A weekly series about our food and sustainable agriculture.
“Yeast never sleeps,” said Sebastian Degens. Which is a good thing, since Degens and his wife, Erika, depend on it to ferment the fruit and grain mashes they distill at their Stone Barn Brandyworks in Portland, Oregon.
As a child, Degens grew up in Germany with distilled spirits like eau de vie and schnapps in the house. He eventually moved to the United States, getting interested in trying to make his own spirits when a Swiss friend, who’d grown up with similar European spirits, mentioned a desire to learn how they were made.
Their research led Degens to attend a three-day intensive workshop in Chicago at Kothe Distilling Technologies, a manufacturer of stills. On returning home, he and Erika started bicycling around various neighborhoods, looking for a small, affordable place that had enough room for the equipment they’d need to start their business.
Cramming a still, a tasting area and a retail shop into the 700 square foot space they found and still having room for the aging barrels, fermentation tanks and other equipment wasn’t easy. With some creative arranging, though, they moved into the building in 2009. Their first project was turning tons of Italian prunes they’d picked themselves—there was so much they had to borrow friends’ freezers to hold it all—into plum brandy.It’s a product they continue to make today, along with liqueurs and brandies made from apples, pears, cranberries, cherries and other fruit from local orchards. Degens noted it takes a lot of fruit to make a bottle, 16 to 25 pounds depending on the type of fruit, adding that one of his great pleasures is in the relationships he’s built over the years with farmers.
Though they both still have regular jobs—Sebastian works at the Port of Portland in the Marine Marketing department and Erika works for Portland Youth Builders, a combination alternative school/worksite experience program—their real passion is making the kind of high-quality spirits that they dreamed about when they started the business.
They did set three ground rules going in: 1) they wouldn’t lose their house, 2) they’d put their three kids through college and 3) they’d still be married at the end of it.
“Three and a half years into it we’ve got at least one kid out a college,” he said, chuckling. “We love working here together every day and we’re still in business.”
Text by Kathleen Bauer