By now, Portland beer geeks have seen the first few beers from De Garde Brewing come and—often pretty quickly—go. The brand new Tillamook wild-fermentation brewery released two beers at various beer bars around the city, and those lucky enough to try them have apparently been impressed. Or at least thirsty.
That success doesn’t appear to be going to De Garde’s sole two owner/employees’ heads, though. In the short time I spoke with co-owner and brewer Trevor Rogers, he was many times moved almost to tears trying to explain the feeling of talking to early fans of the beers.
Dropping his head and bringing it back up kind of flushed and watery-eyed, he says, “I don't even know how to say it... It’s amazing, having people say, you know, ‘This is the best thing we’ve had today.’ We’re humbled, still.”
That humility is all the more impressive if you’ve been one of those lucky enough to taste the beer. The two beers that had made the trip to Portland as of early this week were a beautifully tart Berliner weisse, Bu Weisse, and a bourbon barrel aged strong dark ale called Loak. At 2.1% and 11.7% ABV respectively, they represent distant ends of the spectrum of ales. Rogers says this wasn’t on purpose—he and co-owner Linsey Hamacher just brought what was ready.
The beers share a strong lacto sourness, but in other ways couldn’t be more different: The Bu Weisse is a perfect patio beer, a bubbly and zingy light wheat beer born for session drinking, while the Loak is less carbonated and less buoyant but with incredible depth, offering the tartness expected from these spontaneous, wild fermentations on top of the plummy, roasty character of a strong dark beer and the soft, sweet bourbon roundness from the barrel.
That’s barrel, by the way, not barrels. Because while Rogers and Hamacher are absolutely blending barrels (apparently blending experimental one-off kegs, naming them on the fly, and bringing them to Portland all within a few days), the Loak we’ve seen so far has been from a single barrel. To see such balance and complexity from a single barrel of beer is… well, I don’t want to make Rogers or Hamacher cry, but it’s incredible. It shows a devotion and a commitment right out of the gate.
The devotion to good beer makes De Garde an admirable brewery. For Rogers, this is the first commercial brewery where he’s been involved from start to finish on every beer. Rogers says he’s been “second-guessing every decision” in order not to put out a bad beer. Refering to De Garde’s rather low brewhouse capacity, comparing himself to a brewer with the cache of years in the business, brand and name recognition, and local celebrity status, he says,
“These guys would have to put out a lot of mediocre beer to not be considered a great brewery. I’m coming from nowhere. You know, I mean we’re a 7-9 barrel brewery. If we put a mediocre beer on the market, we’re a mediocre brewery. The fear of putting out a mediocre beer is as bad as the fear of putting out a bad beer. It’s like cooking for my family. I don’t want to serve them slop.”
But it’s the devotion to wild fermentation that makes De Garde unique among American breweries. Although in recent years American breweries like Allagash and Russian River, or more locally, Corvallis' Block 15 and Flat Tail or even a handful of Portland micros have all to different degrees brewed wild ales, virtually nowhere but in Belgium have brewers relied solely on native microflora to ferment their beers.
“Why take something in from a lab somewhere? Why, if you have the opportunity to make great beer from what’s right here?”
Of course, “here” to Rogers is Tillamook, Oregon. Neither Rogers or Hamacher are from Tillamook originally. Hamacher is from Southern Oregon and Rogers is from Alaska. But while living in Pacific City (where Rogers worked in the Pelican Brewery’s pub), they started experimenting with spontaneous fermentation at various spots up and down the coast. When they found a place that worked, they packed up and moved there. Now the entire operation is happening in an addition to a “110, 113-year-old house. It’s basically a big-ass old workshop. They would do their canning in there, their dry storage. That’s where we brew.”
These are two people who just love beer, love wine, love the idea of creating something with what’s within arm’s reach. They don’t seem constricted by traditions or markets or even that overarching humility. They were willing to move their home based on yeast and bacteria. From Rogers’ awareness of the personal history of his brew site to the way he talks about having not the talent but the “opportunity” to brew great beer, the most admirable thing about De Garde Brewing is not the quality of the beer, but rather this overwhelming sense of humility. Of course, humility wouldn’t mean shit if the beer wasn’t any good. Luckily, it’s amazing.
So keep an eye on taplists at places De Garde's already been spotted, like Beermongers, Bailey's, Apex, Belmont Station, or The Hop & Vine. (Full disclosure: You may see me working at The Hop & Vine bottleshop.) If you're on Untappd, check out De Garde's page here. And keep an eye out for more beer to come as they expand. Of the styles Rogers listed off to me (a list so mouthwatering I may have suffered dehydration), I remember a saison in pinot noir and gin barrels, a double IPA dry hopped in barrels with Citra hops, and a cranberry version of the Bu Weisse. (If that last one sounds good, you’ll want to head to the Portland Fruit Beer Festival the second week of June.) Keep an eye out at the beer bars and don’t pass up a pint or three, because even as strange and intense as these beers sound, Rogers says, “We want to be the beer you get a couple glasses of, not the beer you get a taster of to say you’ve tried it.”