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.)
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.
“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.