Many people have reinvented themselves during the pandemic. Maybe they’ve worked more from home, learned a new hobby or changed careers.
Nick Hegge took his beer business and did all three.
What was once just another nano-brewery that wasn’t much different than the typical microbrewery in the Pacific Northwest, Hegge’s Lost Bears Brews has transformed into Wild Oak Project. Instead of focusing on brewing a wide range of beers, Hegge has honed in on the types of beers he enjoys most: barrel-aged saisons, sours and imperial stouts.
“It really came down to what I like to brew,” Hegge said of the barrel-aged beers he now focuses on exclusively. “This is also more sustainable for me as a dad and someone who has a day job and brews more as a hobby than a career.”
Along with his life, Hegge, who works in the tech industry, revamped his brewery. He moved to a new home in Everett from Woodinville, and set up the new brewery to focus on saisons and sours and stopped brewing the general-interest beers that he had been doing before. That meant a small brewing system and barrels stacked upon barrels.
One problem: space. Usually breweries that focus on open fermentation and mixed cultures need a lot of room for the amount of time the beers require, as well as the barrels and puncheons they rest in. Hegge, on the other hand, runs the brewery equivalent of a sardine, packed into 500 square feet in a typical suburban garage. Forget a car in this garage, Hegge couldn’t even fit a bike amongst the stacked barrels, steel fermenters, bags of grain and more.
“I definitely have to maximize the space that I have,” Hegge said, laughing. “I have to be creative.”
Hegge has to be patient too. Not only do barrel-aged beers take longer, but he can only create a few at a time. This limitation is exactly why Hegge decided to make the pivot.
“The idea of making small batches and more nuanced beers was really exciting to me as a brewer,” Hegge said. “Every creation is different, from the grain bill to the barrel to the fruit.”
A recent example of that is the collaboration between Hegge and Temple Distilling’s AJ Temple. Temple had an extra gin barrel and Hegge had an idea: Create a barrel-aged farmhouse ale with fresh lime zest.
“I wanted something that tasted like a gin and tonic,” Hegge said. “To me the process is very much like cooking. It’s artistic and measured.”
The result: Let the Evening BeGIN, a beer that indeed tastes like a gin and tonic. Effervescent, dry with notes of juniper and gin, the beer is a good example of how the barrel can make all the difference. Hegge said he’s been fortunate to score whiskey barrels from local distilleries like Woodinville Whiskey and Westland Distillery. He also reuses barrels, steaming them in his driveway and then re-filling them with sours for aging.
Brewing small batches has its upsides: Hegge can go in on big bottle orders with larger breweries, which saves money, and he can get high quality malt from producers like Skagit Valley Malting because his orders are so small. Then there’s the fruit. Because he’s only making two barrels of beer at a time, he only needs a small amount of fruit, opening up a cornucopia of possibilities, including peaches, cranberries and pink guava.
“I’m really looking forward to making something with pluots,” said Hegge.
Small batches mean it can be tough to find Wild Oak Project beers. Completely self-distributed, Hegge’s beers are in nearly a half-dozen bottleshops in the Puget Sound region, including Lynnwood’s Special Brews and Seattle’s Chuck’s Hop Shop.
Hegge had a devoted fanbase while brewing as Lost Bears. Since migrating to Wild Oak Project, he carried over some of those fans to a new bottle club called Forged in Oak. The 25 members of Forged in Oak not only receive exclusive creations four times throughout the year: they help craft Wild Oak Project’s next beers.
“They are a small community of customers and fans who have provided some truly valuable feedback throughout this process,” Hegge said. “I listen to it all. I also ask for suggestions on what to make next. I like to think of it as a true collaboration.”
Hegge said he’s prepping a new batch of mixed culture sours to release soon and will be opening up his home brewery for an event this fall, giving customers the opportunity to stop by, try new creations and purchase them straight from the source.
For more, visit www.wildoakproject.com.