Beer Sherpa Recommends: Dwinell Backcountry

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Goldendale, WA is near very little. Yakima’s an hour north, and The Dalles are over a half hour southwest. Portland, which is a lot closer than Seattle, is two hours down the Columbia Gorge. The little town, which I’ve observed not closely but for nearly 20 years, has a hard time supporting local restaurants and has never had a brewery. That’s why, when I heard a brewery was in the planning stages there a couple years age, I didn’t raise my expectations.

Boy, was I wrong. Owners Jocelyn and Justin Leigh are making an uncompromising list of very sophisticated rustic and wild ales (some of which are also hoppy) that would be outside the craft mainstream in Portland. In Goldendale, they might as well be from Mars. Goldendale is gun-rack-in-the-pickup-truck country, which is to say Bud country. There are three bars in town where, it was described to me, “people go so they can smoke out front.” Now put yourself in that frame of mind and consider this listing:

Red Handed | Farmhouse Red Ale
Citrusy. Malty. Refreshing.

A pleasantly tart mixed-culture raw ale delicately dry-hopped with Azacca and Idaho 7. Bright, citrusy hops and a mild acidity give way to malt forward flavors reminiscent of almond roca.

4.4% ABV 

I actually got to witness an exchange in which a couple of locals attempted to navigate a taplist filled with such entries—and they were trying to work out what an “ale” was. Jocelyn, who was tending bar, was gracious and encouraging and before long I looked over and the two had half-empty beers in front of them. The Leighs are going to have to work like this, person-by-person, to get locals from mass market lagers without the usual intermediary steps like pale ales and IPAs, to their vinous, complex, and full-flavored beers, many of which are made to no particular extant styles. A “raw ale;” a “red farmhouse ale?” Beer geeks are going to piece this together, but Goldendalians are just going to have to trust Jocelyn’s wide smile and take a leap of faith. 

 That’s the brewery dog, Caleb, in the background.

That’s the brewery dog, Caleb, in the background.

They will, however, be rewarded with extremely toothsome ales. Justin started as a homebrewer, then interned at some commercial breweries before going to Siebel for a degree. I was astonished at how self-assured his beers were, though. Dwinell (named for one of Jocelyn’s ancestors) has been open less than a year, and yet the beers are accomplished and their vision is brightly clear. There’s a real coherence to the beers, whether they’re domestic-yeast saisons, Lactobacillus-soured goses or Berliner weisses, hoppy rustic ales, or wild ales. They all possess an understated elegance, the kind that usually only comes from experience. I was very impressed with Cherry Lookie Loo, for example, a cherry wild, which was brightly tart, but balanced by a rich, sweet foundation. Nothing harsh or challenging—and even a friend who dislikes spurs admitted it was pretty good.

The real breakthrough, though, is the way he marries hops to his rustic base beers. I’m calling out Backcountry, which the Leighs call a “farmhouse pale.” It’s got a full, fluffy mouthfeel to support an infusion of hop flavor, and the impression is of a 5.5 - 6% beer. Surprisingly, it’s just 4.4%. It has the flavors and aromas you expect from modern hoppy ales, but they share billing with the malts, which suggest other grains (wheat, oats), though no mention was made of them. It’s the best of all worlds—hoppy, soft, rustic, quenching, and sessionable. 

 The beer in the back is a Berliner weisse, with  homemade cherry-rhubarb syrup on the side (they have multiple flavors, all made onsite).

The beer in the back is a Berliner weisse, with  homemade cherry-rhubarb syrup on the side (they have multiple flavors, all made onsite).

Justin mentioned he really hoped Dwinell would become a destination brewery, like De Garde in Oregon or Hill Farmstead in Vermont. He’d love to convert all the locals, too, but he’s hoping to lure folks from Portland and Seattle out as well. I have no idea if they’ll pull it off, but the Leighs have done the most important thing they can to induce the masses—they’ve brewed up a slate of travel-rewarding ales. I guess the rest is up to you.