The Terroir of Beer

November 9, 2016 (Updated November 30, 2016)

You can’t see them, yet drifting in currents of air are tiny microorganisms. They collect on surfaces, and if those surfaces contain a source of sugar, they feast. Why should you care? Well, this behavior allowed humans to brew the first batches of beer.

There’s something else going on here too: Microorganisms carry with them the characteristics of place. Like birds and plants around them, they belong to distinct ecosystems defined by climate and environment. And yes, you can taste it.

Winemakers call the unique combination of sunlight, soil and climate “terroir.” These elements conspire to produce a grape that tastes different from those of exactly the same varietal grown a few miles away. In the world of beer, this concept has little relevance — except when the beer is fermented by the wild yeasts and bacteria surrounding a brewery. Brewers term this “spontaneous fermentation,” a process in which breweries allow wort to be inoculated by wild yeasts floating in the air.

This may be an ancient concept, but it’s one most of today’s brewery techniques seek to eliminate.

What we’re talking about is risky beer making — because obsessive and fastidious brewers must give up a little bit of their influence. If the paradigm of modern brewing is control, this is exactly the opposite. But for those willing to invite nature into the brew house, the result is a unique taste of place.

It should come as no surprise that in beer-crazy Oregon, a number of breweries court this danger — in fact, you’ll find them scattered all over the state. If you want to take a gastronomic tour of this funky, yeasty terroir, these unusual breweries beckon.

(Pictured: Wolves & People’s Christian DeBenedetti by Stuart Mullenberg)

De Garde Brewing

The state’s most committed wild-ale brewery is De Garde Brewing, which only makes these kinds of beers. Owners Linsey and Trevor Rogers searched for a place that had the kind of climate they were looking for, and the gentle, cloud-washed valleys around Tillamook seemed ideal. “We pursued the Oregon Coast as the likely place to have success, given that it is temperate year-round,” Trevor says.

Cooler temperatures suppress the activity of the most dangerous spoilage organisms, and the healthy, natural coastal air contains the wholesome microbes the Rogers were looking for. They inoculate the wort — the pre-beer that comes out of the brew kettle — by leaving it overnight in a wide pan called a coolship, which is exposed to the open air (and resident yeasts in the brew house).

Over the course of months, the yeasts and bacteria will turn that wort into beer inside wooden barrels. “That’s why,” Trevor says, “we make wort; we don’t make beer. The one thing we do control is what goes into the barrel.”

(Photo by Sean von Tagen)

Block 15 Brewing Company

Like the Rogers, Block 15 Brewing Company’s Nick Arzner also uses a coolship to gather yeast. But while Corvallis may be in the heart of the fertile Willamette Valley, the brewery itself is in a distinctly urban locale: right in the center of downtown.

The coolship, in fact, is underneath the brewery, in the basement. Perhaps that’s why, Arzner admits, “When we started this program, I thought we’d just try it. I didn’t expect much out of it.” It may have started as an experiment, but his spontaneously fermented ales are now widely beloved. He’s named the wild-beer program “Turbulent Consequence” as an inside joke to those who know that the Belgian lambics were made with “turbid mashing.”

While most people won’t be familiar with that geeky beer reference, they may recognize the fruit Arzner adds to his wild ales, which all come from the valley. This contributes more local flavor to each brew. “We do it with a nod to classical beers,” he explains, “by using a turbid mash and letting our environment do the work.”

(Photo courtesy of Block 15 Brewing Company)


Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery

In the wine country of Yamhill County, Wolves & People’s Christian DeBenedetti went out and met the wild yeasts that circulate around his family farm rather than inviting them into the brew house. He selected a particularly tasty-looking plum from one of the trees in the orchard and sent it to a lab so the yeast could be isolated from the skin. The particular strain of yeast that came from that plum is now used to ferment some of the beers (often in combination with other yeasts).

The man who named Newberg was a Bavarian immigrant and its first postmaster — and the former owner of the farmland Wolves & People calls home. It is no surprise that DeBenedetti decided to call this wild house yeast strain “Sebastian” in his honor. He also uses other farm-grown delicacies such as figs, berries, rose hips, filberts and hops in his beer. “Sometimes the aromas and flavors are red rosy, tart and wine-like, all ripe summer melon and grassy fields,” he says. “Other times they’re telling another story — cloves, marmalade, even creosote.”

(Photo courtesy of Wolves & People)

Solera Brewery

Solera Brewery in Parkdale may have one of the most iconic Oregon views — it looks out across an orchard onto snow-capped Mt. Hood. It’s no wonder, then, that brewer Jason Kahler takes a novel, hyper-local approach to making his beer.

He doesn’t bother removing the yeast from the skin; he puts fruit coated with yeast directly in his freshly boiled wort. He then lets nature do the rest. “It’s kind of magical,” he says of the wild beer process. “You have to get over your fear if you’re going to try these beers. You can’t lose sleep over something like this.”

The orchards that surround the brewery offer him an excellent selection, and he can ask local farmers to leave the fruit on the branch longer to increase aromatics, flavor, sugar content and, of course, yeast accumulation. This is a benefit to the farmer, too, because Kahler doesn’t need store-ready fruit. That ripe flavor is present in the beer.

(Photo by Leah Nash)



The Ale Apothecary

Former Deschutes brewer Paul Arney of The Ale Apothecary is using an indirect method of including local yeast in his beer: He has built a brewery that uses incredibly hands-on techniques to make small batches of beer, working at all times to keep harsh chemicals out of his brewery. Over time, the local yeast has been collecting inside the brewery, working its way into the open vessels Arney uses to ferment his beer.

Beyond the yeast, Arney is adamant that the Ale Apothecary’s beer is made entirely from Oregon-grown ingredients. Everything comes from a specific farm, including honey for bottle conditioning. Arney even gathers black currants and parts of trees from around the brewery, all of which adds a local touch. “I just hope that the more I can line these things up, the more there’s potential for depth of character,” he says. “It’s going to create an environment that’s going to lend something interesting, something truly Oregon.”

(Photo by Patrick Weishampel)

About The

Jeff Alworth
Jeff Alworth is the author of The Beer Bible, Cider Made Simple, and The Secrets of Master Brewers. He has been writing about Oregon beer for over two decades for newspapers and magazines, including Sunset and All About Beer, as well as on his long-running blog, Beervana.