IMAGINE how it must feel the first time someone tells you they love a product you make—you'd just melt, right? For Trevor Rogers and Linsey Hamacher of Tillamook, Oregon's de Garde Brewing, that feeling is permanent. Rogers has the most genuine "aw, shucks" face in the world—totally surprised and humbled by every compliment, almost a year in.
The first time I talked to Rogers about de Garde was in May 2013. His first two batches of beer had just made it to Portland, and beer geeks and bar managers were going nuts for it. Because it was true, I started the interview by telling him I loved the beer. Rogers, grown man and professional beer brewer, almost cried.
When I spoke to Rogers last week, Willamette Week had just named de Garde's flagship, Bu Weisse—a light, sour, 2.1 percent ABV easy-drinker that tastes like sunshine-flavored sour candy—the seventh best beer of 2013.* "We never had the belief that we'd be notable," Rogers says. And yet, in the last nine months, the couple launched a business, opened a tasting room, moved into a new brewery, and got engaged.
"Opening the tasting room, being able to interact with our consumers more, that was huge," Rogers says, still shocked by his own success. "Opening the new brewery and hosting our first event there, that was one of the greatest things we've done in our lives."
Hamacher and Rogers put their product in the hands of the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in Tillamook. Luckily, in that diverse agricultural area along the wooded Oregon Coast Range, a pungently magical balance of microflora is fermenting de Garde's beer in surprising, satisfying fashion.
Of course, nature's a crapshoot. Fermenting in wine or spirit barrels and a new coolship (a shallow, wide fermentation vessel that allows maximum contact with the air) leaves a lot of room for chance. "We've probably dumped at least five full barrels where the yeast just went the wrong way, and they weren't even suitable for blending," Rogers says.
Still, Hamacher and Rogers seem to be in a honeymoon phase with their business and the supporters who made it happen. Be it dancing with friends in the coolship to "christen the new space," or releasing a biere de garde originally brewed for a friend's bachelor party, sharing the fun drives them. And their own wedding? "Unfortunately, we haven't even had any time for that."
That sincerity, humility, and ingenuity bleed into the brewing, too. De Garde's next planned release saw a hiccup when they moved to the new space. "We had to stop initial fermentation and put it into these fresh wine barrels, and we just thought, let's not miss this opportunity." They threw in a bunch of grapes and made Imperial Vin Bu, a light-garnet sour beer with a bright streak of winey acidity.
De Garde's other flagship is Loak, a strong, dark sour aged in bourbon barrels. Just released in 375-milliter bottles ($8), Loak is a gorgeous, deceptively lean beer that can, at a hefty 11.5 percent ABV, age for some time and only grow more complex.
Not everything de Garde does is aggressively sour. There's Spears, another early favorite, a hoppy Northwest pale ale that happens to be spontaneously fermented in gin barrels. It's minty, bright, and only slightly funky, with the clear-sky quality of gin and coastal winters. The next beer to make it to Portland should be Faux Pas, an "imperial hoppy porter" also aged in gin barrels. This one's big—10 percent ABV and packed with flavors and aromas that should clash: botanical-laced gin, rich roasty malt, punchy bitter hops. But like everything brewed at de Garde (or everything Rogers lets out of the brewery), there's a familiar, subtle wildness that ties things together.
Most of the beer will find its way to Portland. But a lot of it won't make it past the brewery and tasting room in Tillamook. Drew Worden, beer czar at bar and bottle shop the Hop & Vine, says, "The beer is so popular it sells out in a flash. People are impressed by the consistency." Bottle shops often have to limit bottle sales or even hide the bottles behind the counter for customers who ask.
The brewery is producing fewer than 1,000 barrels of beer a year, and Rogers likes it that way. "We don't have lofty expectations of growth," he says. "For as long as de Garde exists, we want to be the people making the beer." And dancing in the coolship, hopefully.
De Garde beer can be found at many of Portland's fine craft-beer bars, such as Apex, Bailey's Taproom, the Beer Mongers, Belmont Station, the Hop & Vine, Tin Bucket, or any number of other taprooms. Still, the best way to sample is in the tasting room in Tillamook, where Rogers and Hamacher pour the beer they make themselves.
* They were off by six, by the way. Bu Weisse and Loak share the number-one spot, in my book, which is free and consists of this footnote.