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Friday, December 02, 2016

Whom Indeed? Four People I'd Drink Beer With

 The beer blogosphere has had a long-running project called "The Session," in which a bunch of people post on the same topic. Bastard that I am, I've only one other time participated. But this month's question is too alluring to pass up. It comes from Stan, who asks:
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?
It's not obvious to me whether the intention here is to do four beer people, or any four people. And though I do love beer people, I have to say this distinction matters--my top four beer folk wouldn't make my top hundred regular people. So let's deal with them separately.

Beery Types
This actually turns out to be harder than it seems because there are so many important figures whose contributions we cannot peer into history and see. I'd love to know more about the development of lagering in Bavaria, but we're not even sure about the century, never mind a key figure. So how about these:
  • Josef Groll. Perhaps the most famous brewer ever, Groll brewed the first batch of pilsner back in 1842. I'd love to have him walk me through the decisions he made to come up with that beer. But he's also a fascinating figure whom basically everyone on record--including his father!--said was a major bastard. He was run out of Plzen not very long after he got there. I'd love to see that famous charisma in action. Obviously we'd drink Natty Light so he could see how debased his invention has become.
  • Georges Lacambre. I'm actually not entirely sure his first name is Georges, for in all but one case I've discovered he was listed as "G." This is the man who wrote the 19th century survey of world (but especially Belgian) beer at the time. I would pump him for all the info he had, and so I'd arrange for a 43-course meal to keep him pinned down for seven hours. We'd drink American IPAs to blow his mind.
  • Anyone who made Danziger Jopenbier between the 17th and 19th centuries. Jopenbier was made to cosmic original gravities, with wild yeast, but was nevertheless barely fermented. Every description I've ever read makes it sound undrinkable. I would have one question: why? I'd make him drink jopenbier while he answered the question.
  • Rudi Ghequire. Rudi is the master brewer at Rodenbach, the one living brewer. I got to spend a couple hours with him, but owing to scheduling confusion, it was still a rush job. He is an exceptionally smart guy, but even more, one of the nicest men I've ever met. He is the anti-Groll. We would of course be drinking Rodenbach from the foeders at the brewery. Because, hey, it's a fantasy and why wouldn't we be there?

Non-Beery Types
This is even harder, though made somewhat easier by the stipulation that we drink beer. The Buddha I'd love to meet, but maybe not in that environment. So:
  • Samuel Beckett. I doubt he spent a lot of time drinking beer in Paris, but I bet the liquid passed his lips, copiously, earlier in life. I'd choose old Beckett, perhaps circa 1986--88, because he was by that time pulling toward the mortality that was always at the center of his fiction. He's the most talented writer I've read, but he's also one of the most fascinating figures. Had he never written a word, he'd be fun to spend a dinner with. Beer? I would not foist stout on a man who fled his home country. My guess is he'd prefer lager, cheap and commercial.
  • Joe Strummer. As we trot through the professions I wish I'd had, we come now to musician. Why Strummer? Come on--Joe Strummer. I'd love to meet him in a pub and chat over cask bitter. Many, many of them.
  • George Orwell. Oh, wait, are we back to writers again? My excuse: part of this game is not just reciting the most famous people (Einstein! Joan of Arc!) but coming up with people you could actually imagine carrying on a conversation with. Orwell was a giant in literature, but he was also deeply interested in politics, as am I. In the age of Donald Trump . . .  well. Am I right in remembering that he liked mild ale? The era is right. Let's say it's so: we drink milds.
  • Barack Obama. This would be a bit of a gamble, because he's a pretty famously reticent guy. I'd be depending on the beer and our shared affection for basketball to get him to open up. (I bet we could get a good ten minutes on Steph Curry.) I suspect that people never recognize the historical significance of most figures during their lifetimes--it's only after the myth-making of decades that their statures grow outsized. Obama will almost certainly be one of those figures. Meeting him now, at an unexpectedly ambiguous historical moment long before those decades have passed--this would be the moment for the perfect chat. We'd drink a selection of Oregon beers, and I would subtly try to improve his palate. He's beer-curious, but he's got a ways to go.
There are no women on this list and all but one are white. (The likelihood that my Jopenbier brewer turned out to be a black woman seem dubious.) This reflects badly on me and if I had a chance to do this for reals, I'd probably rectify it. But since we're conducting a parlor game, there you go--

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Does Belgium Have an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" of Beer? Does Anyone?

Yesterday, news came out that UNESCO had given Belgium a singular honor:
Citing Belgian beer's integral role in social and culinary life, UNESCO is putting the country's rich brewing scene (with nearly 1,500 styles) on its list representing the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Belgium's beer culture is one of 16 new additions that were announced Thursday.
The honor came with an accompanying video (see below), which helped flesh out the case--one that might have come straight from the Belgian tourist board. Perhaps you picked up on one tell of a certain kind of exaggeration in the quoted paragraph: "with nearly 1,500 styles of beer." That would indeed be a hell of an accomplishment!

I actually think UNESCO intuited something profound in Belgium's beer culture, but they didn't do a very good job of documenting it. Had they done so, they would have seen that a few other countries have a similar cultural status. Beer, almost uniquely among human activities, is a mirror of the culture that brews it. This was the great discovery I made researching The Beer Bible, and one I speak about whenever anyone invites me to do so. When you pick up a glass of beer from one of these countries in question (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, the UK), you can only understand it fully if you know the agriculture, history (including things like wars, famines, and rulers), drinking culture, laws, and ineffable qualities that seem to have no source. Of course, these manifest not just in the ingredients and final color, strength, and flavors of the beer, but the way it was made.

In the video, Senne's Yvan De Baets describes the four different types of fermentation found in Belgium, but he skips over the most interesting element--warm rooms. This is absolutely central to the production of Belgian ales of all types, and is a process used nowhere else (except the new world, where breweries make Belgian-style beers). The English practice of cask-conditioning, the Czech insistence on decoction, the German approach that is filtered through the restrictions of Reinheitsgebot--all these countries do something that looks totally bizarre when you compare it to other countries. And those practices are a kind of distilled version of the whole national tradition.

Perhaps the Belgians, living in a smaller country where cultural heritage is more evident nationwide, decided to pitch this idea first. (I have no idea what gave UNESCO the idea.) But they have no greater claim to the heritage than these other countries--though indeed they have enormous claim to it on its face. Even Julius Caesar noted that the Belgians brewed beer. (They were probably doing something offbeat even back then.) Walk into any cafe in Belgium, and it's hard not to observe something unique and pervasive happening there. So yes, Belgium deserves this. But so do at least three other countries.

Now, enjoy the film (it is pretty good).

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hill Farmstead in Photos

I will have to do a fair bit of work before I can give you a proper report on Hill Farmstead, but here's a sneak peak--a photo series on the snowy day I visited eight days ago in remote northern Vermont. Be sure to click the "read more" for more.

The original Hill farmstead


The original brewery, dating all the way back to 2010.

Erstwhile Portlander Vasilios Gletsos

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Holiday Book-Signing Events Saturday and Sunday

As the incessant thrum of cheery music attests, 'tis the season. If you want to get all your holiday shopping done in one stop, let me suggest two group signings this weekend. Illustrious authors will be in attendance, books and signing pens in hand--and I will be there, too. Come pick up a personalized copy for that beer geek in your life.
Saturday, December 3, 5-7pm - Bazi Bierbrasserie
1522 SE 32nd, PDX

Present at this signing will be Jon Abernathy (Bend Beer), Niki Ganong (The Field Guide to Drinking in America), Brian Yaeger (Oregon Breweries), and Pete Dunlop (Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana).

Sunday, December 4, 2-5 pm - NWIPA
6350 SE Foster, PDX
At this edition we'll have a similar crew, with myself, Niki Ganong, Brian Yaeger, Jon Abernathy, Steven Shomler (Portland Beer Stories), Matt Wagner (The Tall Trees of Portland and art director for Gigantic Brewing label art), --and possibly more. 

Getcher books this weekend!

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Zoigl Launches

When Alan Taylor conceived of Zoiglhaus brewing, it wasn't for the name. In a remote part of Germany, a medieval tradition of communal brewing still hangs on in a few villages. There, locals own a single brewhouse to which they all have access. They go to the brewery, whip up a batch of beer, and take the wort to their homes to ferment. After fermentation, they hang a six-pointed star and invite people to their homes--temporarily restyled as homey pubs--and sell the beer to the public. This was a big part of the inspiration for Zoiglhaus, and this Friday Taylor is launching the first of his Zoigly initiatives. From the announcement:
While you can’t legally sell beer out of your home, you can do the next best thing:  fill up your carboy with freshly brewed wort at Zoiglhaus, take it and a fresh can of yeast home with you to ferment your own beer.  Add dry hops, extra flavorings, or leave it as is.  It’s up to you.  When the beer is done, you can share it with family or friends in the Zoigl spirit.

On December 2nd, Zoiglhaus will brew the first trial batch of ZPA, a hop-focused Pale Ale brewed with all-German ingredients.  The cooled and aerated wort from this brew will be available for purchase between 4 pm and 7 pm.  RSVPs are required, so please call us at 971-339-2374 or drop by the brewery to sign up for this event.
If you don't have a carboy, you can buy them at Zoiglhaus on Friday. The first 30 people to reserve will even get a free dose of Imperial yeast with the carboy. (I'm posting this a bit late, as usual, so that may not be in the cards.) The price of wort if you bring in a five-gallon carboy is $35, which is a pretty typical price for a batch of homebrew. (Five gallons gets you roughly two cases of beer.) Then, a month later:
On January 7th, Zoiglhaus will host the first Zoigl-Wort to Bierfest with a party in the Zoigl-Stube.  All of the participants are welcome to bring in samples of their brew to share with the Zoiglhaus brew staff (apparently they like tasting beer…) as well as the other home brewers.  Each participant will receive a commemorative glass and a free pint of the ZPA on the 7th.  Zoiglhaus is excited to see the creative ideas our fellow brewers come up with!  The People’s Choice will get a free 5 gallon fill of wort at the next Zoigl-Wort event.
I'll give his a shot (it will be a novel experience to begin with a properly-prepared wort), and I'm toying with either something involving fruit, dry hops, a saison yeast strain, or other curious additions. We shall see. Whether I attend the Jan 7 event will depend entirely on how this decision pans out. Seems like a new and fun wrinkle in the expanding tapestry that is Beervana.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Spontaneous Files: Block 15 Brewing

If you ever have a chance to sit with Nick Arzner in Block 15’s new taproom, I highly recommend it. Over the summer I sat with him drinking pints of Gloria!, the new pilsner he’d just released, and literally every person who came in the front doors stopped to chat with him. He greeted them with smiles and warm handshakes and then they traded stories of each other’s families. Nick was born in Oregon and his father coached the South Albany High School swimming team—I had the sense that personal and family connections bound Nick to nearly everyone in Corvallis. My guess is that they enjoy coming to the pub because it’s an affirmation of a local kid done good. I also had the sense that they had absolutely no idea how good that kid had done, or that they were visiting a brewery considered by many to be Oregon’s best.

Block 15 is currently famous for Sticky Hands, its booming double IPA. A half-decade ago, people doted on its stouts with similar affection. I have also considered them one of the premier saison breweries, and I discussed Ville de Provisions in The Beer Bible as one of the few to successfully mesh the expressive flavors of farmhouse and wild yeasts. Less attention is placed on Nick’s spontaneously-fermented ales, but I will happily entertain the argument that they’re his most accomplished beers.

Nick has always found inspiration in European beers, and you find winks and nods to the old countries—but especially Belgium—throughout the Block 15 realm. When he opened a bistro around the corner from the original brewpub, he named it Les Caves—a reference to the pub that sits across the road from Brasserie Dupont. Early on, he released a Belgian pale ale called “Wandelpad,” which referenced a walking path next to the monastery at Westvleteren (the beer itself was an evocation of the monks’ far less famous pale ale). And if you know how the lambic beers around Brussels are made, you might get the reference when you learn his spontaneously-fermented beers are in a line called “Turbulent Consequences.” (Get it? No? Read on.)

Underneath the original brewpub is a honeycomb of smaller and larger chambers that constitute Block 15’s barrel room. On the door of one you’ll find a circle of wood—a barrel head—hand painted with the words “Time does not respect those that do without it.” This is another homage to a similar circle hanging in Cantillon (“Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui”). Beyond it is the brewery’s coolship, which is both deeper and less wide than typical examples. “When we started this program, I thought we’d just try it and I didn’t expect much out of it,” Nick explained. Hedging his bets, he designed to be extra deep “so we could use it for open ferments” in the case that the spontaneous ferments didn’t pan out.

Fortunately for all, they did.

Unlike Trevor Rodgers at De Garde, who has developed a new mashing regime for his spontaneous ales, Block 15 goes through the traditional, laborious mashing process. “We do it with a nod to the classical beers in the sense of sweating our asses off with a turbid mash and throwing in aged hops, and letting our environment do the work.” The turbid mash is a throwback to a time when local Belgian jurisdictions taxed breweries based on the size of their mash tuns, creating an irresistible incentive to keep them as small as possible. In order to work around undersized mash tuns, breweries developed convoluted mashing systems that survive among the lambic makers—and a few Americans who prize tradition. (It also prepares a wort that will feed Brettanomcyes for months or years as the beer ages.) Turbid mash, Turbulent Consequences—now you see the reference.

Nick begins with cold water and goes through six steps of pulling off part of the mash, warming it, and returning it to the main mash. The whole ordeal takes six hours. His process of inoculation is similar to lambic-brewing, but differs in a couple ways. He lowers the temperature of the wort a bit before putting it in the coolship, and then instead of leaving it just overnight, he lets it rest for a full 24 hours. There’s a lot of mysticism associated with coolships and their placement, and I consider Block 15’s an asterisk to the whole oeuvre. Rather than elevating it and opening louvers to bring in the currents of the fresh breeze, Block 15’s coolship is down in the cellar, exposed to very little fresh air. I suppose it’s a testament to the cleanliness of the barrel room that this does not introduce any nasty microorganisms, but for whatever the reason, Nick gets gentle, balanced beer from his blend of bugs.

So far, he has largely released fruited versions of these beers, and as we stood next to the (empty) coolship, we sipped on a spontaneous peach beer he’d bottled. I found it wonderfully gentle and approachable. The acidity was restrained, but electrified the peaches, which seemed somehow more intense than a perfectly ripe, sun-warmed fruit ever could. Nevertheless, he surprised me by saying, “if I had to be really critical of the program, I wish it wasn’t so zingy. The more mature my palate gets, the more I like balanced acidity, and in the rest of our programs we can balance them. But I do allow this to express itself. It’s an expression of our, of our, of our…”—he struggled for the right word before ending, with a laugh, on “basement.”

When a brewery works with wild yeast and bacteria, blending becomes a pivotal skill. Different barrels produce different flavors, some fruity, some acidic, some woody, some even harsh. The best wild ales are a product of blending these different elements to create a complex and harmonious beer. “I used to do a lot with taking pH, gravity, but I do it all through sensory now. I don’t give a damn what the pH is or the gravity is; what I care about is: how does the beer taste, how does it smell, how does it feel?” Whether we’re talking about the Turbulent Consequence line or other wild beers, this is where Nick really shines. Blending is something like cooking, knowing how flavors will work together, and for Nick it appears instinctive. It probably also takes a bit of steely pragmatism: some of the spontaneous beer just isn’t good. Up to 20% of these beers don’t make the cut and end up in the drain. Such is the risk when you turn your wort over to nature.

We tend to think of spontaneous beers as products entirely of what happens in the coolship, but I’ve now heard from a couple people that there’s more to it than that. Frank Boon has his pilsner malt prepared to his own specifications. Nick doesn’t go that far, but like Boon he disputes that everything happens in the coolship. “That can’t be true. For our spontaneous ferment we use Rahr white wheat—that’s my wheat. If you use whatever—unmalted wheat—it’s different. That’s a difference right there, and it’s gotta come through in the end regardless of what’s going on down here [in the coolship]. So then, can you separate those things, the way I do my turbid mash, which is going to be different than the way anyone else does a turbid mash. How much of that translates to this barrel? Some, there’s got to be some.” I told him about Boon’s specially-malted pilsner malt and he agreed. “So if Boon were to come here and brew here and bring his pilsner malt and use his techniques, his beer wouldn’t taste the same.”

I suggested that he and Trevor Rogers at De Garde swap breweries for a day, preparing their wort the way they normally do, but fermenting in the opposite location. Would a wort prepared by Trevor in Corvallis taste like a De Garde beer, a Block 15 beer, or something else? A Block 15 wort inoculated in Tillamook? How much is the ingredients, the mash, or the wild yeast and bacteria? It would be a fascinating experiment—and perhaps one day they’ll run it.

In the meantime, watch Block 15’s website for announcements of the Turbulent Consequence line. Block 15 will release a blend of 18-month-old barrels conditioned with cranberries called The Bog on December 3rd.  They are an example of a growing number of spontaneous American ales, and they’re some of the best.

Photo of Block 15's "Respect" sign: The New School

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Changing Market

I will be posting spottily this week--and you will probably be reading in the same mode. However, a Facebook post by Stephen Beaumont has been perking in my brain for the past few days:
US Beer numbers: In 2015, AB InBev & MillerCoors together lost over 4.34 million barrels of volume, equal to about 18% of craft beer market. If trend continues, and the US beer market overall remains stagnant, that makes room for 4 new Sierra Nevadas every year.
And will the trend continue? Yes, unless it accelerates.  Let us consider the trends:
Mass Market Lager: shrinking substantially
Imports: growing
Craft segment: slowing growth
Beer overall: shrinking marginally
All of this makes for an interesting and dynamic marketplace, which is the cause of both interest and (for some) anxiety.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Bayern Doppelbock

Imagine you were looking out over the 4pm darkening sky as the wind rattled bare tree branches together like dry bones. The cold seeps through the window, creating a pocket of chill around you that won't dissipate until May. What you want is something hearty, smooth, and comforting. There are many ways to chase the damp and dark from your spirits, but none surpasses a mug of doppelbock for pure warming potential.

Now, suppose further that you wanted the kind of doppelbock they drink in Bavaria, in cozy, low-ceilinged pubs. You could pick up an import, but I would like to direct your hand instead to that six-pack of Bayern. Not only is it the best domestic doppelbock I've ever tasted, it may be the best Bavarian one, too.

How can this be? Jürgen Knöller. He is the expat masterbrewer at Bayern, and he's been making this doppelbock in the US for exactly 29 years. And he makes it the way he learned how to brew in Bavaria, which is to say in a way they no longer brew. This is one of my favorite quotes of all time, when Jürgen described to me this strange quirk. It is long, elliptical, and amusing, which seems to be typical for Jürgen. Therefore I'm giving you the whole thing.

“I worked for four different breweries in Germany; of those four three are no longer.  The first one was Brauerei Schiff—‘ship’—and we had a very traditional brewery. We are talking a four-vessel brewhouse with a falloff tank—whatever that is in English—it’s a fifth vessel. It had a cool ship, it was beautiful. I mean, that brewery did about a quarter-million hectoliters. And what happened was the owner died and the widow couldn’t run it and a brewery from Cologne bought it and they kind of ran it in the ground. The next brewery bought it up and I switched to that brewery and the next one bought this one up and I switched to that one.”   

“We did beers there that I have never really seen being brewed anywhere else. Decoction beers, for one thing. They did one beer there, one day I’m gonna do, they called Pils Extra. They were just terrific beers.  \The doppelbock they brewed—they left it in the tank for almost a year. Their doppelbock and their maibock, and that’s what we’re brewing here. Their doppelbock, I mean—I went to school in Munich and we had every Munich bock that was ever brewed, and even then, none of them could come close to what we had.”   

“The next brewery I worked for, it was also a very old brewery, they did a really good one, too. It was from the Roden Brauerei. At the Schiff Brauerei we had Pirator—like a pirate—so we called it Pirator Bock. Anyway, what I did, I took from those two breweries, their doppelbocks. When I was looking at the technology available that I had—basically, what kind of machines do I have and what can those things do? You cannot take a Harley and run Superbike with it. You have to run it like a Harley. So what I did was I looked at the—I still had the formulations and everything of both beers—[and looked at my equipment].”

 “Some American breweries have a hopjack. Well we had a copper tank, vertical, that had a screen bottom like a lauter tun. All we were using was flower hops—and trust me, I have baled those things, 220 pounds those things, some of them were even bigger—and that was on the fifth story. Oh, and by the way, the brewery was five stories up and five stories down into the cellars. That’s where you’re really lean and mean, running up and down stairs all the time, pushing, and lifting and shoveling all day long. So with all those flower hops, we ran the hot wort over that so the hot break would be on top of the flower hops. Then we were running from there into a [long conjunct German word I couldn't catch], next open mash where we were separating out the cold break and cooling it down in the cool ship. Well, the next brewery didn’t have that, but it had some other interesting things.”   

“So then I decided, huh, this is what I have to work with for machines, it’s a fixed parameter, how do I get it across that I come up with the same product with what I got to work with?  That’s what we did. Of all the brewers that were brewing that beer, including myself, there are only three guys that are still alive. I took some of those elements but of course I came up with my own—you look at what you have to work with and decide what you can and cannot do.”
A moment later he added:
“I started brewing beer in 1978; I did my three years as apprentice and got my journeyman’s certificate. I was working for another almost four years and then I got my masters degree--I graduated from Doemans. Now, when we were brewing back in those days back in Germany, I mean the Germans have always been the world-champions in efficiency and over the years—well, put it this way: I’m still brewing the German lager beers from 1985. When you go to Germany you have some of the older breweries that still brew the same way, but the bigger ones certainly don’t do anymore. What’s different between our beers here in general is that they’re all probably a little bit stronger, a little bit darker, whereas in Germany they have gotten a lot lighter.”
After all of this, it hardly matters what I say about the beer, does it? You'll want to try it just because the backstory is so interesting. And you should. For my part, I will add that it makes the Sherpa list not because of the story, but the beer. Good doppelbocks are the rare beer that everyone understands. Novices and experts alike can immediately appreciate them. The flavors are accessible and clear: rich, familiar maltiness shot through with the flavors of bread, caramel, and the barest hint of chocolate. The richness is held in balance by the smoothest, lightest finish you'll ever find in a beer this strong. It's an impossible beer to dislike, and so, so easy to love.

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vignette #7, Jim Bicklein (Anheuser-Busch)

“There are six of these mash vessels per brewhouse, so I have 18 mash vessels. Those mash vessels, because we long-brew Bud Light, right?—we’re in the cooker for three hours—so to maintain that mashing cycle we had to have more mashing vessels. We long-brew the Bud Light. This is designed to make light beers with long brewing mashing cycle for the enzymatic activity to break down the starches. In order for the process to break down the sugars in light beers, it just takes time. In light beer, more of the sugars are being broken down. So for Budweiser a conversion cycle might be about 45 minutes; it’s about 210 minutes for a Bud Light.”

“There’s three brewhouses, six of these apiece, and each brewhouse has two lauter tubs, so we have six lauter tubs and six brew kettles. And that will support about 50-60 brews a day depending on production demands. It’s nice that the brewhouses are broken up, because technically I can do three different products at a time. I’ll mash in a Budweiser, and then I’ll mash in a Bud Light, and then I’ll mash in a Natural Light on the other brewhouse; so that’s commonly how we run.”

(Bicklein here is describing the process at the St. Louis brewery; he was the brewmaster at the time I recorded him in 2013.)

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Spontaneous Files: De Garde Brewing

This past summer, I got sent on assignment to write a piece for Travel Oregon about breweries using native yeasts. The article didn't allow me to say much about the practices of these breweries, so I'm expanding on what I learned here. 

One of the most interesting breweries in Oregon--and the US for that matter--is a little place nestled in a mist-veiled valley near Tillamook. Named De Garde after the French practice of aging beer ("garde" is something like "lager"), it might have been more appropriate to call it "Wild House" or something, for the signature feature of the brewery is that every beer begins life soaking in the ambient yeasts and bacteria in the brewery's cool ship. It is no longer wildly uncommon for breweries to make spontaneously-fermented beers or even to have an on-site coolship. But rare is the brewery that exclusively makes them. I visited last August and had a wonderful tour with Trevor Rodgers, one half of the dynamic duo who run things (along with his wife, Linsey), and learned quite a bit about their practices.

Most of the excitement happens later in the process, but building a wort that can nurture wild yeast and bacteria is a critical first step. “Our brewhouse is very rudimentary, a dual-kettle system, indirect fire [system],” Trevor explained. “We’re looking for a very starch- and protein-rich wort for a lot of our beers. For the base for that particular beer, the lambic-inspired base, we want a lot of starch and a lot of protein coming.”

In Belgian lambic-making, brewers do this long, complicated process called a "turbid mash." The goal is to create a nutrient-poor wort that is rich in dextrins and starches. Lambics go through a strangely bipolar ferment. At first, brewers are trying to inhibit things ("things" begin the harsher spoilage bacteria that can ruin a wort) and encourage a slow but healthy initial ferment. But they also want to leave something for the Brettanomyces to chew on later in the process. So it's a starve-the-now-and-feed-them-later approach.

Trevor started experimenting with turbid mashes, but switched to a radical approach that left my jaw hanging open when he described it. He trotted by the process so quickly I had to back up a few sentences and ask him to repeat what he does now. Since it is so unusual, he asked that I not broadcast it to the world, but ask about it if you visit the brewery. Now that De Garde has had a chance to see what longer-aged beer does with the wort, Trevor's satisfied that it is a fine substitute for the traditional approach. (We don't want to get too deeply into the weeds, but that "traditional" approach originally emerged from the way local jurisdictions taxed breweries, so it's reasonable to think alternate methods might be fine for creating the right kinds of worts.)

Most places on the planet are not suited for year-round spontaneous fermentation. During the summer, the temperatures are too high and the wort spends too long in a microbe-friendly warmth. During the summer there are also more microbes about. The result is spoilage, and it was so common that Europeans didn't brew during the summer (and many local governments banned it). Tillamook, by contrast, is one of those places that never gets very warm, so De Garde is a 12-month brewery. “That’s why we pursued the Oregon Coast—as the likely place to have success, given that it is temperate year-round.” Indeed, I visited not long after the hottest day ever recorded in Tillamook, and it still got down to 52 (11 C) overnight. (They didn't brew that day.) But neither does it get icy in the winter; it's a perfect Goldilocks zone of just-right.

A lot of the romance of spontaneous fermentation is vested in the activity of the coolship, but we know more about wild yeasts now, and realize this is only one part of the process. Trevor emphasized that point to me:
“I think there’s a misconception that all the beer’s inoculation is coming from the air, from outside, whereas realistically, most of the inoculates are coming from the brewhouse environment itself. What we look for is a resupply of enteric bacteria from the outside environment because they don’t do as well in even a modestly clean brewhouse environment. They’re essential to get complexity of character. Those early off, you know phenols and characteristics that are undesirable are later broken down and reformulated into something that’s a lot more pleasant and complex. You can get sacch, brett, lacto, and pedio from the brewhouse environment, but you need refreshment regularly coming through.”

De Garde is located in a large industrial building, the majority of which is dedicated to barrel storage. It's so large, in fact, that De Garde can afford to keep the barrel stacks low for a more consistent temperature. Again, Tillamook's location is perfect for this: it is consistently 55-60 degrees (13-16C) in the warehouse, which requires no climate control (except the coastal breeze). As we stood in the barrel room, I tried to lure Trevor into talking about his approach and philosophy, which is so critical to making these beers. His answer surprised me.
“Our biggest challenge as a natural, wild brewer is to restrain acidity. It’s going to be there, and you need some for the complexity, but it needs to be in balance. It’s like the hops arms race—we are in that phase. The demand for sour beer makes people think sour is good. Like hops are good; bitterness is good. But that shouldn’t be the defining feature of a beer. It should be an element that is essential to produce complexity—not the element defining the beer.”
For me, this is actually the most important element of De Garde's house palate. When the first De Garde beers were released, they weren't restrained at all; some were viciously tart. But recently they have come into remarkable harmony. It's actually no surprise that it's taken the brewery a little time to dial these in--it's a bigger surprise that they managed to do it so fast.

Trevor continued:
“We’re not masters of anything. We make wort, we don’t make beer. That’s very different; we’ve relinquished control for the most part. The one thing we do control is what goes into the barrel, and what gets blended from the barrel. But even after that, because it’s naturally reconditioned in the keg and bottle, you have zero control. I didn’t have any gray hairs when I started,” he said with a laugh (I still didn't see too many). “The taste from that barrel, the complex Brettanomyces interaction, the gentle acidity, you can’t replicate that by adding ingredients into beer, by pitching five dozen different strains of Brettanomyces—it takes a natural interaction.”
De Garde makes  a number of different kind of beers, from their shorter-aged "Berliner weisses" (which are unlike others of their kind), saisons, aged beers and aged fruit beers. My favorites are the ones that have been aged longer and have more layered complexity. They share a similar configuration of flavors you find in Belgian lambics, but they would never be mistaken for them. I don't know what role the native yeasts and bacteria play in this, or whether it has to do with that strange mashing regime or the way they're aged or what, but they are singular. Perhaps one day we will speak of a "coastal" terroir.

Tillamook's about an hour and a half drive from Portland, which make for an ambitious beer outing. The drive is beautiful, though, and if you like complex, balanced, barrel-aged wild ales, it's well worth the time.