By Gail Oberst
Look up “wild” in the dictionary, and you’ll get two definitions. One refers to “wild” plants and animals native to a place. The other refers to things untamed and feral, maybe even primitive. I’m not sure which applies best to Tillamook’s de Garde Brewing (it means “to keep”). Maybe both.
So when de Garde’s brewer, Trevor Rogers, the tall son of a third-generation Petersburg Alaska fishing family, greets me dressed in overalls, swirling beer in a tulip glass amid 80 wood casks, my first impression is that this is a brewer who may know how to tame wild beers.
Rogers and owner Linsey Hamacher, who doubles as his fiancé, have just expanded operations to a new brewery in the Port of Tillamook industrial development shared by the Air Museum. The two met in southern Oregon, just after Rogers earned his bachelor of fine arts degree. Hamacher had just returned home from a stint with the Peace Corps in North Africa. The two became ardent home-brewers – especially after Rogers took a non-brewing job at Pelican. They tried brewing at Pacific City, but for some reason, the wild yeasts there were just not right, Rogers said.
De Garde Brewing’s new 3,000 square-foot brewery does not replace its small tasting room in downtown Tillamook, but it provides ample room for the current 7-barrel brewhouse and blending tanks, more wood barrels, and a new “coolship” – a giant container the shape of a giant square cake pan. It is in the coolship where the “wild” thing happens. In wild beers (sometimes called Belgian-style), the cooling wort in the coolship’s shallow pan is exposed to the open air, inviting native yeasts and bacteria, and prompting spontaneous fermentation.
Tillamook’s steady ocean breezes produce an atmosphere that, like coastal Beligum, carries on it yeasts that create great beers. Unlike Belgium, Tillamook’s temperate stays cool and wet year-round. Rogers can brew every month of the year – in Belgium, hot summer temperatures halt most Belgian wild brewing.
“This beer is a representative of this place, this time,” said Rogers. “It’s in the style of Belgian lambic producers, but it is distinctly here.” The same combination of native yeast and bacteria occur nowhere else in the world.
Rogers is among a growing number of Oregon brewers who have chosen to specialize in native beers. He was inspired by Alex Ganum at Upright Brewery in Portland and Nick Arzner of Block 15 in Corvallis, who Rogers said helped introduce wild beers to consumers in Oregon. In addition to those at least a dozen other breweries have flirted with wild brewing, although de Garde and Block 15 may be the only truly wild beer producers. The others purposely introduce yeasts that have wild origins, Rogers said.
So far, de Garde’s reception has been wildly successful during Rogers’ and Hamacher’s Portland-area tastings. On-line and print reviewers have done their share of raving when de Garde was in the house. At just a year old, the brewery already sells out each of its releases, which are bottled and sold from the tasting room. Catering to de Garde’s early out-of-town supporters, Rogers has created a “Keepers” club where he creates special beers including (next month) a lambic-inspired beer that includes southern Oregon Tempranillo grapes, and a double Berliner Weisse aged with Merlot grapes.
Memberships to the Keepers Club will reopen in the fall.
Now that de Garde has a coolship, its tanks are freed for Rogers to brew more often. The brewery could expand in the current building by simply removing the wall next door. But before that happens, Rogers is filling up his current space vertically with plans to triple his barrels to as many as 300 by this summer. Unlike non-wild breweries, all of de Garde’s beer, once it begins fermenting, spends most of its days – up to four years – in wooden barrels or casks that once held gin, rum, whiskey or wine. Inside the barrel, a thin skin called a “pellicle” forms a cap on the beer, protecting from oxygen.
“This is going to be fantastic,” Rogers said, tapping the end of the keg old-school by pounding a nail about a third of the way up and letting flow into his glass an aged strong sour, officially weighing in at about 14% ABV, the strongest allowed before you have to call it “wine.” It took about two tons of grain to push it that high, he said.
This particular ale won’t see the light of day for a few more years. Until then, visitors can content themselves with beers as they are released (see below).
Plans for the future include beer release events in the brewery, thanks to a new OLCC license that expands the use of the new space. The first of these events will be at 2 p.m. Feb. 1, but if you miss that, stay tuned. There will be another in March.
Public releases Feb. 1 and brewer’s notes are:
Loak: 375ml bottles, $8/bottle, no limit. Strong, dark and sour, bourbon barrel fermented and aged brew. Chocolate and coffee notes, with tart red fruit character and rich barrel complexity with a balancing rustic funk.
Vin Lee: 750ml bottles, $14/bottle, 12-bottle limit. Sour red ale base, a blend in freshly-emptied Pinot Noir barrel aged brew. A secondary fermentation with approximately four pounds per gallon of Pinot Noir grapes from a Dundee Hills vineyard in the Willamette Valley. Juicy character and an elevated balancing acidity complemented by earthy notes are a subtle complement.
Note for word geeks: de Garde is spelled with a lowercase “de” at the beginning. The editor, however, doesn’t start sentences or headlines with lowercase letters.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.