Treasure Trove – Astoria’s American Chestnuts

In celebration of Treasure Trove, a very unique Chestnut Porter, come with us into the land of Chestnuts.

A lot of labor and love and trial and error go into every pint we pour at the Fort. We have specialty malts and the finest hops but what makes this brew (the Chestnut Porter) so special is the chestnut. We’re unaccountably lucky to have been able to make this flavorful, creamy, enticing seasonal porter for the second year in a row with more than 30 pounds of wild-foraged, hand-roasted American Chestnuts. That might not mean a lot to those unfamiliar with the story of the American Chestnut, but it’s nothing short of a miracle that these chestnuts landed on our loading dock the last two years. And all of the hard work was done by one man – Bob Ellsberg, an author, coach, and old friend of the Fort. Bob gathered each and every chestnut that went into Treasure Trove from just a handful of spots around Youngs Bay.

Pint of Porter in a branded Pint glass - in front of a brick wall
Treasure Trove – a Chestnut Porter brewed with 30 lbs of wild-foraged, hand-processed American Chestnuts

THE AMERICAN CHESTNUT

There was a time when the American Chestnut Tree was the most ubiquitous tree on the East Coast. Before the turn of the last century, one in four trees in Appalachia was an American Chestnut. The Chestnut was the Cradle to Grave tree. The huge, thick trunk of the tree yielded massive boards of a rich and glowing yellow hardwood that generations of Americans would form into cradles, desks, drawers and tables. Gloriously hearty and packed with carbohydrates and protein, the fruit of the trees fed and grew those same generations – by feeding an ecosystem’s worth of game in the mountains, or by the nut meat gathered and processed to last the winter, used to fatten livestock and even milled into flour. Felled trunks of old trees formed the foundations of houses and barns. When a body the chestnut rocked, fed, and housed ultimately died, it was laid to rest in a virtually impervious chestnut coffin (chestnut wood is rich in tannins and resistant to rot).

The end of the American Chestnut Tree is in the story of a heartbreaking first. The first non-native eastern chestnut trees landed on this continent after months at sea in 1904 to be planted at a zoological park in New York.

FIRSTS

Though we humans have been on this continent for centuries, on the shores of this river for eons, in this city for decades and at the Fort George we’ve been in this old building for many years, we still live in a world of firsts. The first bridge to stretch across the widest point of the Columbia River was only completed in 1966. A few years ago in 2021, we experienced the first two consecutive days over 100 degrees for the first time since we began recording temperatures in this area.

Many of the imported chestnut varieties are immune to the airborne fungus they carry, but American Chestnuts are not. Their first introduction to Chestnut Blight was a disaster. From 1904 to 1940 the devastating disease swept from forest to forest across the East Coast, infecting and killing every mature American Chestnut it touched. The American Chestnut Tree is a distant memory where it was once most prosperous, extinct in nearly all of its native range (except for lingering root stock which can never mature because of the blight’s persistence in the ecosystem).

On the East Coast, we wait for another first – the first blight-resistant American Chestnut crop. A dozen or more organizations are collecting and dispensing resources and knowledge and sharing their attempts to revive the Authentic American Chestnut. Someday they will succeed.

Wherever there are people, there are firsts. First steps, first words, first jobs, first homes. We mark by firsts whole decades, whole sections of our country and our cultural landscape, whole families. Foods. Farms. Industries. And Trees.

Black and white picture of a man beside a huge chestnut tree in the forest. Tree is around 11 feet in diameter.
A Cradle to Grave Tree, the American Chestnut once sustained an entire ecosystem from squirrels to humans.

A STORY WITH MORE FIRSTS

Many many years ago, during the third or fourth wave of migration to our westernmost corner of Oregon, a few families arrived back to back, settling along the Walluski, Youngs and Lewis & Clark Rivers, in former flood plains where the soil was rich. The Moffits, the Burnsides, other names and families still known here. They were far from the first people, (this land was ages since and is still inhabited by its original stewards), far from the first invaders even. Though these were the first to come with the requisite desperation – hungry mouths and grasping hands  – to spur the transformation of our once edenic wild county into prosperous farmland and tradeland. They brought with them and cultivated the failsafe foods that thrived in their places of origin: the first apples, walnuts, and chestnuts. Insulated and fed by the bountiful resources surrounding them, their numbers grew. Their families joined them, their family’s families, and their family’s family’s families. By 1895, census maps show dozens of occupants per original parcel across the county.

A densely populated river valley in Astoria.

A densely populated river valley bursting with failures. For many firsts are failures. First plantings of crops failed, the first chestnuts never bore viable fruit, saplings were slow to grow, the oaks and walnuts struggled in their new homes. First river dams failed, dikes failed, roads and bridges, docks and pilings failed or fell. Homes, the integrity of hillsides, industries all failed, one after another. Pear orchards, livestock, mythic strains of giant salmon also, inevitably failed. The city of Astoria burned to the ground – twice.

Not that failure ever kept people down for long.

BECAUSE THEY GREW

And all the while, those first failed chestnut plantings grew and grew. Rarely if ever bearing real fruit, they were abandoned, forgotten, covered up or buried beneath stands of alder and evergreens. They grew tall to reach the light, bore no fruit, sometimes a little fruit. Sometimes they fell and they lay where they landed, the tannin-rich wood still well-preserved after decades.

They weren’t meant for the damp, cold coastal climate, they struggled to pollinate each other in the wet and frosty spring. But once in a while, deep in the ever-darkening forests we would clear-cut to build the failing piers and failed roads, the chestnut’s long, glossy shoots would flush, flower and produce a season’s worth of fat, rich fruit. The spring would wake them and in the fall, chestnuts might fall enough to feed the squirrels and the deer.

While the Chestnut Blight erased the American Chestnut on the East Coast, on the West Coast, these chestnuts grew and grew. If they hybridized with other varieties, as chestnuts do, they naturally forged the path to their revival that many are currently seeking to manufacture. If they are purely American Chestnut Trees, as they appear to be, it might be that the blight itself cannot reach this far or thrive in our colder, darker climate.

But whatever way, they grew. And they continue to grow. They are given space by forestry activities that remove their competition. They are planted by their unheeded deadfall and the tireless work of Stellar’s Jay, squirrels and other wildlife. They are warmed by a brace of years marked by global temperature rise and local coastal climate change. They are watered by the cool, humid mists of our marine layer. Some trees are huge, over 120 feet tall. Some of them are spread out over the roads, deep in inaccessible private forests, along the Pipeline Trail, along the bay. Some appear to be over 150 years old!

BOB

After many fruitless decades these massive, thriving lost stands of American Chestnuts are beginning to drop full, fat chestnuts in the fall. And Bob Ellsberg was one of the first to find them again.

He was the first to gather them, process them, taste them – and bring them to us to make a beer.

So thanks for all the chestnuts, Bob. Many thanks for sharing your research, your knowledge and your passion for Astoria’s rare and wonderful American Chestnuts with the Fort. We will continue to do what we always do when someone brings us something nice or novel or new (homegrown Astoria Chestnuts are all three) – make a beer with it, of course.

the branches of a chestnut tree from below looking up into the canopy
The Youngs River Watershed is home to multiple stands of productive chestnut trees.

More about American Chestnuts: 

Henley, Gary 9-12-2022. THE ASTORIAN “Chestnut Trees Thriving on the North Coast.”

Wikipedia: The American Chestnut (castanea dentata).

Davis, D.E. 2005. “Historical Significance of American Chestnut to Appalachian Culture and Ecology.”

​​Backwoods Adventure Blog: The American Chestnut: Cradle to the Grave.

 



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