Garden Path Fermentation Updates All

It occurred to us that, while we’ve been posting regular updates on Facebook and Instagram (and somewhat less regular updates on Twitter), it’s been a while since we’ve updated out blog and quite a lot has happened since!

Back in early September, we announced the release of our first bottles, The Garden Paths Led To Flowered, as well as the debut of The Curious Mix Methods, The Subtle Blend Raspberry Barrels, The Fruitful Barrel Boysenberries, and our first batch of The Dry Table Strawberry Mead on draught.  (In retrospect, though we announced it in social media,  it appears we neglected to mention the earlier draught release of The Dry Hopped Streams Well anywhere in our blog).  In the weeks following our last post, we have since released The Curious Mix Methods and The Dry Table Mead in 750ml bottles, The Fruitful Barrel Boysenberries in 375ml bottles, a new batch of The Dry Table Strawberry Mead on draught and a multitude of new draught beers, including The Fruitful Barrel Tayberries & Cherries; a variety of single-keg experimental brews; The Easygoing Drink, a lightly tart almost-but-not-quite table beer; The Wet Hopped Ship, made with freshly picked whole flower Skagit Valley hops from Hop Skagit; and most recently, this past weekend, The Subtle Blend Montmorency Barrels.

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The Subtle Blend Montmorency Barrels

Back in June, we put 72lb of whole, unpitted Montmorency cherries from a local farm in La Conner, WA into an oak puncheon with approximately 125 gallons of beer from select barrels that we felt would round out and complement the character of the fruit.  This is not a particularly high ratio as fruit refementations go, but our goal was to integrate the baking spice profile for which Montmorency is known into the already complex and flavorful barrel-aged beer in a way that would complement it without overpowering it, keeping the beer itself as the focal point of the blend.  After 10 days contact time, we racked the beer off the fruit and blended in additional barrel-aged beer, which we felt further rounded and balanced the character that the fruited portion has developed.  This blend, totaling a little over 200 gallons, was then primed with blackberry honey from The Valley’s Buzz and transferred to kegs and bottles for conditioning.

All of our products are packaged unfiltered, unpasteurized, and without force carbonation.  Rather than injecting CO2 prior to packaging, we instead add a small amount of local honey, which our yeast then ferments, resulting in a buildup of CO2 inside the bottle or keg. This process is far more time consuming than simply injecting CO2 into the finished beer.  Whereas force-carbonated beer is ready to drink as soon as it comes off the packaging line, natural conditioning through refermentation in the bottle or keg takes at least a few weeks and sometimes much longer, depending on how the process unfolds. When working with a native culture containing a diverse community of organisms rather than an isolated single-strain lab yeast, there’s also a risk that it may not unfold exactly as expected.  A given product may smell and taste great prior to packaging, but then develop unpleasant flavors or aromas during the conditioning process which can take weeks, months, or even years to work through. In in the worst case scenario, they may never go away, resulting in what had once been a beautiful product never seeing the light of day.  In the case of The Subtle Blend Montmorency Barrels, after a few weeks conditioning, we recognized a specific compound that had developed during conditioning and detracted from the balance and overall presentation that we’d hoped to achieve.  We knew from past experience that our house culture would eventually metabolize this compound given enough time, but unfortunately, we had no idea how much time that would require, so our only option was to set it aside and be patient.  Thee months later, our patience paid off; the offending compound was gone and as of this weekend, we were able to release the beer.

Meanwhile, in early September, our crew ventured about 5 miles south to help our friends Amy and Byron of Hop Skagit pick roughly 100 pounds of fresh whole flower Cascade and Comet hops, which we brought back to Garden Path. We placed them in our coolship, where they steeped overnight in hot wort as it slowly cooled to fermentation temperature.  In the morning, the wort was racked off the hops and added to the other half of the batch, which had already begun fermenting in an open foudre with our house culture of native Skagit Valley yeast.  After primary fermentation, the young beer was transferred from the oak foudre to stainless steel tanks for secondary fermentation.  Once secondary fermentation was complete, it was then sent to our blending tank, where we added a small portion of mature barrel-aged beer for complexity and balance, and dosed the blend with Skagit blackberry honey for natural conditioning in the keg and bottle.  The Wet Hopped Ship was packaged on September 28 and released on draught in our tasting room four weeks later.  A bottle release will follow soon.

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Hop coolship

Blending, like natural conditioning, is an integral part of our process at Garden Path Fermentation.   In embracing nature as we do,  we’re not striving for perfect repeatability or consistency of presentation,  Instead, we look at every presentation of each of our products as a unique live performance that, by its nature, is fundamentally unrepeatable.  It’s our job, however, to ensure that every performance is one of which we can be proud, which we do through a process or curating, editing, and blending what we produce and by refusing to release anything that doesn’t ultimately make the cut.  When we brew a batch of beer, we’re not typically making what’s intended to be a finished product on its own; we’re making one of what may be several components in a blend.  For some blends, such as The Wet Hopped Ship, we’ll use fresh beer as the foundation, adding in some older beer for complexity and balance, while for others, we’ll start with a blend of older barrels as the base and possibly round out with a portion of younger beer. Rarely, does a single brew day or a single recipe translate directly to a single finished beer, with, as our name suggests, most of our fermentations following more of a garden path.  One exception, however, is The Easygoing Drink.

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The Easygoing Drink

In mid August, we brewed a batch of low-gravity, lightly hopped wort at Chuckanut Brewery  using barley and wheat malt and unmalted wheat, rye, and oats, all purchased from Skagit Valley Malting, with a modest addition of Pacific Northwest crystal hops from Crosby Hop Farms in the kettle. After prepping, boiling and cooling the wort, we transported it a third of a mile up the road to our facility, where it was transferred to an open foudre for primary fermentation.  The following week, half the young beer was transferred to oak puncheons and the other half to a stainless steel tank for conditioning.  Just a couple of weeks later, we found that the beer in both the puncheons and the stainless tank had developed rather nicely, in a way that we also felt was highly complementary.  After testing a few potential blends involving older barrels, we decided that our favorite was actually a direct reintegration of the original components, so that was what we went with.  The Easygoing Drink was released on draught in our tasting room on October 10.  Bottles will follow.

The draught release of The Easygoing Drink was quickly followed that same weekend by our first pre-announced, on-site only bottle release–The Fruitful Barrel Boysenberries, which is still available in limited quantities in our tasting room, along with bottles of The Garden Path Led To Flowered, The Curious Mix Methods, and The Dry Table Mead.

Finally, for those who are able to make it out to our tasting room, we’ve also begun offering some of our one off, single keg experiments, for as long as they last.  We’re currently pouring an early test batch made using NZ-151 pale malt from Skagit Valley Malting as a base.  In addition to showcasing the distinctive malt character of the NZ-151, it also offers a good representation of the baking spice aromatics that were typical of our earlier fermentations, but that have since transitioned to more herbal and floral notes.  Whether this a seasonal change that we’ll see shift back as we progress further into winter or a permanent evolutionary shift in the microbial community that makes up our house culture remains to be seen.

This is a lot of information for one post! We’ll try to be better about more frequent detailed updates–there’s only so much you can say in a single Instagram post.