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Meet One of America’s Best New Farmhouse Breweries

A one-year-old Oregon brewery is reshaping our sense of what terroir-driven beer can really mean. Justin Kennedy on why you should be paying attention to Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery.

Wolves & People is the name of a game that Christian DeBenedetti played with his brothers and cousins on their family’s farm in northeast Oregon. “It’s a nighttime game of tag where you elect one wolf who would go across the farm,” he says, “and the others—the people—would have to get to and fro without getting tagged. By the end of the game, you would have a pack of wolves chasing the last human, who is the winner.”

More than three decades later, in the spring of 2016, DeBenedetti launched Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery on the very same property where the boys once played, a 20-acre working hazelnut orchard in Newberg, Oregon. Located about 20 miles southwest of Portland, DeBenedetti now makes a range of beers, like mixed-culture pale ales, low-ABV stouts and crisp lagers, in a barn the family once used to process filberts. But it’s his farmhouse-style saisons and grisettes, which often incorporate fruits, nuts and wild yeast—all sourced right from the farm—that have quickly catapulted the brewery into the national spotlight.

Newberg is the northern point of entry to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country, and DeBenedetti’s brewery is literally surrounded by wineries and vineyards. In fact, one of his closest neighbors and friends is the winemaker Doug Tunnell of Brick House Vineyards, a former CBS News correspondent who, in the 1990s, traded in his media credentials to make wine, and was an early pioneer of Oregon gamay noir. “I always like talking journalism shop with Doug,” says DeBenedetti, himself a former journalist-turned-brewer. “His career was so distinguished.”

Unlike Tunnell, who reported from war zones abroad, DeBenedetti’s journalism career was based in New York, at publications like Men’s Journal, the New York Times, Bon Appétit and GQ. “My first-ever published article was actually for a magazine called Brewing Techniques,” he says. “I had just come back from Belgium and had interviewed the brewers at Brasserie d’Orval about the changes there.” Scandalously, the brewery had just altered the recipe for their famous saison-like Trappist ale. “People were pretty hot under the collar about it in some circles, so that got me moving.”

In 2011, DeBenedetti published his first book, The Great American Ale Trail, followed by a cookbook, Beer Bites, in 2015. All the while, he was cooking up plans to open a brewery.

“I’d always had a dream of opening my own brewery since I was in college, but I never really, truly believed it was possible.” That changed on a 2009 trip to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, where he realized just how popular and democratic the beer industry had become. “I was walking around in the West Coast section just surrounded by tens of thousands of beer fans and brewers smiling ear-to-ear,” he says.

A few months later, DeBenedetti decided to ditch New York and journalism to move back to Oregon to make beer. His family still owns and runs the farm, and DeBenedetti rents a circa-1912 Craftsman-style barn from them to house the brewery’s equipment and tasting room. He and his wife, Lila, live in a small cottage about 75 feet from the barn. “It’s a little too close for comfort sometimes,” he says.

DeBenedetti didn’t intend to run the brewing side of operations himself but he’s wound up in that role by default. A month after Wolves & People got its license to brew, founding head brewer Jordan Keeper, who had come from Austin’s Jester King Brewing, left Oregon to make beer full-time at Brasserie Trois Dames in Switzerland. Wolves & People’s second brewer, Jake Miller, who had moved out west from Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales, left in November to open Heirloom Rustic Ales back in Tulsa.

“A few months ago, I had to decide what was next,” says DeBenedetti. “I’d been brewing with Jordan and Jake often—definitely involved in production, but not exactly running it. And so, I decided, rather than hire another brewer, I would take over and do all the brewing myself.”

Inside Wolves & People

With the use of local ingredients and native yeast, DeBenedetti’s is one of a handful of American breweries aiming to impart their beer with a true sense of place—still a novel idea in today’s ever-expanding world of practically indistinguishable hazy double IPAs and dessert-flavored stouts. Other breweries in this mold include Scratch Brewing in Illinois, Fonta Flora in North Carolina and Plan Bee in New York’s Hudson Valley, all of whom use native and cultured fruit yeast and/or spontaneous inoculation to make beer of a specific terroir. “If I had to say there’s any one style we love the most, it’s saisons that we can use local produce and fruit with,” says DeBenedetti. “Things like plums, figs, blackberries—all from the farm.”

For now, his beer is only available in Oregon at select bars and restaurants like Le Pigeon and Tusk in Portland. “I’d rather be the third of three taps at a sweet little restaurant than one of a hundred at a beer bar,” DeBenedetti says. The brewery will soon expand to include a coolship for spontaneous fermentation in the loft of the barn and beehives on the property for honey-conditioned beers. DeBenedetti says he’ll use the honey comb to harvest wild yeast that the bees have acquired throughout the seasons, a technique he learned from Evan and Emily Watson at Plan Bee.

Wolves & People may soon begin distributing outside of Oregon, too, but DeBenedetti says he’s hesitant to expand too quickly. He says he’s seen too many breweries get too big too quickly and not understand their market. “It’s really important to find your people and cultivate those relationships,” he says, “no matter if they’re right down the road or across the country.”

Wolves & People in Five Beers

Instinctive Travels | 6.4 percent ABV
This saison is dry-hopped with Australian-grown Vic Secret hops and bottle-conditioned with several strains of Brettanomyces. “We opened with this beer last year and it’s become a mainstay,” DeBenedetti says. “The Vic Secret hops are lush, tropical and dank, and the combination in the bottle with Brett gives it a ripe, funky nose.”

Tractor Pull  | 8.5 percent ABV
The strongest beer in Wolves & People’s portfolio is this tawny English-style Old Ale brewed with Madagascar vanilla beans and Ceylon cinnamon. The base is a blend of six specialty malts, including rye, which adds a hint of dryness amid the sweetness and roast.

Zester Queen | 5.6 percent ABV
This collaboration with Austin’s Jester King brewery is a pale saison combining zest and juice from Texas-grown grapefruit, Douglas fir tips from the Wolves & People farm and a blend of house cultures from both breweries. It’s bottle-conditioned and bursts with notes of tart, lively citrus and pine notes. The name is a tribute to Jester King head brewer Averie Swanson, who zested and juiced nearly 80 pounds of grapefruit for the collaboration.

Crushpad Pilsner | 4.5 percent ABV
DeBenedetti purchased all his equipment used from nearby Heater Allen Brewing, a spot known for making extremely clean German-style lagers, like Pils and Helles. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Wolves & People’s first canned beer was this 4.5-percent ABV German-style pilsner. It will return this summer in 16-ounce tall boys.

La Truffe | 4.5 percent ABV
DeBenedetti calls this low-ABV dark ale a “table stout.” Brewed in collaboration with the Oregon Truffle Festival, it’s aged on hazelnuts from the farm alongside Oregon-grown white truffles. The result is a beguiling mix of earth, funk, chocolate and nuts.

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