Case Study: Wolves & People

Christian DeBenedetti once wrote about beer. Now he makes it—collecting wild yeast from bees and plums and using oak puncheons for primary fermentation. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the future of Wolves & People remains unwritten.

Joe Stange Jun 9, 2020 - 14 min read

Case Study: Wolves & People Primary Image

Wolves & People Founder Christian DeBenedetti pours samples from behind the bar. Photo: Jamie Bogner.

The last time I spoke to the storyteller, it was before he became part of the story.

It was March 2013, during the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C. We were at a screening of Beer Hunter: The Movie, about Michael Jackson, the pioneering beer writer. Back then, DeBenedetti was a beer writer, too. As beer writing goes, his career was successful: He published articles in the New York Times and Food & Wine, among many others. He also wrote the book The Great American Ale Trail—a savvy cross-country guidebook that not nearly enough people bought before another 6,300 breweries appeared.

But he was frustrated. Freelance beer writing is... not highly lucrative. The number of outlets who paid decently was dwindling. He was ready to move on, he told me.

Then, as I remember it, he said, “I think I’m going to move back to the family farm and start a brewery.”

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The very next year, he founded the Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Newberg, Oregon, about 20 miles southwest of Portland. He bought the brewhouse and some fermentors from Heater Allen Brewing in nearby McMinnville. Wolves & People opened to the public two years later. A few months after that, he and partner Lila Martin got married there.

The brewery is on the farm where DeBenedetti grew up. The eight-barrel brewhouse is in the barn, increasingly cramped with fermentors and other gear.

DeBenedetti doesn’t have a lot of time to write these days. “My wife and I have a two-year-old son and are running the brewery, which is toddler age as well. So, we’ve got our hands full with those things and more.”

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Left: hazelnut trees dot the farmland near the brewery. Right: the brewery is located on the working farm DeBenedetti’s family has owned since 1967.

Busy as Bees … also, with Bees

In May 2020, Wolves & People marks its fourth birthday of being open. It brewed about 160 barrels of beer that first year; in 2019, it brewed about 350. Each year the production has gone up 40 to 50 percent.

The brewery is best known for its complex, Belgian-inspired, mixed-fermentation, farmhouse ales. Recently it has been nurturing its portfolio of clean-fermenting beers in relatively classical styles using traditional yeasts. These include Neuberg, an unfiltered amber-colored kellerbier, and Honeycones, a honey-laced hazy IPA. The latest addition: the brewery’s very first West Coast IPA, called Green Limousine.

“We have high hopes for it,” DeBenedetti says. “It’s kind of a throwback West Coast IPA—clear and bright copper, and piney, super-dry. It’s inspired by Russian River’s Blind Pig, I would say, that kind of classic West Coast. We’ve never done a beer like that, so we’re like, hey, let’s try it. Why not?”

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There are essentially two cellars. On one side is 43 barrels worth of stainless capacity for primary fermentation. On the other are six oak puncheons—previously used for wine—also used for primary fermentation. “So now all of our saisons and farmhouse ales are coming out of our oak cellars, and the rest of our equally loved beers are in this clean cellar,” DeBenedetti says. The bifurcation of these cellars was a keystep. “It’s just really helped us kind of raise our game on both sides of the aisle, as it were.”

This year, he hopes to add a few more stainless tanks and, ideally, a few oak foeders. He estimates that his potential production capacity at that point would be 1,000 barrels per year. “That’s considered by a lot of breweries that we look up to as a sweet spot, in terms of buying in bulk, ingredients, and being able to export some beer into some thirsty markets,” he says. “It’s about the right size for our facility. Even though we’ll be kind of cramped in there, that’s going to hopefully put us in a comfortable gear.”

This is a real working farm, and it has been since about 1850; DeBenedetti’s family took over its 21½ acres in 1967. The main crop is filberts—that is, hazelnuts. Inevitably, some of those go into the beer—an imperial stout called Nutfarm, and La Truffe, an ale that also gets white truffles. They grow other things, too, such as apples and pears. There are usually as many as four bee colonies providing honey—as well as yeast (more on that later).

Most Wolves & People beer—60 to 70 percent—is sold right there over the bar at the farm’s tasting room. Most of the rest goes to accounts around Portland and the Willamette Valley. A bit more of it travels farther—in some cases sporadically—to Seattle as well as places such as Washington, D.C., the Carolinas, Boston, and New York.

They also recently started sending beer to a European distributor in Copenhagen. “So, we’ll be sending small amounts of beer into Europe, primarily for Western Europe,” DeBenedetti says. “All those nice beer countries around Denmark, Holland, Belgium, so forth. That’s really exciting for us because we haven’t sent beer in any quantities overseas yet.”

The brewery recently revived its bottle club, the Cellar Society. Its first incarnation was a crowdfunding exercise to help get Wolves & People going in the first place. This time around, it’s limited to 200 people at a cost of $200 each. Those members are guaranteed three special-release beers throughout the year, each coming in four-packs of half-liter bottles. Each member also gets a 15 percent discount in the taproom, a glass, and invitations to exclusive events.

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“It’s been really cool as a way to kind of knit the relationship with our some of our closest fans even more tightly and have really cool feedback,” DeBenedetti says. “They’re a group of people who are very supportive of the brewery and what we’re trying to do. So yeah, we’re excited to bring it back.”

The Cellar Society beers are special releases, brewed in small batches “for the super-curious and super-motivated supporter of the brewery,” DeBenedetti says. “It’s a niche we want to develop, and we want to cultivate even stronger relationships there.”

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The oak cellar is home to the funky mixed- and wild-fermentation beers the brewery produces, while various mixed cultures are maintained in carboys along the back wall.

Growing Crops, and Agritourism, Too

Another new project: growing some of their own grains. An initial experiment in growing triticale, the wheat-rye hybrid, was a success. “Our goal is to plant somewhere between two and five acres of barley, in order to malt it locally, and have our own base malt grown on the property,” DeBenedetti says. After the first experiment, “now we’re going to focus on base malt, pilsner malt, and be planting this fall on a five-acre parcel that is adjacent to the brewery.”

Meanwhile, thanks to recent changes to Oregon law, it will be easier for Wolves & People to host events that highlight the farm and its products. The brewery got involved with the lobbying effort at the request of Rogue Ales, which grows hops and other produce at Rogue Farms in Independence.

“There were all kinds of conversations going on down in the State Capitol,” DeBenedetti says. “If you can believe it, there are plenty of people who don’t want to see farmhouse brewing happen. But you know, they had their day.” In the end, the bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously.

Since January 1, breweries located on farms in Oregon enjoy the same privileges as the state’s wineries and cideries. “In a practical sense, that allows us to have chefs and food carts on occasion at the brewery, to show off the operation essentially.” But before that, he says, “we couldn’t do much of anything without a series of touch-and-go permits, which were always being challenged by a small group of local neighbors who are opposed to agritourism as a whole.”

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Other things grown on the farm are less visible to visitors, such as the critters that handle the mixed fermentation. The initial house yeast was one that DeBenedetti harvested off the skin of a wild plum. Later, he and then-Head Brewer Jordan Keeper assembled a blend of bugs called Amigos, “which is a sour culture, still living in many, many of our beers and in the cellar. Really, truly, it’s just an assembled mixed culture of some of our favorite beers in the world.”

Lately, the bees have been helping with the yeast wrangling. He got this idea two years ago from Evan Watson of Plan Bee Farm Brewery in Poughkeepsie, New York, at a honey event in Texas. “He gave a presentation about how he grew his primary yeast strain out of wild bee yeast, which just totally blew my mind,” DeBenedetti says. “I right away went home from that trip and established bee colonies for that purpose, so we could take honey and honeycomb from the hives, and grow wild yeast off it—based on the premise that bees are harvesting only the best nectar and pollen sources on any given site. Therefore, they’re going to be covered in wild yeast. And that proved to be true.”

They collected samples at different times of the year and analyzed them with help from Nick Impelliteri at The Yeast Bay in Portland. They isolated a couple of the most promising strains, ramped them up, and fermented a pale ale called Wild Queen. The yeast turned out to be Saccharomyces boulardii, a wild yeast often found on fruit skins and regarded as having healthy probiotic benefits. DeBenedetti suspects that the bees are getting it from the grapes of nearby wineries—and that it might be similar to what he originally found on that wild plum, though they have yet to test that theory.

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The attic above the tap room serves as an art gallery for a scupture created by a neighbor.

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Besides its brewing team, the Wolves & People website’s “About Us” page lists Dan Shelton—of Shelton Brothers importers—as eminence grise. Translation: power behind the throne. Shelton, a longtime friend of DeBenedetti, is an investor in the brewery.

“We met in Belgium at Cantillon back in 1997, in the spring, and became friends,” DeBenedetti says. “We were just literally two guys speaking English and holding glasses of lambic in our hands. I fell into a conversation with him and one of his brothers. And Dan and I just became great friends, and now he’s one of the founding partners of the brewery. It all goes back to those heady days in Brussels back in the mid-’90s.”

On the same trip where they met, Shelton also introduced him to Yvan De Baets, who would later cofound the Brasserie de la Senne. At that time, De Baets was a young beer activist arguing that Orval had changed its process to soften its beer’s bitterness. DeBenedetti visited Orval, confirmed De Baets’s suspicions, and wrote about it. “So that became my first published story, which was really a turning point in my life personally,” he says.

The beer-writing days are past, but DeBenedetti still thinks about writing. In fact, he started writing songs, just for fun.

“We have this vibe around the brewery where we like to talk about writing, beer writing, journalism, you know, storytelling of all kinds,” he says. “And we’re thinking about creating a kind of storytelling series in our tent—we have a huge canvas tent outside the bar now, with a wood stove in it. And one of the things that we have talked about doing is having storytelling nights, for writers and journalists to come in and tell unique stories in front of the wood stove.”

Meanwhile, the little farmhouse brewery will continue to farmhouse-brew. “We’re still a little bit out there on the fringe and still finding our way, but I think people are discovering that awesome depth of character that saisons can show off,” he says.

“We’re settling into some grooves a little bit, finding our favorites, and hopefully perfecting—or getting closer to—better beer all the time. It’s been a real learning experience, and we’re just really lucky to be doing it, honestly.”

Photos by Jamie Bogner

Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].

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