When I first decided to write about farmhouse beers and the brewers that make them, several people suggested de Garde Brewing as an ideal candidate.
Yet, farmhouse brewer is a title head brewer and co-owner Trevor Rogers denies, “We don’t make ‘Farmhouse Style’ or ‘Saison’ beer in the modern sense, though we are certainly in an agricultural area.” He adds, “For quite some time, the idea and execution of Farmhouse or Saison beer has included the use of cultivated Belgian yeast isolates to promote that dry, fruity and spicy character that defines the style.”
Rogers is pointing to the fact that there is no commercial yeast used at de Garde, any microbes used to ferment their ales are acquired from the air surrounding the open coolship at the Tillamook, Oregon brewery. Every beer made by de Garde is spontaneously fermented, a fact that few breweries in the world, let alone the U.S. can claim.
Brewing Spontaneous Beer in Tillamook, Oregon
The de Garde Brewing philosophy is very much based in highlighting the unique environment of Tilamonk in what they produce. “We find this old method of beer making enticing and exciting because of its unique ability to represent a place. The native yeast and bacteria will be specific to a location, providing a character that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Similar to ‘terroir’ in winemaking, and relative to the wines that we particularly enjoy. All of which possess a novel sense of place.“
The urge to tie a beer to a specific place whether through the land the brewery sits on, the ingredients forged for brew day (like the juniper branches at Scratch Brewing) or the yeast suspended in the air at de Garde is a theme that unites many of the farmhouse (or farmhouse adjacent) brewers that I’ve spoke to for Try This Farmhouse.
Farmhouse as a Description, Not a Style
Some de Garde beers, like their popular Première which many readers pointed to as a favorite, carry the style farmhouse on their label but this is more of a description than a definition in his eyes. “As mentioned above, we don’t really brew farmhouse beer,” reiterates Rogers, “I’m not sure that there really is much that sets actual Farmhouse/Saison style beers apart from any other ale, except their use of one of the limited number of Saison/Belgian yeast strains available from labs.”
Rogers’ tight definition of what would be considered a farmhouse beer shows how wide ranging the meaning of the term can be. As the term expands in some circles to include styles like Sahti, it remains a narrow interpretation in others.
Just as farmhouse style doesn’t have an explicit definition, neither does spontaneous beer. “You can’t really pigeonhole spontaneously fermented beer, as the recipe and process can lead to a wide range of characteristics, not to mention each producer will have quite different beer,” says Rogers.
De Garde embraces the opportunity to be wide ranging and both accepts and expects variation in the vintages of their signature beers. “We embrace some variation seasonally and between blends, believing that there’s a beauty similar to the variation between vintages in wine. Each has something unique to say, and its own expression of our area.”
Like any spontaneous brewery the team at de Garde uses blending to shape the characteristics of a batch and as a method to obtain some kind of consistency. “Blending from different barrels is always our best tool to create a harmonious composition that’s at least relative to prior iterations. The goal is to coax nature though, and both work with and embrace what it gives us. We aren’t crafting or trying to craft homogenous industrialized product.”
What Farmhouse Beers Does de Garde Make?
There is a table strength spontaneous saison called Petit Desay which is a popular selection that’s released annually.
Première is that is described as a spontaneous farmhouse on its label. The base première is dosed with various fruits or treated by different lengths of time in a wide ranging selection of barrels.
Currently, de Garde is offering their Peach Première – A Spontaneous Farmhouse Ale with Peaches, Aged in Oak Barrels for One Year. In this case, the farmhouse title is a clue for customers.
“We do still use the term for a very limited variety of our beers on rare occasions, as the base recipe for those beers caters to characteristics similar to those [saison-style] beers, even though they’re strictly fermented with environmental yeast and bacteria,” says Rogers. “I believe that in this case, it helps the drinker have some narrower idea of what they’re getting into/what character to expect, even if they aren’t truly ‘Farmhouse/Saison’ beers.”
What Does Première – A Spontaneous Farmhouse Ale – Taste Like?
Rogers describes this spontaneous beer leading with the aspects of its yeast character, “For this beer, we target a profile and character driven by native Saccharomyces yeast. It provides a character similar to one of the isolated Belgian Saison yeasts, though it’s naturally occurring in our environment instead of being something we purchased and added.”
Many iterations of Première have additions of fruit or other ingredients, but the base beer has fruity characteristics of its own.
“It shows a lovely fruit character even in the absence of actual fruit, leaning towards citrus and tropical expression with delicate spiciness. We target a modest acid profile from native bacteria, and a subtle ‘funk’ from native Brettanomyces, though neither of these would be particularly stylistically accurate as the Farmhouse/Saison style is defined.”
If you’re coming to spontaneous beers as an IPA drinker
When Rogers thinks of a customer that is an IPA drinker trying spontaneous beer for the first time, he says, “I’d say that the first difference you’d notice is that there’s a notable acid component to nearly all spontaneously fermented beer. Looking past that, there should be greater nuance and complexity from the diverse array of yeast and bacteria involved in the fermentation. The beers characteristics are nearly universally fermentation derived vs. largely ingredient driven.”
He adds that hop heads can still find what they are looking for in spontaneous brewing, especially as fully coolship-based breweries like de Garde branch out in the beers they create. “But, you can emulate nearly any ale style (we’ve done beers in the past that were effectively spontaneously fermented IPA’s that tasted very much like an actual IPA when they were young), though the ‘wild’ character will likely be noticeable and will progressively express itself.”