertainment district. But that reputation is anything but new. A cursory glance of the setting reveals brick buildings, fountains and roads that are more than a century old — and these landmarks have seen their fair share of raucous drinking throughout the years. In fact, today’s scene might look downright tame compared to the activities that used to define the city’s nightlife. You can, in one sense, experience the history of Old Town almost anytime you’d like through walking tours hosted by BeerQuest PDX. And while they’re offered year-round, the Halloween season might be the best time to go because you not only learn about the questionable characters who inhabited old Portland; you also hear stories of some of the spirits who continue to visit their stomping grounds today. Sound a little spooky? Not to worry. The crawl includes plenty of beer to take the edge off.
Tyler Craven knows what it’s like to take Portland’s history and beer for granted. The owner and creative director of BeerQuest PDX grew up in West Linn and didn’t really have much of an interest in Portland’s past. In fact, Craven, who still leads many of the tours and conducts all of the research that goes into them, didn’t even major in history, despite your likely expectations. He got his degree in biology at Creighton University in Nebraska. But that’s also what helped spur his interest in craft beer. Like many an undergrad, Craven downed plenty of Coors Light and similar domestic lagers lacking in flavor. Moreover, craft brewing options in the Midwest were notably bleak. It was only when he’d returned to Oregon that he began to take notice of the burgeoning beer culture. The science behind the production, yeast’s role in particular, also intrigued Craven. He then started trying out every brewery he could in Portland.
The path from beer fan to beer tour guide is neither straight nor simple. Freshly armed with his academic credentials in 2009, Craven once again found himself having a similar experience as many in his cohort, just this time as a new graduate. He didn’t know what he wanted to do next. So he worked for a summer and decided to travel abroad. That led to a volunteer year in South Africa where he taught English and worked at a rural medical clinic. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the culture, so Craven extended his stay another year. During this period, he got his first experience leading people on tours. He wasn’t talking about beer quite yet. The subject matter instead revolved around the animals at a game reserve in Swaziland. The background in biology certainly helped him flesh out all of those random facts about zebras, giraffes and water buffalos. But perhaps more importantly, Craven discovered a strength.
“That’s where I kind of learned that hey, I’m really good at telling stories and people are really interested and just kind of honed my craft as far as that goes,” explained Craven. “And then when I got home, I just kind of applied the same thing to beer in Portland.”
While combining his two passions — entertaining crowds and craft beer — seemed natural, not all of Craven’s initial business ideas took off. He laughs now when admitting there were actually a lot of failures. That the original plan, a beer scavenger hunt, didn’t work is somewhat of a surprise. When you consider the adoration for events like the adult soap box derby, it seems like you’d have to crochet bomb quirky Portlanders to street signs in order to keep them away from signing up for a beer scavenger hunt. But popularity can be a problem. Too many moving parts and not enough experience were overwhelming.
“I really got pretty far into the development of it,” said Craven, “but at a certain point I decided that I needed to do something that I was better at myself and with less people. Five-hundred people is a lot. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Craven reached the point where he wasn’t sure whether starting a business would work and even began looking for jobs. But a conversation with a friend on the East Coast turned everything around. He happened to know some guys behind a ghost tour company in Washington, D.C. Craven got in touch with one of the men, who didn’t know much about Portland, but encouraged him to look into it.
And so the research began.
If you’ve ever taken the haunted pub tour, you’ll know that this isn’t some surface-level, brochure-style lecture. The stories are detailed, vivid and engaging. And Craven has certainly done his homework. The Oregon Historical Society has been a primary resource from the beginning.
“They keep basically every Oregonian [newspaper] that’s ever been made, which is really cool. So I would learn about a character, learn about someone in Portland history, and go back and read the original articles about it or look at some of the photographs,” Craven described.
He also worked to find a consensus among sources when accounts of certain events would vary. And as far as digging up material for the tales of the supernatural, Craven tries to talk to the bartenders and servers at Kells and Old Town Brewing Co., where the tours pause for beers, on a regular basis. The guides, of which there are now four, appreciate being able to mix things up a bit to keep their talks fresh.
While internal startup costs may seem like they’d be minimal — because, after all, it was just one guy walking people around town — there actually were expenses Craven had to deal with. The website and logo were two important elements that didn’t come cheap. A Mercy Corps matched savings grant ultimately helped propel the business forward and Craven quickly noticed that he had a hit on his hands.
“We started Halloween night three years ago, and it was just sold out, like, every night. So I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got something here,’” Craven recounted. “And just kind of kept it going and figured, ‘Why not? Maybe people will keep signing up.’ And they did.”
Before performing for paying customers, Craven practiced in front of friends and family. That first run clocked in at a longer time than Gilligan’s scheduled boat tour. Four hours’ worth of material was simply too long to endure, so Craven found that he ruthlessly had to cut some of the stories he loved. One of his favorites, though, is about notorious shanghaier [and drunkard] Jim Turk. He owned a boarding house in both Portland and Astoria, kidnapping unsuspecting sailors and teenage boys to then sell to ship captains looking for extra laborers. He was so conniving, Turk ran a scheme where he would shanghai his oldest son Charles, and just as the ship would leave Charles would jump overboard and swim ashore, splitting the earnings with his father. Eventually, their plot did backfire, adding yet another interesting twist to Portland’s history.
Individuals are often drawn to the underbelly of a city, delighted by the sordid details of drinking, killing and sex. Beer played a big role, especially in a city like Portland where sailors were ready to party after months at sea. A culture of brewing was growing even back then as beer halls and saloons became popular places to socialize. On the tour, you’ll even learn that the longest bar in the world was once located in Old Town, along with what was also probably the longest urinal since it was a trough that ran along the bar. Learning about the old way of life is undeniably fascinating and actually spending physical time in that space helps the history come to life.
“Walking around and thinking back to that old mindset and seeing the city the way it used to be and imagining the horse-drawn carriages and imagining sailors running around — I think that hits home with people,” Craven said. “And, you know, knowing that, like, it hasn’t always been this way and we’ve evolved over the years and kind of seeing the past in the present is a fun thing to do.”
During October when the leaves burn vibrant shades of orange and red, when you start to first notice your breath leaves a cloud in the chilling air and when the nights grow longer — the haunted part of the tour tends to be the biggest attraction. More locals sign up whereas tourists dominate during the summer. Craven said that unknown factor is a big pull — empirical proof doesn’t exist when it comes to the supernatural, but it becomes more and more difficult to deny the mounting number of shared experiences. Even as a man of science with a degree in biology, Craven has now heard and seen enough to shake his skepticism.
“Just too many things for it to be a coincidence,” he explained. “And we go to the same places over and over, so we kind of know what it usually is like and we know when something’s really different — there’s just a different energy to it.”
Now the tour isn’t all ghost stories and ghoulish history. The atmosphere tends to get quite festive as costumes are encouraged and also worn by the guides in October. Halloween, of course, will be the busiest day for the haunted tour. Last year, BeerQuest PDX held four different start times for the crawl and all of them were booked.
A good storyteller knows how to weave an anecdote in such a way that you’ll remember the plot and main characters. Certain details will fade with time, but others should be unforgettable because of the level of description and animated delivery. Craven and his team help ensure that quality stories are told about Portland and its past, which is one thing he hopes people take away from the experience.
“I always really like the locals because they’re really interested and really surprised with all the history that is in Portland, in their backyard, that they never knew,” Craven said. “And they’re always really excited they know these stories now, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can tell my friends all about it!’”
In addition to knowing what shaped Portland, Craven wants participants to gain a strong appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into making the beers they enjoy along the route. And, in the end, the tour is not unlike brewing — Craven has worked to find the perfect balance among differing elements that help define the city.
“You get a greater appreciation for a lot of these places and the history behind them and how old the buildings are, you know, how the brick has been there since the 1800s,” Craven described. “You know I always say, if the walls could talk, the stories they could tell about the olden days around Portland would be pretty dang good.”
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