For most brewers, the goal is to get into your local bottle shops, maybe even make it into the larger regional grocers and establish a growing customer base for their handcrafted, liquid gold. Others have even loftier goals: becoming a household name and having an even greater impact on the national scene by influencing their brewing peers. Then there are the little guys: those who choose not to distribute, those who don’t ferment their beer on steel, those who set the production bar lower so the quality can be even higher. One of those brewers is de Garde Brewing in Tillamook, Oregon.
Yes, they brew beer among fields better known for cheese. Less than two hours west of Portland and a 20 minute drive from the Pacific, de Garde revels in the time honored tradition of spontaneously fermented wild and sour beers. And they chose this very location to catch all those interesting elements in the air, feeding the yeasts and bacteria during open fermentation. While they’ve opened a new taproom in downtown Tillamook this year, their sizable production brewhouse is where all the excitement is four times a year.
On Saturday, I found myself lucky enough to participate in what is becoming quite a phenomenon: a de Garde quarterly beer release. For this winter edition, it wasn’t just a social event with everyone drinking one or two beers being released by the brewer, rather there are a number of things happening simultaneously.
They set up shop on their back loading dock and start selling (cash only) their 6 new releases for the quarter, plus another 3 previously released styles. Their limited releases are not distributed to stores in the traditional sense, but only through sales at their brewery and special sales like their Black Friday sale this weekend at Portland’s Tin Bucket. So if you live in Portland and you want their beer, 9 times out of 10 you’re driving two hours to Tillamook to buy bottles. This became all the more obvious when most everyone in line (roughly 300 or so while we were waiting) were buying one or two cases, per person.
Once we finished our big purchases, we headed over to the other side of the building where tastings commenced for a $5 entry fee (which included a beautiful long stem glass) and $3 a ticket, per 8 oz pour. The initial attraction was the constantly rotating versions of the new releases we’d just bought and a few guest taps. After a fill-up, we headed into the barrel room prominently featuring 5 large foeder barrels and a multitude of all styles in smaller barrels, quietly doing their magic under tightly sealed bungs. On the other side of the wall was the brew floor where they were pouring four more de Garde taps. They too were constantly changing.
The third and final draws of the day were the guest taps and bottles, the latter of which felt like a well-controlled bottle share. Steadily popped bottles, one at a time, came from similar brewers all over America including 6 varieties from Jester King Brewery based out of Austin, TX; plus Jackie O’s out of Athens, OH; Block 15 Brewery from Corvallis, OR; Side Project Brewing from Maplewood, MO; Perennial Artisan Ales from St. Louis, MO; Engine House No.9 from Tacoma, WA and Fort George Brewery in Astoria, OR.
Being at de Garde on such a day felt like being in an exclusive club, where almost every beer is a unique sour and/or wild creation and there’s always something new to try. We all knew we were drinking some of the rarest beers on earth, definitely some of the most highly sought after in today’s lucrative bottle trading world. For just a few hours, we drank it all in it at the source.