There are limitless nuances through which to appreciate beer. That’s why we love it. You can focus on aromas, flavors, ingredients, styles, brewing methods, business models, distribution and so much more. Any direction you want to take beer, it’ll gladly oblige.
Perhaps no nuance is as fascinating to me, however, as is beer as a reflection of place. Where a beer is dreamt up, created and the final product mastered is so often influenced by location. In wine, this is often referred to as “terroir,” relating to soil compositions, climates and more. In beer, though, ingredients are still usually sourced from different locales and that might not change as fast as some foresee.
Still, place often plays a large role. Some beers “fit” their locale like a glove. Case in point, San Diego is known for their citrusy pales and IPAs. What else would you want when it’s a beautiful 75 degrees every day? The Pacific Northwest has traditionally taken their pales and IPAs in a different direction, focusing on piney resins and bitterness that reflects the vast forests and danker climate of the Columbia River Basin. Many beers are created in conjunction with their backdrop, whether it’s deliberate or not.
The Oregon Coast may not be everyone’s definition of a vacation destination, but it has its own distinct feel. Life is temperate. The weather is wet most of the year. Water is everywhere, as rivers and creeks dump into the Pacific Ocean every few miles up and down Highway 101.. Herds of elk graze the hillsides and salmon run the rivers every fall. Towns of even modest size are far and few between.
So, in a place where towns are rare, maybe it should come as no surprise to find a fabled maker of rare and delicious beers, De Garde Brewing. You’ll find them in Tillamook, Oregon, home to just over 5,000 people, which makes it one of the larger towns on the north coast. The town is known for cheese production, the steady rancor of dairy cattle, and the scenic rivers that feed Tillamook Bay. Greasy diners and dank dive bars dot the town’s main streets, serving residents who often work in agriculture or commercial logging. While this sounds like Bud Light country – and make no mistake, they sell plenty of it in Tillamook – one the country’s finest sour brewers calls Tillamook home.
As you may have noticed, sour styles are catching on across the country as inexpensive, adjunct-laden kettle sours are available in cans just about everywhere these days. But that’s not De Garde’s game.
Rather than adding commercial yeast to their wort, they rely on the naturally occurring microflora in the air to ferment their beer, which is temporarily stored in a coolship. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of it as wading pool-depth, rectangular structure that is filled with wort, left uncovered and exposed to the natural air. Here the ever-present bacteria that’s around us every day goes to work, and the wort is fermented before the brewing process resumes.
Because they make beer using a coolship, “sour” beer is maybe the wrong term when it comes to De Garde. Even though the end product is plenty sour, “sour” as a term or category just doesn’t do their beers justice. “Wild” is certainly more apt.
There’s plenty of room for deviation here, as “wild” cannot be contained. It cannot be manipulated. What’s in the air is what ends up in the beer. While that can be anticipated to a degree, it can’t be controlled. After brewing, the product is transferred to oak (mostly from Northwest wineries) for anywhere between three months to three years, and it’s released when it’s ready, not based on the calendar. Trevor Rogers, Head Brewer and Co-Founder of De Garde Brewing, and his team make the call, deciding when things are just right.
Just as Tillamook’s surrounding environment is wild, so is the beer coming from De Garde. As Trevor explained, “Our vision is to be a true representation of our local environment. The words 'wild,' 'terroir,' 'local,' etc., get used quite often in beer, and usually inaccurately. We think that the beer made from right where we are, and the ingredients grown and harvested in our region provide an abundance of possibilities and flavor that can't be made anywhere else. Rather than using commercial yeast and/or bacteria cultures, or merely claiming that our beer is representative of where we are brewing, we want to provide a truly singular expression involving every component of the ingredient and process.”
While Tillamook may not sound like a brewer’s paradise, De Garde sees it a different way. “The local yeast and bacteria, and having nearly all of the ingredients that we use being grown within about a hundred miles, makes beer that quite simply can't be made elsewhere. That's not to say that it is objectively better, but that it is unique, and something that we find great value in,” Trevor continued. De Garde has used the coast as not just inspiration, but as an asset to create something that literally cannot be reproduced anywhere else.
On a recent trip to the brewery, following some volunteer work for the Nature Conservancy and the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership to plant 1,000 western red cedars, I was able to get my hands on a recent release named “The Florist.” It's a golden wild ale with citrus aged in oak gin barrels and is a fantastic representation of what a spring day on the Oregon Coast feels like. The bitter lemongrass and tangerine notes give way to the botanical, floral notes of gin, and it all ends up giving off a strong impression of grapefruit. Sunshowers are fleeting this time of year, but there’s a brightness to the earth in late March, even if it only reveals itself in short bursts.
While creating truly wild, spontaneously fermented beers was an acknowledged gamble when they began, the reception to their work has been nothing short of remarkable. “The reception has been so far beyond what we ever expected or could have hoped for,” Trevor shared. “Winning awards such as fifth best brewery in the world out of something like 70,000 (according to RateBeer, 2016) is a thing that you don't even dream when you're a small business not sure if you'll make it through the next month. Humbled doesn't do justice to how we feel about the reception.”
That reception hasn’t waned and the legend of De Garde has only grown among beer nerds and traders across the country. Rather than massively expand their footprint on the back of their wild success, De Garde continues to embrace the power of keeping it local. The brewery is growing, but in typical De Garde fashion, it’s happening in a unique way. “We're extensively renovating and rehabilitating a historic building in downtown Tillamook to be our primary brewing and barrel maturing location. Built sometime not long after the turn of the century, it started its life as a grange and feed store,” said Trevor about the new venture.
The current facility has its quirks. It’s located in a small industrial park adjacent to the Tillamook Air Museum (a facility that’s home to one of the nation’s finest WWII era aviation collections), a crossfit studio, an industrial lumber operation, and a dairy compost facility. This small-town mashup is surrounded by vast forests, as Tillamook is wedged between the remote Wilson and Trask rivers that feed Tillamook Bay.
While that may not sound like your ideal location for a world-class brewery, it is a reflection of what makes De Garde so special. Even with a new, more customer-friendly location on the immediate horizon, Trevor and his team will be who they are, where they are, with no compromises. Don’t expect that to change.
The incredible beers come from De Garde are only part of what makes them unique. They’ve embraced a true pioneer’s vision and stuck to their guns, letting the quality of their product do the talking. But the brewery is inseparable from its place – both in terms of fermenting their beer, but also in expressing the region as a whole. While “local” can be abused in today’s craft marketplace, “wild” is something entirely different. De Garde and its location are just that – wild – and there’s no denying it.