Interview with Trevor Rogers of De Garde Brewing

It took one sip of one bottle to be fans. Luckily, our friend brought two bottles and thus our newly found fandom was satisfied with more sips from another bottle. The husband and wife operation De Garde does amazing wild fermented beers, or as Pat’s Pints wrote: “They pitch yeast as often as the Westvleteren Monks have sex”. The collaboration of air around Tillamook in Oregon and Trevor Rogers result is amazing and it was clear we needed to talk to him. So we did.

Which of your beers would you have served beerhunter Michael Jackson?

I suppose, some of our lambic inspired beer. Unblended, straight from the barrel, which is the truest representation of where we are, the sense of place or terroire, to borrow a wine term.

While you’ve talked about it before, maybe you can quickly recap why you picked Tillamook as the location for your brewery – basically, how you chose this terroire.

We specifically targeted the Oregon coastal area, because of its temperature and tempered climate all year around. We don’t have the ambient bacterial population spikes fluctuation, but have a very balanced yeast and bacteria population to make truly natural beer.
So we took wort and exposed it in different areas up and down the coast and tracked fermentation circuits over the course of a year or more. We narrowed it down to a few places and proceeded to do more trials to see if there’s consistency. Finally, we narrowed it down to Tillamook for the most viable opportunity.
In the US we don’t have the benefit of a long history of this truly wild and natural brewing. So it took this extra exploration to see what works.

It’s amazing that you let yeast and bacteria decide where you want to live – then again, you lived in the area.

Yes, we lived in Pacific City, which is about half an hour down the coast. So yes, we were fortunate, because the ideal location could have been a few hours away. Tillamook was, at least to our taste, the best place to do the brewery.
While there’s not a lot of history of these wild fermentation trials in the States, we benefitted a lot from other breweries who already brought in koelships. But they usually were tied to established breweries. They’ve added mixed fermentation to a place where they already made beer in.

Why did you go for this way of making beer?

It is what I enjoy. Both my wife and I were fans of wine before we’ve ever gotten into beer. That sense of place, that sense of terroire and letting the environment speak to the beer, is kind of dear to us.
Not to mention our favorite breweries are located, where you might imagine, in Belgium. To we wanted to bring some of that natural method to the States and to the brewery.

You’re not secretly an amber ale drinker?

Oh, I enjoy a lot of different styles. But the closest thing to our heart is natural wild beer. I will probably have an IPA after work today.

How does it go when you do a beer, are they based on say a regular pale ale recipe, or a stout recipe and you just ferment it wild?

We’ve done quite a number of different recipes. The recipe formulation has some similarity to most breweries, as in we target a specific flavor and aroma profile as well as mouth feel etc. We don’t have the same amount of control, but we kind of know how to coax the wild yeast and bacteria here. If we don’t want aggressive acidity, promoting more IBUs and hop bitterness will help with that. Likewise if we want something that is a little less dry, using a little more oat and wheat malt and starting with a little higher gravity will get us closer to that.
But we can’t really make an IPA, even though we’ve done beers that we’ve called India Wild Ale, which was spontaneously fermented and had up to 60 IBUs. Over time you’ll still see the development of some acidity in that beer, because of the pediococcus and to a lesser extend the nominal contribution from brettanomyces. But it turns out that hop bitterness and acidity don’t really play that well together.

Elaborate on that last point.

When you have a notable bitterness and a notable sourness in a beer, it starts to become very difficult to have those two to marry nicely.
When we talk sour, it’s not mildly tart. Sour implies to me, not necessarily something aggressive, but something discernable and as a primary characteristic. Same with bitter. Not like in the case of an English cask ale that is in balance: Even though it is more bitter than most beers and it has bitterness as one of its primary characteristics, it is not very bitter.

What’s one way to make something super sour?

There’s a few different routes. Obviously acidobacteria contribute a much more aggressive acidity to a beer. Although we try to make sure that our beers are in check, by minimizing oxygen ingress in the fermenting beer and by keeping a stable and cool temperature here year round. And dumping [laughs]. Dumping the barrels that show this aggressive acidic character.
We can have a bale of hops that comes in that doesn’t have the bittering capabilities. But having had that happen a couple of times, we have all our bales of aged hops coming in tested, to make sure they are neither too aggressive nor too mild.

I think you’re the first brewer that I talk to who sounds excited when he talks about dumping beer.

[laughs] I think it is one of the required steps towards making the best wild beer that we can.

Does it make sense for you to do test batches?

In a way, you can consider everything we do a trial batch. While we work with a lot of base recipes, maybe three dozen different ones, we’re lightly altering the process and recipe in order to making better beer. We don’t want to be complacent and be like “oh, people really like this. Victory! We will never change this!” Not being complacent might not lead to the best we can, but to the best we could.
And we’ve done a lot of trial batches before opening, so most of our recipes were put into place at that time. Plus we do small compositions. Other breweries who do 60 barrel batches of beer, you don’t do that without figuring out how exactly that is going to turn out. We are a 15 barrel brewery and no single one batch is going to determine what the final blend going to be.

And I guess you have a place in a finished beer in mind for everything you do, but do you sometimes just brew to have stock?

Absolutely. Almost everything we make is for blending much further down the road. There’s rarely a single batch composition. Even our Saison and Farmhouse style beers are a composition of beers from anything between three months and four years old.

Does that mean that when you brew you also already have an idea when it will be used?

Well, we have some parameters to that. If we’re thinking that we’ll need some older Saison stock, we’ll typically bitter that certain batch to a higher degree, so that during the extended aging process it will have additional preservative properties from the hops. That prevents it from becoming too aggressively acidic over three years, two years.

De Garde in French means “to strore” and you’ve said in the past that’s why you picked the name. In Dutch it means “to guard”, as in you being the guardian of tradition.

We went with it to be purposely a little ambiguous: to hold, to keep, to store, to guard, all is referential to our process. And we didn’t wanted to call it Rogers Hamacher brewery, because both Lindsey and I think that the most important part of this brewery is the area and the yeast and not us.

Do you know the exact composition of your “air”?

Yeah. I think there’s a misconception that there’s a wide variance in different parts of the world. You have a wide variance in balances, but you’ll always have what you’ll expect: saccharomyces, pediococcus, enteric bacteria, lactobacillus. So the same things you’d find in Switzerland or Belgium. But what you do see is different balances and a slight taxonomic difference in microorganisms. Like we have strains of brettanomyces bruxellensis out here, the same you might have in Brussels. But they have differences to them. They will behave differently and provide different characteristics than in Brussels.
That is why it is really important to us to say that we make lambic inspired beers, but they’ll never be lambic. Even if we follow the same process and traditions, as say Cantillon, the end product will never taste like Cantillon. It might be something similar, but with a character very unique to our area.

You mentioned something to that regard before and I read about it too: Some barrels can develop an imbalance and too much of something and you need to physically remove them from the premises. Do you think at one point you’ll have to clean the whole building?

Well, we clean the whole building [laughs].

I mean also in consideration that when you read about the Belgian breweries, it’s all about “do not disturb the spider webs”.

The beauty of Cantillon is that it is a living museum. They are fortunate to carry that tradition and process and methods on. In the United States, our agricultural enforcement agencies would never allow it. It is just legally not possible to be any less clean than we are. So we do have some spider webs in here, but we do have to keep some modicum of cleanliness to our brewery.

Now I imagine you going “shoo, shoo, little spider” when the agency comes around.

Fortunately, the big concern for them is exposed production area. We can’t have spiders or insects around our koelship, mashtun, kettle or blending tanks. But our storage area, because it’s classified as a storage area, it’s a little bit more acceptable.

Apparently, and this fits into our discussion about the fauna in a brewery, in order to get yeast into wort, breweries used to let dogs and rats swim in their wort. You being a fellow cat lover, I’ve never heard anybody have a cat swim in wort. That’d be a new way of an old tradition.

Well, unfortunately, our licensing doesn’t allow any animals in our premises. Which is a bummer, because Oregon in particular is a very dog loving state and people like to take their dogs for hikes. And since we are in a very rural area with a lot of outdoor activity around, it’s a disappointment for us that even in our drinking area, we can’t have any animals. So we certainly cannot accommodate them in our koelship [laughs].

Have you ever looked at a “conventional” yeast, say a hefeweizen yeast, and were tempted to get some on the side action?

Of course. As I said before, we love a very broad variety of different beers and styles. Weihenstephan Hefeweizen in particular is one of my favorites; it is a fantastic and impeccably made beer. We love other styles, but we just cannot make them here.
We work with other breweries to do that. We just went and brewed an IPA in Portland [the Wonder Twins Rye IPA with Ex Novo – ed.], we brewed a Doppelbock [the Eichenbock with Heater Allen – ed.] a few months back.

When I was introduced to sour beers it was of the Flanders Red and the geuze kind – along with Liefman’s Goudenband, a Flemish Brown. Now, lately, the mentioning of sours more often seems to refer to beers like a Berliner or Gose, maybe even to a not so sour at all Saison with brett. Are these styles just an easy way to add something sour to a brewery portfolio?

Most of the breweries that are putting out sour beers, particularly the ones that are readily available, are doing kettle souring techniques. I don’t criticize that process. But it doesn’t add the complexity or depth to the acidity and character that I particularly love. It is a very easy way to add a beer that is just sour to be sour to your repertoire. And you can do it within two to three weeks versus a year or three years.
But I can’t fault that. Apparently, there’s a massive consumer demand for it. Breweries are businesses. And if they have demand for that product, by all means, they can make it. It’s just something we don’t do.
We don’t brew to style most everything. What we do is make or blend a good composition or something that will taste or smell a certain way that could be pleasant. And more often than not, it’s a process of “what’s the closest style category to put it in to”. It helps to get some reference to what you can expect, even if it’s not exactly to style. Like our Saison inspired beers are definitely more tart than what would be expected by a lot of people from that style. But it’s the closest style that beer would fit into.
It’s tough to just say Wild Ale on every bottle of beer. That could be a kettled sour gose or a beer that’s inspired by lambic, which are drastically different things of course.

Sounds like you’re struggling finding beer style categories to put your beers into.

Oh, absolutely. [laughs]
And it would be preferably to not be compelled to do that. But I think in the end, until people know what to expect from a beer with notable level of acidity and usually some brettanomyces complexity, some description of sorts, even if it’s just a few words, of what it will be, is important.

I once heard a good explanation from a musician: Nobody would buy a can of food without a label saying what food is in the can. Same with music, you need to assign it a style so people are able to understand what to expect.

That’s a good analogy. A lot of great musicians can’t easily be pigeonholed into a particular style, but they still have to give some kind of an idea what to expect going in for a consumer.

You’re talking to someone from Switzerland and we’re notorious for our love of cheese. I hear Tillamook, where your brewery is located, is the cheese capital of at least the west coast. Is there some connection, maybe the climate?

I expect that is quite possible. I think the cows like it out here. The grass, because of the temperate climate, is fairly wet throughout most of the year.

And now they get your spent grains.

The dairy farms around here are of a larger size. We have a smaller farmer that we work with that raises heirloom pigs. For most of the cows, the highbred modern type of cows, they don’t do so well with our spent grains. The guinea hogs that our friend Josh has, they can consume it because they have a much heartier digestive system.

What is the oldest beer you have in a barrel?

About four years.

And you officially opened?

Turn of 2013.

I’m always very fascinated when a brewery like yours starts that you basically had to start producing beer a year or so before you were actually able to open.

You know, we focused a lot of our efforts earlier on, on beers that were a little bit faster; for example our Saison inspired or Berliner Weisse inspired beers. Typically, we have those out in about six months, occasionally a little less, occasionally a lot longer. For styles like Saisons we create a much more fermentable wort. Saccharomyces leaves very little for brettanomyces to ferment apart from adding a little character.
We started out on a very small budget. No bank would give us any financing. My wife had to take a large personal loan. We refinanced both of our vehicles and we put all of our savings into the business.
But as we’ve grown, we’ve had some positive cash come into the business. We’ve expanded more and more into the long aged beers. At this point 60 to 70 percent of our inventory is lambic inspired wort basebeer for blending. And so we are decreasing the percentages of our Berliner Weisse and Gose inspired beers. We still keep a lot of the Saison recipes around, primarily in the larger foeders. It’s a little bit easier drinking beer, lower acidity typically, just a pleasant one that we can offer to our customers.

You mentioned your wife Linsey a couple of times and in The Beer Temple interview you called yourself the wife of your wife. How is it being the wife and working with your wife?

It’s fantastic. She’s probably the most important part of the business and we wouldn’t have the business without her. I made the joke that I’m the wife of my wife, because she’s the 100 percent owner of the business. And I work for her.
We have a pretty good balance. I’m definitely a little more eclectic and a little less organized than she is. So she provides the structure, the framework for the brewery that otherwise wouldn’t be here. I’ve joked with friends before: If I had tried to start this on my own, one, I probably couldn’t have, and two, I would have been out of business in two months, because I would have spent all the money on all the oak I could find.

You once referred to your brewery as the luckiest brewery in the world. That would be the movie’s title. But what would be the main scenes or major plot twists?

I think the first time we had our beer pouring at some markets in Oregon, we went out to see that it was positively received. We weren’t sure if there was any market for this particular brand of weirdness that we create. That there is, underlies that we’re the luckiest brewery in the world.
We haven’t spent a dollar on advertising since we opened. That great reception early on and that word-of-mouth marketing that happened afterwards, we were incredibly blessed to receive.
Another great scene, if you were to do a movie, would be when I proposed to my wife: I told her we don’t have the time and money to get married. We have this brewery that has taken all of that. Then we went to this tap-takeover and two or three hundred people showed up on short notice, which was just shocking. So I bought a bottle of Boon Mariage Parfait, kneeled down and proposed to my wife amidst the crowd at our beer event.

The next beer event that I know you will be at is the Copenhagen Beer Celebration. What do you expect?

I have no idea what to expect. We’ve never been there before in any capacity. I heard it’s a phenomenally well run event.
We were flattered as hell to get the invite – which was a surprise. It will be exciting to share our beers with a more international audience. We don’t make very much and it’s almost all sold from our taproom and brewery, kind of in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. So to get it to Europe and to be able to compare and share, we’re very excited about that.

What can we expect?

We bring a fairly diverse range of beers. We’ve sent everything from fruited lambic inspired beers to one of our geuze inspired blends – I think it was a three to four year blend. Then a Saison inspired beer that was partially aged in gin barrels. It has a really nice aromatic botanical complexity to it.
We hope they show well. We’ve never sent any quantity of beers across the ocean. Having consumed beer in Europe, even styles that typically store and age well, I think there is on average a difference after that transport. So we didn’t send anything that had a dry-hopped component, just because of the volatile component of dry-hopped beers.

And you’ll bring your wife Linsey along?

No, no, my wife brings me along. [laughs]

You said you were surprised to be invited, but you’re the fifth best brewery in the world.

I think that depends a lot on who you ask. [laughs]

Well, according to Ratebeer.

We were amazed and I wont lie, we both cried when we heard that. In the course of just a few years, starting from such humble beginnings to have, on average at least, such a consumer recognition was shocking.
We’re honored to have gotten that notice and that esteem. But ultimately, whether our beer is good or bad, is best assessed on a person to person basis. We are quite upfront, not every beer we are making or any of our beers is going to be a great experience for everybody.

You live in lager country, have you convinced some of the locals?

Starting out we’ve had a little bit of luck and progressively more. Most of the teachers in the area are pretty big fans of what we do. We occasionally get surprised, where one of the farmers will come in from working with his cows, with boots on that are still muddy. And a number of times we are kind of shocked that they did enjoy the beers.
We are operating in a very small area. The city we are in is only a few thousand people – and that’s over a very large area. Most of our customers come from outside the area to visit us. They are really what’s paying the bills.
We are in the process of opening a second brewery location just a couple of miles away from here. That will be more in the city center. And we’re hoping to share more of what we are doing, with a greater local audience.
As it is right now, people have to drive a few miles out to come visit us. And as you can imagine, you’re driving a few miles to have a couple of beers, having to drive back afterwards. Safety concerns do arise.

It will be a production facility and taproom?

Yes, a second production facility. It’s a historic building in the area, with a lot of the original wood work. We can do some renovation and help design it to be conducive at making the best beer we possible can from the ground up. And then we’ll build an addition off of this building to house our new tasting room. Which will have a better layout, will be more customer friendly and larger as well. And I think we’ll have ten more taps there as well.

But it’s not like you’ll change the kinds of beers and do different ones in that facility?

We want that specific facility to, over time, be converted into 100 percent drawing from the lambic tradition.

As my final question: Which five beers would you suggest to people to drink before they die.

I’ve already mentioned the Weihenstephan Hefeweizen as just one of those impeccable beers that could never be improved on. So that’d be one.
Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze. It’s such a classic and one of my favorite beers. I’ve never had one that I could find fault with.
Cantillon more than any other brewery, anything with fruits from them is usually a very unique experience. It might not always be exactly the same, but it’s always going to be fantastic and exciting.
Some of the better IPA producers are here in the North West. So, a good Oregon IPA. Right now I’d recommend pFriem. Their Mosaic Pale Ale, which is closer to IPA territory, or pretty much any hoppy beer from them.
Our friends at Logsdon Brewing, their Saison Bretta is fantastic. Probably the best regular production farmhouse beer or Saison in Oregon. And it’s actually brewed on a farm [laughs].

You said earlier that after work today you’ll drink an IPA. You know which one that’ll be?

Oh, whatever we have in our fridge here. We thankfully have a lot of beers dropped off here, so it’s usually what other beer folks feel like they want us to try.

Before you said that there’s variation in the beers of Cantillon, but how much is there in your beers?

With any truly wild and natural fermentation, there’s going to be blend to blend and even bottle to bottle variation, particularly if it’s naturally conditioned in bottles. I don’t see that as a flaw necessarily, but as part of the beauty of a truly wild beer. I think you’d lose the greatness of what it is if you’d want it to be the same thing every time.
We do see some inter-batch and inter-bottle variation. You might have one bottle where you think that’s the best beer we’ve ever made and the next one will be just very, very good. We’d prefer of course that everything is the best beer we’ve ever made, but having a little variation is essential. We just try to avoid any large variation. And I think we for the most part do; as does Cantillon.

This interview was done on 19 April 2016 by phone.

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