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Matt Wastradowski | 03/04/2020 | Beer, Willamette Valley Regions
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How Willamette Valley Breweries Incorporate Local Crops Into Their Beers

We all know the Willamette Valley is known the world over for its agriculture, thanks in part to a marine climate that creates the ideal growing conditions for world-class Pinot Noir grapes, juicy blackberries, and more than 80,000 acres of hazelnut orchards.

In all, more than 18,000 Willamette Valley farms grow all manner of crops—from berries and vegetables to oats and Christmas trees—on 1.7 million acres of soil.

Naturally, some of the region’s best-known brewers have gotten in on the fun, incorporating the Willamette Valley’s rich bounty into their ales and lagers. So here’s a look at how three of the region’s breweries are honoring a centuries-old connection between Willamette Valley denizens and the region’s many farms.

Christian DeBenedetti grew up on a hazelnut farm just outside Newberg and has fond memories of running around, discovering the orchard’s nooks and crannies, and learning to love the region’s affinity for agriculture. “I’m really lucky to be from this place,” he says.

Years later, he opened Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery on that very same farm. And those childhood memories, along with time spent working at area wineries and learning about farmhouse ales in Belgium, inspired him to showcase the best of the Willamette Valley in every beer he produces.

For DeBenedetti, that means using farm-grown stinging nettles and mustard flowers, incorporating hazelnuts grown some 100 feet from the brewery, using wild yeast drawn from the farm’s rose hips and Gravenstein apple trees, harvesting raw honey for his Honeycone IPA (the brewery’s best-selling beer), and so on.

And if he can’t grow an ingredient on the farm, DeBenedetti doesn’t have to travel far to find it. He uses Willamette Valley hops whenever possible alongside a variety of crops—including locally grown cherries, herbs, and golden raspberries. Even the brewery’s water comes from an aquifer under nearby Parrett Mountain, which sits within eyesight of the barn that doubles as Wolves & People’s brewhouse.

“This is an agrarian culture”, DeBenedetti says of the Willamette Valley. His family’s farm dates back to the 1850s, and area farmers spent several more decades traveling dusty wagon roads to sell their crops in nearby Portland. “It’s always been an agriculture crossroads, so in a way, we’re keeping that tradition going,” he says.

Whatever you order at the Rogue Chatoe tasting room at Rogue Farms, chances are good you’re within eyesight of where your beers, sodas, and culinary ingredients were grown.

Are you a fan of Rogue Ales’ Dead Guy Ale or Hazelnut Brown? Rogue Farms, just outside Independence, grows hops exclusively for the brewery’s best-selling beers. The farm also grows marionberries for Rogue’s marionberry sour ale and its marionberry soda, herbs and cucumbers for its award-winning Rogue Spruce Gin, and gourds for its annual pumpkin ale. As if that weren’t enough, the farm also harvests honey for its Honey Kölsch.

The tasting room’s kitchen even dishes up a farm-inspired seasonal menu that generally includes farm-grown herbs, as well as ingredients from local farms and baked goods from a nearby bakery.

It’s all part of a desire to showcase Oregon’s unique terroir, take advantage of the Willamette Valley’s fertile soil, and create an experience that connects customers with the region around them, says General Manager Ally Ward. “We try to make sure that all those beers have some farm connection,” she says. “And if they don’t, then we’re going to bring in a lot of innovative beers and new varieties to keep our customers engaged.”

The DAM Wild series has been among the most acclaimed beers for Flat Tail Brewing in Corvallis; one variant in the series took home a bronze medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup (often called the "Olympics of Beer Competitions") and, in 2017, earned a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival—the largest beer festival in the United States.

And it almost never happened.

As brewmaster and Flat Tail co-owner Dave Marliave tells it, a disaster in Flat Tail’s brewery led to its most acclaimed beers to date. In early 2015, a contractor arrived to rip out a false ceiling under a leaky roof at a time when Marliave wasn’t expecting him. The barrels below weren’t tarped or protected, and the insulation flecks ruined the beer inside. Marliave says he had to dump more than 150 barrels of beer that had been aging since 2010.

But rather than lick his wounds and stop experimenting with wild and sour ales, Marliave asked himself, “How do I rebuild this epic sour and wild ale program in an affordable and timely manner?”

He began experimenting with a yeast strain that he’d isolated off plums and soon figured out how to make tasty sours in 4-5 weeks—while the earlier, more traditional batches had taken between six months and two years to age. And the DAM Wild series was born.

Since its inception, the DAM Wild series of beers has featured a rotating lineup of ingredients—with a base sour blonde, fermented with the brewery’s proprietary yeast strains, serving as the common thread. Each variation features ingredients grown in the Willamette Valley—like marionberries and raspberries—paired with fruit from around the world.

Even if you can’t find DAM Wild beers on tap at Flat Tail (they have been an occasional release, after all), keep an eye out at taprooms and bottle shops throughout the region.

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