Thirty miles south of Bellingham, Washington, where you find fresh air from the Salish Sea converging with alluvial soil and glacial water flowing from the rugged and volcanic North Cascades, a zymological wonder is in the works. It has taken more than a year, but Garden Path Fermentation has finally landed on a location, and a dream is beginning to come to fruition.
I recently met with Garden Path owners Ron Extract and Amber Watts, and they shared how things are progressing and how they plan to produce hand-crafted beer, cider, wine, mead, and other fermented products that showcase the natural resources of Skagit Valley.
Since deciding to leave Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas (Extract was one of Jester King’s managing partners from early on, and Watts wore many hats, including helping to run the tasting room and front office) to start their own project, the couple’s dream has involved three aspects: to create a destination farmhouse brewery that grows a large portion of its own ingredients; to make beer, cider, wine, and mead solely from their own crops and other locally grown products; and to build a tasting room where you and all your loved ones can enjoy a peaceful afternoon in the majestic countryside while drinking all its fermented bounties.
Extract and Watts chose Skagit Valley for its beauty and because it is one of the few places in the country – maybe the world – where everything you need to make beer grows naturally. The area also features some of the most fertile soil on earth and it has a gentle enough climate to support natural fermentation without the need for temperature control.
Finding an ideal farm location with the proper zoning, water rights, and commercial-grade wastewater capabilities, however, proved challenging. The location they recently decided on may not be the farmhouse destination of their dreams (that will come later), but it sufficiently solves their needs for now, and it enables them to get things started soon. The building offers lots of space for many tanks, barrels, and foeders, as well as a separate tasting room and bottle shop, plus it has an outdoor area for a beer garden, next to a stand of trees.
Conveniently, the location is in the heart of the Port of Skagit’s “Brewing Zone,” which comes with some great neighbors, including Chuckanut Brewery (South Nut location), Flyers Restaurant and Brewhouse (Bayview Skagit Airport location), Skagit Valley College’s Cardinal Craft Brewing Academy and Tap Room, Skagit Valley Malting, and The Bread Lab.
Extract and Watts also procured 8.5 acres of nearby farmland, where Saul Phillips, Garden Path’s lead agriculturalist, will soon start taming the land for an apple/pear orchard (for cider and perry), and possibly even a hop yard.
Currently, they’re working hard to finish the building’s interior and install fermentation vessels so that they can begin making wort at Chuckanut’s South Nut location.
Unlike your typical contract-brewing scenario, Garden Path’s brewers will be actively participating in wort production at Chuckanut, using their own specifications and recipes. The wort will then be transferred in stainless steel totes to Garden Path’s building, which is just a stone’s throw away.
And unlike your average sour ale brewery, which typically only uses a few core recipes for all of its different beers, Garden Path’s recipes will be variations on many themes, as well as occasional one-offs.
Garden Path’s true soul, however, resides on the fermentation side. All of its beers will be fermented from a bank of locally cultivated and carefully curated mixed cultures. Garden Path’s lead fermentationist, Jason Hansen, who was formerly the head brewer of Sante Adairius Rustic Ales in Capitola, California, has been busy foraging and cultivating wild yeast and bacteria from the local area over the past year. Garden Path won’t buy any cultivated yeast, nor will it cultivate any yeast from any commercial beers. Everything Garden Path makes will be made with 100% naturally cultivated yeast. It will also produce some spontaneously fermented beers.
The mixed cultures will evolve and change over time, and there will be multiple, concurrent strains. Products will change and present differently, whether they’re served young or old. Some batches will be split, with a portion served young and a portion destined for aging. Some batches will be blended.
“Editing will be a huge part of our job,” Watts says. “Our yeast is going to be slightly unpredictable, but we will not release anything until it’s something that we’d want to drink. It will be hard, though, because we’re going to have to dump some stuff, and some batches are going to take months if not years longer than expected [to finish].”
Of course, this is all par for the course when making beers of this nature, and industry veterans Extract and Watts not only understand the process, they passionately celebrate it. In fact, the name Garden Path partially stems from the idea that a garden path is an indirect way to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a scenic route that often leads you somewhere unexpected. Mixed-culture products take time to ferment, and if you’re patient, their complex flavor profiles will take your palate for a ride “down the garden path” to a place you may not have thought you’d end up.
“I think our beers will surprise some people who think they know what to expect from us,” Extract says. “A lot of what we intend to explore is kind of the softer, cleaner, more delicate side of mixed fermentation. We love complexity and nuance, and we love beers that are relatively clean. If you were to taste some of our test batches, you probably wouldn’t identify them as mixed fermentation. The funk and tartness may be below the surface. Which isn’t to say we won’t occasionally do things more overtly funky and tart.”
While many craft brewers strive for consistency from one batch to the next, Extract and Watts embrace variation. “Everything we make we view as a work of art – in essence, a work of performance art,” Extract says. “It’s something that is rooted in time in a unique way. Something that exists only once in the way that you’re going to perceive it at that moment. And if you have it again later, you may have another incarnation of it, you may have another rendition of it. Something that’s based on the initial text, but it’s going to be a different performance and presentation.
“For me, that’s what’s exciting about what we do. Every time you taste one of our beers, it’s going to be different. It’s the same recipe, but a different batch. And if it’s the same batch, but from a different time, it’s going to be different. Some brewers might consider that a weakness, but for us it’s a strength.”
It should be noted that variation does not necessarily mean lack of quality control or lack of brewer skill. “Embracing variation doesn’t imply embracing every variation,” Extract says. “It’s still got to be good. That’s why I say consistency of quality versus consistency of product. It’s like going to see a play. You don’t go expecting it to be the exact same performance every time, but you go expecting it to be good. That’s what we’re going to try to do, to present something that is unique, but also exceptional with every presentation.”
“We embrace nature, and yeast is a huge part of that,” Watts adds. “We love watching what it can do and how it changes over time.”
Beyond beer, Extract and Watts also have some ambitious plans for mead (e.g., while many meads out there are either high ABV with fusel alcohol notes or low ABV with heavy sweetness, they have found a way to make dry, low-gravity meads), cider (e.g., they plan to make high-quality cider and perry that highlights the apple/pear varietal characteristics and year-to-year vintage differences from their orchard), and wine (when they described a cherry wine they recently made, my mouth instantly began to water, and I’m not even a huge wine fan).
“We are taking on a lot,” Extract admits, “but converting sugar to alcohol is essentially the same process whether we’re feeding our ‘bugs’ wort, honey, must, fruit juice, or whatever. We’re a yeast-focused brewery and we’ll be serving as curators – tasting, aging, blending, and seeing what works.”
Extract and Watts plan to start brewing by the end of this year, and they hope to open their tasting room and bottle shop early 2018 – most likely before their own products are ready to sell. “We want to share this place we love with the rest of the world, through our products, and by inviting everyone to our tasting room to experience it themselves.”