Wild on the Coast – A visit to de Garde Brewing

Before Thanksgiving I promised a series of posts from my October visit to Oregon, but aside from a post on the Bend Ale Trail I haven’t followed up on that promise.  Better late than never here is the second installment in this series, a visit to one of the most unique breweries in the country – de Garde Brewing in Tillamook.

I became aware of de Garde when Draft Magazine featured them as a brewery to watch. I became even more curious when I learned that owner Linsey Hamacher and head brewer Trevor Rogers were next door neighbors to my old friends, Scott and Tara Bailey.  So once my visit to Oregon was planned, I knew I had to find time for a journey out to Tillamook.

De Garde, which means to store in French, is a small 10 BBL brewery located in an even smaller town. Best known for its cheese factory of the same name, Tillamook (pop. ~5000) is located 75 miles west of Portland separated from the Rose City by the mountains of the Coast Range. Five different rivers flow out of the mountains and empty into nearby Tillamook Bay, which makes the estuaries around Tillamook a verdant haven of biodiversity.  That’s what brought my friend Scott, a biologist who works for Tillamook Estuaries Project, to town, but what puts this small, rather remote brewery on the craft beer map?  To the best of my knowledge de Garde is the only US brewery to rely exclusively the age-old practice of spontaneous fermentation.  Before describing my visit to de Garde let’s take a short detour to bring everyone up to speed on spontaneous fermentation.

deGarde_glasses1

Spontaneous Fermentation

As anyone reading this blog will know yeast is responsible for transforming the sweet stew of sugars that brewers call wort into beer. In addition to making ethanol and CO2, yeasts produce other chemicals that are an important part of the flavor and aroma of your beer.  Yeasts are responsible for the banana and clove flavors in a hefeweizen, the peppery notes in a saison, and the fruity flavors in an abbey ale.  So it should come as no surprise to learn that most brewers select the yeasts used to make a given beer with just as much care as the malts, hops, and water.

Breweries that practice spontaneous fermentation take a very different tack, throwing convention to the wind they let the wort sit out in the open air and hope that the right mix of wild microbes will waft in and work their magic.  After inoculating with airborne yeasts and bacteria (yes bacteria are needed to make the beers sour) the wort is transferred to wooden barrels for fermentation.  The use of wooden barrels (typically oak) is important because wild yeasts like brettanomyces and bacteria like pediococcus and lactobacillus from previous batches live in the grains of the wood (click here to read my primer on sour beers if these are unfamiliar terms). Hundreds of years ago, before the role of yeast was fully understood, all beers were made this way, but these days it’s quite rare. The art of spontaneous fermentation is now rarely practiced outside of the lambic breweries of the Zenne River Valley in Belgium.

While there are a number of American breweries that dabble in spontaneous fermentation (Allagash, Russian River, Jester King, and Jolly Pumpkin to name a few) de Garde is the only US brewery to go completely over to the wild side.  That’s right, all wild all the time, the brewers at de Garde pitch yeast with the same frequency that the Trappist monks in Westvleteren have sex.

The dependence on local yeasts means the brewer needs to choose his location carefully.  Making spontaneously fermented beer in a place like LA or Houston is like trying to make a good pinot noir in North Dakota. It turns out the wet, cool climate and biodiverse estuaries of Tillamook County are ideal locale for this type of brewing, the average high temperature ranges from 69 °F in August to 50 °F in December. De Garde is able to make spontaneously fermented beer year round, something that is not practiced even in Belgium where the yeasts get too wild during the warm summer months. By comparison when I visited Allagash in Portland, Maine I learned that they only make their spontaneously fermented coolship beers in the late November and early December. The prevailing breeze that comes off of the Pacific also helps to reduce the number of undesirable microbes in the air.

The coolship at de Garde where the wort is exposed to the ambient air while it cools. Notice the nearby wooden barrels that harbor yeast and bacteria that help to properly inoculate the wort.
The coolship at de Garde where the wort is exposed to the ambient air while it cools. Notice the nearby wooden barrels that harbor yeast and bacteria that help to properly inoculate the wort.

The Journey

My home base while in Oregon is the Willamette Valley university town of Corvallis where I lived back in the 1990s.  I set out for the Oregon coast a little before noon on a Thursday. The weather is unseasonably warm for October with a high temperature reaching up into the mid 80’s.  One might think that would translate to a beautiful day at the coast, but as a former Oregon resident I know better.  Hot weather in the Willamette Valley draws in moisture from the ocean that leads to foggy, cool conditions on the beach more often than not. As I follow the winding highway that connects Corvallis and Newport the tall coniferous tress of the Coast Range are bathed in brilliant sunshine, but as I approach Newport the surroundings change dramatically as I drive into the mist and fog that has enveloped the coast.

The restaurant and taproom of Rogue World Headquarters are located at the far end of Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport.
The restaurant and taproom of Rogue World Headquarters are shrouded in the mists at the far end of Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport.

De Garde doesn’t open until 3 pm and my friend Scott has to work until 4 pm, which gives me enough time to stop at the Rogue Brewery for lunch.  Rogue headquarters in Newport is a large facility that sits on the harbor just south of the Yaquina Bay Bridge.  I’m planning to follow up later with a post on Rogue, so I’ll skip the details of my stop other than to say that a basket of fish and chips made with albacore tuna and a pint of Shakespeare Stout on nitro is just what the doctor ordered.

My journey up the Oregon coast.
My journey up the Oregon coast.

My hunger satiated I head north on the Pacific Coast Highway (US 101) enjoying the scenery of the rugged Oregon coastline.  Occasionally the highway strays a few miles away from the ocean and I reenter the world of bright sunshine for a few minutes before rejoining the coastline and plunging back into the fog.  As I get close to Tillamook I can’t resist one more stop, a brief detour to Pacific City to take a few pictures of the Pelican Pub and Brewery, whose location right on the beach can atone for a dozen trips to the warehouses and unremarkable light industrial areas where most breweries are located.  Unfortunately the fog is so dense I can’t even see a trace of the majestic Haystack Rock that sits a few hundred meters offshore.  You’ll have to check out the Pelican website if you want to see what it looks like on a good day.  I will say that if you visit de Garde and have a little extra time it would be a pity not to stop at the Pelican, if nothing else than to take in the beauty of the location.  If you don’t have the time to head over to Pacific City, Pelican now has a production facility and tasting room in Tillamook, and Scott tells me that the beers are a little cheaper in Tillamook than they are in Pacific City.

Pelican sign

The Brewery

  • Website: http://www.degardebrewing.com/
  • Address: 6000 Blimp Blvd, Unit A, Tillamook, Oregon 97141
  • Hours: Thur 3−7, Fri 3−7, Sat 12−7, Sun 11−5
  • Food: Pretzels
  • Prices: $4 for a 12 oz pour, $4−$16 for 750 mL bottle to go

Finally arriving in Tillamook I meet Scott at his house.  Had I come a year earlier we could have walked to Trevor and Linsey’s garage for a tour of the brewery. Fortunately for them their success has allowed the brewery to expand into a larger location on the outskirts of town.  Just as we are getting ready to head out Linsey steps out of her house and walks over to talk to Scott.  My visit coincides with the eve of Trevor and Linsey’s wedding and she wants to let him know they will be having guests over later tonight.  While it’s mildly disappointing that I won’t get a tour of the brewery from Trevor, I extend my congratulations on the pending nuptials.  (Editors Note: While writing this article two months later Linsey was gracious enough to answer all of my questions via e-mail.)

The brewery is located a couple of miles south of town in a small industrial park known as the Port of Tillamook Bay.  The address, 6000 Blimp Boulevard, takes its name from the nearby giant wooden hangar that is 15 stories tall with a base that spans 6 football fields. It was built during World War II to house blimps that patrolled the coast in search of Japanese submarines.  These days it houses an air museum that would make for an interesting stop if you have some time to kill while waiting for the brewery to open.

Tillamook Air Museum
Forget about taking an uber car or a bike to the brewery, come in style in a surveillance blimp.

We arrive around 5 pm and take a seat at the small bar at the west end of the long rectangular tasting room.  It’s a Thursday night and there are only a handful of people in the tasting room.  Tillamook is a small town so I’m not too surprised to find out that Scott knows the bartender, Sierra, one of four people who work at de Garde (Trevor and Linsey included).  There is another patron at the bar who has made the trip over from Portland and is on a run to pick up beer for himself and a few friends. Every once in a while he makes a call on his cell phone to discuss a particular beer with someone on the other end of the line. When he leaves he takes a case of bottles with him. De Garde has very limited distribution, bottles of Petit Daisy and Bu Weisse are distributed to select Oregon accounts, but to get your hands on a wider selection the only option is to make the drive out to Tillamook, or have a buddy make the trip for you.

About 30 minutes into our visit another customer takes the fourth and final seat at the bar. He is a recent college graduate  from Indiana who is traveling the country.  This week he is staying with friends at Oregon State University in Corvallis and like me he has made the trip out to de Garde. Even though we stay until the 7 pm closing time, the crowd never grows into double digits and my friend Scott seems to be the only patron who is a Tillamook resident.

Scott (left), yours truly (right) and most importantly the menu board at de Garde.
Scott (left), yours truly (right) and most importantly the menu board at de Garde.

There are five beers on tap, all sour beers and all of them selling for the very reasonable price of $4 for a 12 oz snifter.  The flagship beer, Bu Weiss, is a tart Berliner Weiss that checks in at the extremely sessionable abv of 2.3%.  There are also pouring two versions of Bu Weiss aged on fruit, one made with kiwis and the other with marionberries (the fruit not the notorious former mayor of Washington DC).  The other beers on tap are sour farmhouse ales aged in various types of wooden barrels that used to hold wine or spirits (see my tasting notes at the end of the article).  We order a tasting flight and after sampling all of the beers go back and try full size pours of our favorites, cleansing our palates in between with the complimentary pretzels.  Not surprisingly the service is excellent as Scott and Sierra discuss local schools and the lack of dining options in Tillamook.

Our new friend from Portland is keen to try a new beer that has not yet been tapped, a gose made with Nelson Sauvin hops called Nelson Hose.  We all order a full pour of the Marion Bu to kill off the keg and Sierra taps the new keg so that Nelson Hose can make its world debut.  It doesn’t get more cosmopolitan than drinking a German-style sour beer made with New Zealand hops and wild American yeast.

The large wooden vessel is called a foeder.  This one is full of fermenting beer as evidenced by the large hose coming out of the top.  The wine and spirit barrels visible in the background are used to age beer once the primary fermentation has finished.
The large wooden vessel is called a foeder. This one is full of fermenting beer as evidenced by the large hose coming out of the top.

After closing time Sierra gives us a tour of the brewery.  The coolship where the wort is inoculated with wild yeasts and bacteria follows the standard design that looks like an oversized baking pan (see earlier picture). It is located in one of the cement floored, windowless back rooms that adjoin the tasting room.  There are no cobwebs or yeast encrusted wooden beams like I’ve read about at the Lambic breweries, nor are there stained glass windows to open up and let in the night air, as there are at Allagash. Since the entire program is based on sour barrel aged beers there is no need to isolate the coolship from the rest of the brewing operations.

Another room contains a large wooden foeder full of fermenting beer and three repurposed foeders that are being prepared for use.  For a great description of what a foeder is click here to check out this post by Crooked Stave Brewing in Colorado. At the time of this writing de Garde has five foeders in all, with capacities that range from 1500 to 1800 gallons. Three of them are in use and the other two will be filled by the end of January.  De Garde is definitely ramping up to be a player in the sour beer game.

Three repurposed foeders are being prepared to ferment beer.  Once these are ready it will significantly expand the capacity of de Garde.
Three repurposed foeders are being prepared to ferment beer.

In addition to the foeders there are racks upon racks of 55 gallon wooden barrels that formerly held various types of wine or spirits.  Every beer that de Garde makes is fermented either in a foeder or a wooden barrel, for periods of time that range from three months to three years (or more!).  The barrels harbor a variety of microflora inside and out.  Therefore cooling the beer around barrels in an open environment is almost as important as aging them in barrels.

Finally we take our leave so that Sierra can close up shop and join the rehearsal dinner party.  We swing by a taco truck, Providensia Taqueria, on the way back to Scott’s house.  It’s a nice way to wrap up an interesting day.

The Beers

Finally we come to the most important part, the beer.  Here are my tasting notes.

Bu Weiss (2.3% abv) – The flagship Berliner Weiss is extremely pale and cloudy with a tart nose of lemons and barnyard aroma that comes from the wild Brettanomyces yeast.  It has a tart lemony citrus taste, and like many sour beers a dry cider-like quality with a bone dry finish.  The bright citrus taste profile reminds me of a classic Belgian gueuze, I can see why this beer has generated so much excitement among sour beer aficionados.

Kiwi Bu (4.4% abv) – Although it looks very much like Bu Weiss the addition of kiwis completely changes the aroma and taste, and in my opinion not for the better.  The result is reminiscent of pickle juice.

Marion Bu (4.4% abv) – The citrusy lemon and funky barnyard notes of the base beer are still dominant in the nose, but the marionberries add a nice fruity twang to the taste.  If anything it may be more sour than Bu Weiss.

Herbes Houblon (5.8% abv) – A sour farmhouse ale that is a blend of beers aged in gin and dry vermouth barrels. It has a big floral nose from the hops and something I can’t quite identify but I assume comes from the vermouth barrels. Tart, slightly bitter notes emerge and linger on at the finish.  Not my favorite of the evening, but a must try if you are a gin lover.

Temps and Poivre (6.3% abv) – Another sour farmhouse ale, this one aged in pinot noir barrels over black pepper.  Vinous and tart on the nose, the taste has a lot of wine-like character from the barrels that is nicely accented by subtle notes of black pepper.  This is a unique beer that stretches the conventional taste boundaries of beer.  I pick up a bottle of this beer to bring back to Ohio.

Nelson Hose (4.0% abv) – Until quite recently the gose style was a fairly obscure sour beer originating in the eastern German city of Leipzig, but these days it is an increasingly popular style.  This one, which is dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, is cloudy and milky looking.  While there is a tart character to it, I would have to say it was the least sour of the beers we sampled during our visit.  The earthy, tropical notes of the Nelson hops are in the foreground, while the traditional ingredients of a gose, coriander and salt, play less prominent roles.

The beers of de Garde, from left to right Herbes Houblon, Marion Bu, and Bu Weiss.
The beers of de Garde, from left to right Herbes Houblon, Marion Bu, and Bu Weiss.

Summary

In a state that has more breweries per capita than any other it is not easy to stand out from the crowd, but de Garde has undeniably done that. It’s an audacious undertaking to base a new brewery on the unpredictable art of spontaneous fermentation, but de Garde is making it work, and I predict a bright future for them.  Sour beers are not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who salivate like a Pavlovian dog at the mention of lactic acid and brettanomyces this is a pilgrimage well worth making.  Even those who prefer a hoppy IPA or a bready lager will find the drive and the scenery enough to make a day trip out from Portland or the Willamette Valley a rewarding experience.

If you want to read more about Oregon breweries you can check out my first post in this series, Getting Bent in Bend, and look for my next post on Block 15 and Oregon Trail Breweries in Corvallis.

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