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