De Garde Brewery is an excellent example of what makes American craft brewers stand out – they are extremely knowledgeable of, and inspired by, tradition but they take the best that history has to offer and spin it off in a totally different direction – in a positively irreverent, experimental and downright deviant direction. It is this respectful recognition of tradition combined with an honest love of the craft and a focus on quality that has defined the U.S. craft beer scene, forcing the rest of the brewing world to pay attention.
Still, De Garde does not seem to be trying hard to break new ground or become famous or even grow beyond their modest ten-barrel capacity. In fact, they have no plans to expand at all – because they already know that which may seem obvious – that which some of us have learned the hard way: that money and fame alone do not lead to happiness and are not necessarily a measure of success. They have made a lifestyle choice – to pursue the dream to own their own business and to do what they love: brew great wild beer.
Sure, Trevor Rogers crumpled up his art school thesis, stopping only half a credit shy of graduation. But he learned one important lesson during this time. It was something his professor had said which stuck like a philosophical thorn in his side: unless you feel irrationally compelled, unless you can't not do it, you should walk away now. But if you are physically incapable of not doing it – whatever it may be – you will succeed. Mazel tov!
De Garde is a two-person brewery consisting of Trevor Rogers (head brewer) and Linsey Hamacher (the glue that holds it all together). They met years ago in Medford, Oregon where Rogers was a general manager for Four Daughter's Irish Pub and Hamacher was a customer there. It was about a year after the two started dating when Rogers received a job offer from Pelican Brewery in Pacific City. Hamacher had just left her job as a warehouse manager for an art company in Ashland, so the duo made this journey to the Oregon coast together. Little did they know, this was the beginning of something which some may call destiny.
During his tenure with Pelican, Rogers worked in the front of the house as an assistant manager, but ended up working with the brewery there as well, supervising the cask program. This was when he started brewing at home heavily – and driven by a love for the character of wild beers and inoculated sours, he started experimenting with wild fermentation. Eventually, Rogers and Hamacher decided to risk everything. And from blood, sweat, tears, and all the debt they could handle, De Garde Brewing was born: the first all-wild spontaneous fermentation brewery in the United States.
“It was kind of a leap of faith...I think the development of the craft beer audience in the last handful of years has been fantastic. There's no way we could've done what we're doing even three years ago. I just don't think the audience was broad enough,” says Rogers. “Wild and sour beer have been a kind of a niche market. You can witness that, where even a decade or two ago, Belgian lambic producers were going out of business – and that's not so far back. Now...they're all working at capacity. They can't make enough.”
There has been a steady movement in America away from the adjunct lager, as illustrated by the robust growth of the craft beer industry and consumer propensity for bigger, bolder beers. And on the beer spectrum, lambics and wilds are about as far from the adjunct lager as one can get – ranging in flavor anywhere from a mildy tart and fruity acidity to a slap-you-silly sour, and with distinct flavor and aroma profiles ranging from a pleasant estery clove to a barnyard funkiness or aged cheese. These are the kind of beers that most of your non beer geek friends won't recognize as beer.
So why haven't other American breweries taken the plunge to go all-wild? The recent New York Times article by Lucy Burningham, “Sour Beers are Risky Business...” didn't even scratch the surface of all that there is at stake for the wild brewer (though not necessarily for the brewers who intentionally inoculate their beers with wild yeasts or acid-producing bacteria to make a beer with “wild” character). First, there will no doubt be a market ceiling for wild beer, as dictated by consumer demand – because the flavor profile isn't necessarily something someone will want to drink every day, nor one that everyone will find appealing. It's also more expensive and time-consuming to produce wild beers and requires a large amount of space, so they will, necessarily, be more expensive to buy, thus adding another barrier to consumer demand.
Aging is an essential component of making wild and sour beers, which is why they take a lot longer to produce. A large amount of De Garde's capacity is now being used for storage alone. On top of that, early aroma and flavor character from wild fermentation is terrible, so it's not something that can be sampled along the way, and it may be well over the first month after fermentation begins – until the pH drops, alcohol increases, and any pathogenic bacteria will be killed off – before you even know whether or not your batch has been a success or a total disaster. So in addition to the unpredictable nature of spontaneous fermentation, there's the risk that all you've worked for for the past month will simply be dumped down the drain.
“If we had gotten a financial adviser, he would've said 'You're effing crazy'. And he'd be right,” says Rogers.
“For most breweries, it's not necessarily fiscally responsible to have [wild beers] be the focus of production. You really have to forgo a lot of other things to make that workable because it ties up a huge amount of space for a long period of time.” And that's one reason Hamacher still keeps her day job, running the retail warehouse at the Tillamook Cheese Factory until De Garde starts to see some profit. Still, De Garde aims to keep their beers as affordable as they possibly can because they want it to be approachable and seen as something that can be regularly consumed rather than as a specialty item. They know they can charge more for their beer than they do – illustrated by the going rate of specialty craft beer these days – but that's not their mission. “It just doesn't spread good will,” Rogers says. “That's not the brand we want to be.”
It helps that De Garde also makes spontaneously-fermented beers that they can produce faster – meaning three months rather than three years (which is still longer than any standard beer). The alpha-acids in hops are inhibitory to lactic acid-producing bacteria*, so brewing hoppier beers takes less time because once the Saccharomyces (the genus of “brewer's yeast”) fermentation winds down, you can bypass the phase where lactic acid-producing bacteria would normally kick in, thus speeding up the point at which Brettanomyces (“wild” yeast) fermentation takes place and speeding up the process overall. These beers require the addition of more hops, though, because hop characteristics tend to degrade over time, thus making them more expensive to produce than a typical hoppy beer. While there is a pragmatic component to producing these beers (being able to generate income faster than a beer aged three years, for instance), they also simply do it for the love of hoppy beer.
And it also just happens that this is something which rarely - if ever - has never been done before. A spontaneously-fermented IPA? Who's ever heard of such a crazy idea? One example of these beers is De Garde's Mulligan – a wild IPA aged in gin barrels, an IPA unlike any you've tried before: wonderfully-balanced with a complex hop profile and a beautiful spicy, funky clove finish.
There is a little something the wine folks call “terroir” - which basically refers to the environmental factors in a certain region which inevitably affect the growth, sugar accumulation and ideal harvest time of grapes. These factors include everything from the micro- to the macro-scale, including soil conditions (in the case of grapes), climate, temperature, humidity, light and dark cycles...the list goes on. The underlying concept behind terroir, though, is that in no single geographic region can one produce exactly the same wine as another because the exact environmental conditions can never be replicated in another location. Thus, not being able to call any sparkling wine a “Champagne”.
Wild beer is very much influenced by terroir – to borrow the vintner's word – because malt-fermenting wild yeasts and acid-producing bacteria are incredibly sensitive to environmental conditions. Meaning, of course, that there may be a lambic-style beer produced in the United States, but it can never be called a lambic because the environmental conditions that gave rise to that beer can never be exactly the same as the region of Belgium where lambic is produced. It is important to stress that neither beer will necessarily be superior or inferior to the other, qualitatively, only that they will be different. It also means that when spontaneously-fermenting beer, one needs to be selective, and the location which De Garde chose to brew their beer was not at all arbitrary.
Belgian lambic producers only brew a few times a year because with elevated seasonal temperatures come elevated populations of acid-producing bacteria – Acetobacter for instance, which produces acetic acid (thus the name), giving beer that vinegar flavor you may have experienced in some sours – and not necessarily what the brewer intended. So, in their search for the perfect location for their brewery, Rogers and Hamacher focused on places which had a more mild, consistent temperature so that they could brew all year – places like the Oregon coast. They tested out different locations, brewing a batch, letting it sit in the open air, and seeing what happened. And although they liked the character of the beer that was produced in Pacific City as well or better than Tillamook, fermentation was sluggish – leaving the unfermented beer (wort) susceptible to mold problems and undesirable oxidation. Tillamook, however, produced a great beer with a robust fermentation.
Fermentation – whether spontaneous or intentionally inoculated - is a dynamic microbial dance. Any small difference – such as timing of the mash, or a temperature variation of only a degree or two – could have a huge impact on the outcome of a beer, and this is particularly true of wild beers, where up to eighty different varieties of organisms could interact. The timing at which each wild yeast or acidifying bacteria becomes the dominant organism in the fermenting beer, and the amount of food they have to consume at that time, could potentially vary significantly and make a huge difference in the outcome of flavor and aroma profiles. It requires an in-depth knowledge, an understanding about how these different microorganisms react to different fermentable profiles, on the part of the brewer – the choreographer of this microbial and biochemical dance. This is where Rogers – with his relatively brief tenure as a brewer – proves himself to be a master.
Because De Garde is such a new brewery, they haven't been able to produce a beer that's comparable to a fine lambic or gueuze (which can take up three years to produce), but it's coming. And you'd better keep an eye out for it before it's gone, and savor it when you get it, because De Garde rarely makes the same beer twice. They've so far made three batches of their popular Bu Weisse, but none of these batches have been exactly the same either. And while they plan to continue to make a warm-weather seasonal and a cold-weather seasonal, the rest of their beers will be rare one-offs...and I can't tell you what a treat this is for the dedicated wild beer enthusiast.
It's only been about a year since De Garde started up and one can find their beer in many of the best taprooms in Portland already – at least, when they're lucky enough to get their hands on a keg. When asked about De Garde's success, Rogers attributes it to their phenomenal luck: good press early on, vocal friends who were fans of their beer, and being in the right time and place. I would add to this humble take on their success to say that the quality of their beer, a willingness to experiment, and a passion for the craft of brewing may have helped. Either way, now they can't seem to make enough to meet demand.
De Garde just started bottling and also opened their new tasting room on September 21st 2013 – so check it out if you're anywhere near Tillamook, Oregon. It'll give you a chance to see the Oregon coast (bundle up!), talk to the brewer, and to try some great beers that you'll never otherwise have a chance to try.
De Garde's first solo tasting and tap-takeover was in June, 2013 at The BeerMongers – where Rogers officially asked Hamacher to marry him. She said yes.
Many thanks to Trevor Rogers, who took time out of his very busy life to answer my inane questions for two hours, and for allowing me to try one of their first bottles of Mulligan.
*The following is a brief synopsis of the microbial activity sequence of a wild beer, but for more information visit the Wyeast website or for a whole lot more information on wild beer, including how to brew your own, read the book Wild Brews by Jeff Sparrow.
- Enteric bacteria (first 3-7 days of fermentation): smells terrible and cannot be consumed.
- Kloeckera apiculata (first 3-7 days).
- Saccharomyces species (2 weeks): brewer's yeast, normally used in intentionally-inoculated non-wild beer fermentation.
- Lactobacillus (3-4 months): produces lactic acid, the same bacteria which makes yogurt and sauerkraut, creates a tart or sour flavor in beer; can be intentionally inoculated to make sour beers.
- Pediococcus (3-4 months): also produces lactic acid; produces diacetyl, which produces aroma and flavor of buttered popcorn, butterscotch, jellybean, and – more rarely – ropiness. At the peak of Pediococcus activity, the wort will gelatinize and smell like butter).
- Brettanomyces yeast (8 months): “wild” yeast, though also intentionally added to beer to produce “wild” character, including barnyard, “funkiness”, aged cheese, or spiciness, banana and clove; during fermentation, metabolizes diacetyl and many of the less desirable characteristics, including any ropiness from the Pediococcus.
- Oxidative yeasts (8 months): produces undesirable aroma and flavor characteristics (wet cardboard, etc.), or add a sherry-like flavor (usually unintended).