Eric Jorgensen is one happy brewer. Not only does he get to live and brew in the quiet woods of Deming, Washington but he’s close enough to Mt. Baker to snowboard every day. To top it all off (heh, heh), he also gets to eat amazing pizza every day. How did this idyllic life come about?
Since 2000, Eric has been the brewer at The North Fork, the iconic Whatcom County brewery, pizzeria, beer shrine and wedding chapel, located on Rt. 542, about 20 miles east of Bellingham (between mile markers 20 and 21—slow down a bit or you’ll miss it on the left).
The North Fork was started by Sandy and Vicki Savage in 1997. Vicki managed the front of the house while Sandy—who was once head brewer at Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley, CA—headed up brewing operations. At The North Fork, they established a home for their collection of beer bottles, signs and paraphernalia, as well as a place to brew traditional, British-style ales. Sandy created the recipes, and Vicki became an ordained minister to perform weddings—hence, the “wedding chapel” aspect of the business.
Eric keeps everyone happy by brewing a renowned lineup of their regular rotating beers, including:
- Lighter Shade of Pale
- Mysterian Pale Ale
- Dry Stout
- Strong Scotch Ale
- Hair of the Frog American-style Barley Wine
- Spotted Owl british style
- Son of Frog English Style Ale
- Bavarian Hefeweizen
The North Fork has always focused on British-style, balanced brews. Back when they started, their recipes were geared toward converting drinkers of mass-produced beer over to craft beers. Now, to add some interest to the lineup, Eric has been brewing some unusual recipes—one of which really got my attention during the waning days of 2013, when I stopped by The North Fork with friends. I never expected to have the opportunity to try a locally brewed Brett beer that day.
Beer nerds know that Brett is short for Brettanomyces, which is a type of yeast from a fungus found on wood and fruit skins. A common strain is Brettanomyces Bruxellensis. It has a big sugar appetite, so it eats up all the residual sugars in the beer, leaving a sour taste. Some say that Bretts have a distinctive “horse blanket” aroma, which is also described as “barnyard,” “leather,” or just “funk.”
Eric had been brewing Bretts at home, and after Sandy tried one, he agreed that Eric should brew some up for the brewery. Eric’s first step was to find a Brett-infected barrel, which sounds like a bad thing—and it can be, if you’re making wine. That’s why Jesse Nickerson of Mount Baker Vineyards was happy to give one to Eric.
When you’re brewing Brett beer, it’s important to keep everything associated with the Brett yeast separate from your other set-ups. From barrels to lines, anything used with Brett yeast can only be used for sours in the future.
But if you want to make a beautiful Brett beer, an infected barrel is the essential part. Eric filled his with a recipe based on the Son of Frog British-style Ale. After a month of fermentation in the Brett-infected barrel, he added a second strain of Brettanomyces Bruxellensis. The total start-to-finish production time on that barrel was about a year—and once it went on tap, it went fast. As I mentioned in my Year-End Wrap-Up, the Wild Frog Brett beer I was lucky to try at North Fork that day was one of my favorite beers of 2013. But alas, nothing precious ever lasts.
So what’s a beer nerd to do? Luckily, Eric’s been keeping busy with some more specialty brews. Next up on the nerd-alert list is a whiskey barrel-aged Scotch Ale, a delightfully smooth and rich brew, aged—as you might guess—in a whiskey barrel. To me it has a mild toast flavor, while Eric tasted coconut. We agreed on “toasted coconut.” It’s actually a blend of two barrel-aged ales, one that lived in a Westland Distillery (from Seattle) barrel, and one that aged in a Heaven Hills Elijah Craig Kentucky bourbon barrel, given to Eric by James Hardesty, owner of The Green Frog in Bellingham.
Eric also set up a lager station, borrowed some of Chuckanut Brewery’s house lager yeast and started brewing his Deming Black Lager, a Schwartzbier currently available at the brewery. It’s clean and smooth, highly drinkable and going over really well. When the Deming Black Lager is gone, it will be replaced by either the Stout or Porter, which rotate on and off.
Eric’s next project of interest is a collaboration brew with Steven DeMoney, resident/touring brewer at Elizabeth Station in Bellingham. Eric and Steven decided to make a whiskey barrel-aged Baltic Porter. It’s an 8.5% lager porter, which is currently resting in Westland Distillery whiskey barrels. They used a little more bittering hops than they would normally use, but the long aging will diminish the bitter character, while the oak barrels will impart some sweetness.
I asked how long it would be in the barrels, and Eric said, “Until we like how it tastes.” That’s good enough for me! When it’s ready, the two barrels full of goodness will likely be available at both North Fork and Elizabeth Station.
Currently in the testing stage is an India Pale Lager, which is the IPA recipe, using lager yeast rather than the house British yeast. That should be an interesting one!
While beer- and pizza-seeking visitors come from near and far, usually on their way up or down the mountain, Eric also has a loyal following of regulars who occupy The North Fork’s barstools. Even with all these specialty brews he’s concocting, he’s sensitive to what the locals expect to see on tap, whether it’s Scotch, IPA or ESB. Eric makes sure the classics are available, while offering us a chance to expand our palates.
As Bellingham’s brewery lineup keeps growing, Eric will keep making small batches of both regular and specialty brews—and keep making The North Fork a destination brewery (pizzeria, beer shrine, wedding chapel). Production is right at 300 barrels per year, despite the demand at the few places outside the brewery that it’s available (such as The Green Frog or the occasional brewer’s night at a pub). A recent barrel night at The Green Frog resulted in a line out the door of patrons waiting for The North Fork’s Porter and Scotch.
Beer drinkers have their favorite everyday brews. But we also seek out anything “different” with the glee of a five-year-old kid on Christmas morning. Special project beers make life a lot more interesting, so do yourself a favor: if you’re heading up to or down from Mt. Baker, schedule a stop at The North Fork. I promise it’s the best après-ski, hike and raft (they’re open year-round!) food and beverages you’ll have anywhere.
Of course, you don’t have to wait until after vigorous outdoor activities to try one of Eric’s limited-edition special beers. Just make the short, 30-minute-or-so trek out 542 on a regular basis. And say hi to Eric while you’re there. He might be the happiest brewer around, but he can get kind of lonely back there, too!
The North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel 360-599-BEER
6186 Mt. Baker Hwy (mile Post 20/21) Deming, Washington 98244
The North Fork on Facebook