De Garde wasn't supposed to be fully wild—it just fermented that way.
About four years ago, Trevor Rogers, formerly of Pelican Brewing, and his wife, Linsey, former manager of the Tillamook Cheese retail warehouse, decided they wanted to open their own brewery. They started in the garage of their Pacific City home, with plans to experiment with wild fermentation on a few beers. Rogers put a dozen samples of wort along the coast, from Astoria to Newport, to judge the character of the ambient wild yeast. Maybe it's the light ocean breezes pushing over Cape Meares into town, or all those dairy cows, but the sample from Tillamook was so good they rejiggered their plans.
"We thought we were going to do wild beer as well as IPAs, and everything else," Linsey Rogers says. "We did our first batch, which was our Bu Weisse, and we just looked at each other and said, 'Let's just do wild, all the time. Let's just go with this.' We knew it was pretty risky, but what do you have to lose?"
De Garde is one of only a handful of breweries in the world that makes all of its beer using a cool ship—a massive metal trough shaped like a cake pan, which exposes the starchy wort to wild bacteria—and without pitching any brewer's yeast. The result is a singular sour flavor with an earthy funk that plays beautifully with fresh fruit and gets better after a few months in the barrel.
De Garde has since racked up awards and won dedicated fans, who buy up sought-after beers in a matter of hours, so that the brewery now strictly limits which bottles it lets out of the taproom in order to keep them in stock. In February, De Garde's humble operation was named the fifth-best brewery in the world by beer site RateBeer. It has quickly expanded across a warehouse near the Tillamook blimp dock, and is about to open the third iteration of the tasting room in downtown Tillamook.
"We didn't know that we were going to grow as fast as we have—we thought we'd always be kegging a bunch, and doing bottles when we could, and probably doing farmers markets, trying to peddle our wares," Linsey Rogers says. "We had no idea there'd be this kind of demand and response. We got extremely lucky, in that everyone comes to us."
And come they do. Roughly 95 percent of De Garde's beer is sold out of the tasting room—and very little of it goes to the town of 5,000.
"If you asked most people in Tillamook if they'd ever been to De Garde, they'd say, 'What? What is that?'" Rogers says.
Rather, the customer base is loyal beer geeks, who travel long distances to drink on a concrete bar installed by Rogers, in a nondescript tasting room that could double as a office break room. But this is the only place to get oddball one-offs like José Hose, a gose aged in oak mescal barrels and dry-hopped with three varieties of hop pellet.
De Garde does most of its bittering with aged hops. While typical breweries want potent hops full of oils, De Garde looks for light bitterness and to avoid the flower's preservative qualities.
"Most of the hops we use are aged hops, which generally are trash to most people," Rogers says. "We like that lower alpha acid to create our beer—the higher the alpha acid, the harder it is for the microbes to work."
While the company doesn't have to work hard at marketing or distribution, De Garde instead focuses on meeting demand and keeping prices reasonable. Rather than let its products creep up toward $30 per bottle, as is common with high-end nano-breweries such as Bend's Ale Apothecary, De Garde finds efficiencies where it can.
The kegs are an example. De Garde rarely sells draft beer outside its tasting room, so rather than investing in stainless-steel barrels and washing supplies for 1 percent of its beer, the brewery uses recyclable plastic kegs. One-way pub kegs are used to ship small-batch exports—when you see Upright beer on tap in British Columbia, it came in a plastic keg—but in De Garde's case, the shipping route is about 25 feet.
"If we used stainless steel, we'd have to have all these chemicals around to clean them," Rogers says. "And if we hired one of the management companies, well, we're all the way out in Tillamook, so we'd have to pay a premium to have them come get the kegs. We both come at it, like, let's think outside the lines. How can we do it this way and still get the same result?"
And then there's the end of the bottling line—an inky stamp pad manned by the owner, who on my visit came to work on a Sunday to stamp the name and ABV on each label.
"Every bottle that gets put on the shelf goes through our gravity-fed bottling line, is capped one by one on our little pneumatic capper and is hand-labeled and stamped," Rogers says. "Because most of our production is less than 1,000 bottles, to pay the price to get new labels each time is astronomical. For $20, we can buy a stamp. It's one of the ways we can keep a lower price point."
Given all that, it's not surprising that when De Garde hires someone, no experience is required or desired.
"Basically we do things so differently from any other brewery that we found," Rogers says, "you almost have to untrain and retrain."