Late February. Weeks of spring-like warmth are at last slain by La Nina, reviving winter and sending snow levels plunging. Eight miles south of Newport, wheeling east through sleet, I pass a wealth of wooded and riparian habitat — views of waterfowl, leafless alders, conifers dusted white.
A few miles later I park in front of a remote red barn that looks nothing like a brewery. I’m on the edge of a 600-acre working cattle ranch.
“Most people who live on this road don’t know there’s a brewery out here,” bearded-and-beanied Joe Hitselberger says as he gives me a sample of his mildly tart, wild yeast Beaver Kriek, brewed two years ago and named after the Beaver Creek Valley this ranch occupies. “Here,” the founder of Wolf Creek Brewery continues, eyeing the lush landscape, “there are so many ingredients for beer.”
Alongside gently bubbling Bowers Creek, a Beaver Creek vein, we’re standing at the end of a private graveled lane piercing the bucolic ranch that’s been his family’s since the late 1980s. Technically the barn/brewery lies within Seal Rock, an unincorporated area between Newport and Waldport. It’s where Hitselberger, 37, innovates.
What’s a wolf tree? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a very large forest tree that has a wide-spreading crown and inhibits or prevents the growth of smaller trees around it.”
Or: a tree spared during the ruthless age of logging virgin rainforests.
Hitselberger is also a steward forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “At the coast,” he says, “wolf trees are usually Sitka spruce. We’ve got groves of juveniles everywhere, so we pick from them, mostly out of convenience. The smaller trees put more of their energy toward growing rather than producing cones, so they’re easier to get tips off of.”
In 2013 Hitselberger began with 20-gallon batches. Today his shiny outdoor coolship and indoor 7-barrel Portland Kettle Works system birth all sorts of unique liquids, king pinned by his pride-and-joy flagship. “It’s a true Northwest-style beer,” he says, handing me a small glass of malty, amber Spruce Tip Ale, Wolf Tree’s unique year-rounder. It’s used as a base for more spruce-y specialties like a barrel-aged oud bruin and a richly complex gruit that won an Experimental-class gold medal at 2017’s Oregon Beer Awards.
“Spruce beers are fun to make,” Hitselberger says, grinning. “Each April, we have friends come out here and we pick 3,000 pounds of tips so we can make spruce tip beers year-round. Compared with the volume we want to produce, it’s hard for other breweries to replicate what we do because of the availability of tips. It’s hard to buy them.” (He recently sold some to Rogue Ales.)
The world’s third-largest tree species (behind Douglas fir and coast redwood), Sitka spruce are native to a narrow coastal belt from southeast Alaska to Mendocino County, Calif., where Hitselberger gets his wine barrels. But Alaska, where Sitka is the state tree, was where he found his brew muse. In the early 2000s, employed as a wildlife biologist in Juneau, Hitselberger first tasted spruce tip ale. “I drank a lot of it from some of the microbreweries up there. I got hooked. So I started homebrewing.”
One of his first non-spruce tip recipes became Camille’s Golden IPA, named for one of his dogs. Part of the beer’s proceeds are donated to Heartland Humane Society in Corvallis.
Yes, Wolf Tree is kind to four-legged friends.
“A brewery is a good complementary business to a farm,” Hitselberger says. “Our cows eat the spent grain, and we grow a lot of ingredients here, including hops. Our spring provides really good brewing water. We’re getting more and more into coolship beers, and what’s fascinating with that is it’s unique to this valley. Our beers have interesting flavors. We do a lot of wild styles and eventually our beers are going to pick up a kind of signature from the brewery just because of the yeasts we use and how things are in close proximity.”
Animals — elk, owl, dog, bear — grace all Wolf Tree bottle labels. They were drawn by Julia Goos, an Oregon Coast Community College art teacher and beertender at the Wolf Tree Taproom located upstairs in the squeaky-clean Wilder Corner Building, mere yards from the OCCC campus and a new housing subdivision. “We built a pretty big customer base before opening our taproom,” Hitselberger says. “Having a strong customer base outside beyond the taproom is good, though, because we don’t rely on all our revenue from it.”
Since August 2017’s eclipse weekend, the taproom has allowed direct public access to Hitselberger’s fresh rotating creations, which he estimates to be 50-percent farmhouse style, 50-percent conventional.
“The coast is interesting for beer,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of our products leave this area. People in the Willamette Valley are more interested in these kinds of beers; most people in Newport have never heard of us. You’d be more likely to find someone in Portland who’s heard of Wolf Tree.
“You’ve got to be unique in this business,” Hitselberger says before heading back into the barn. “Making beer in Oregon, you don’t want to have any brand fatigue and you want to keep making interesting things consumers want. Spruce tip beer alone is compelling enough to grab peoples’ attention. It’s different, and it tastes different.” •