Now on Tap: The Prime Barrel Age, One of Six New GPF Bottle Releases

On Saturday, December 15, we’ll be releasing six bottles, including a new beer! The Prime Barrel Age, our first 100% mature barrel blend, will be available both on tap and in bottles in our Tasting Room, along with five other new bottles–The Dry Hopped Streams Well, The Wet Hopped Ship, The Easygoing Drink, The Subtle Blend Raspberry Barrels, and The Subtle Blend Montmorency Barrels.  We set the official release for all six for Saturday, so as to give our packaging team enough time to get everything labeled, but thanks to the heroic effort they’ve put in over the last couple of days, we’ll have limited quantities of all six available beginning today.  When you come by to pick some up, be sure to thank Keyla and John for all their hard work.

Now, about the beer… The Prime Barrel Age is a blend of five barrels plus a little extra from one of our horizontal foudres (previously owned by American Solera).  The components were selected by Jason Hansen, our former Lead Fermentationist, and blended together on July 26, for packaging the following day.  As we do with all of our beers, we added a small amount of local blackberry honey from The Valley’s Buzz in Concrete, WA just prior to packaging, to provide our house culture of native Skagit Valley yeast a source of sugar to break down, causing natural carbonation to develop inside the bottle and keg.  In the case of The Prime Barrel Age, although the beer was fully carbonated and presenting nicely within a few weeks of packaging, we felt that it would benefit from additional aging. Rather than releasing it right away, we decided to hold onto it in our cellar, sampling it periodically, until we felt it had developed the complexity, nuance, and depth of character we were looking for.  The end result, while still restrained, balanced, and highly drinkable, is the most overtly oaky, tart, and barnyardy of any of our beers to date. 

The label for The Prime Barrel Age was designed and illustrated by our Operations Lead, Jacob Grisham, who also designed and illustrated the labels for for The Wet Hop Ship, The Easygoing Drink, The Subtle Blend Raspberry Barrels, The Subtle Blend Montmorency Barrels, and The Dry Table Mead.  Jacob also designed, laid out, and colored the label for The Dry Hopped Streams Well; however, in this case, the original artwork was provided by Scout Caldwell, our former Tasting Room Lead, who also created the illustrations for The Garden Paths Led To Flowered and The Curious Mix Methods, as well as the wall mural and most of the artwork in our Tasting Room.

We began pouring The Dry Hopped Streams Well on draught back in August, as our second beer and third product overall, following The Garden Paths Led To Flowered and The Dry Table Mead .  “Streams”, as we like to call it, was made from a light, hoppy, native yeast, foudre-fermented base, blended with roughly 14% mature, barrel-aged beer, dry-hopped with a generous dose of Pacific Northwest whole leaf Cascade and Sterling, and naturally conditioned with Skagit blackberry honey from The Valley’s Buzz.  Streams was designed as a Northwestern tribute to some of our favorite light, dry, hoppy Belgian ales, including those made by our friends Yvan De Baets and Bernard Leboucq at Brasserie De La Senne.

When it first debuted, the dry hops in The Dry Hops Streamed Well were, as its name suggests, definitely the star of the show.  As it’s matured, however, it has developed a more delicate and sophisticated balance, with the hops–while still firmly present–becoming more deeply integrated, and the character of our native Skagit Valley yeast beginning to show through somewhat more.

The bottle releases of The Subtle Blend Montmorency Barrels, The Wet Hopped Ship, and The Easygoing Drink follow their recent draft releases, as detailed in our previous blog post.

The Subtle Blend Raspberry Barrels was first released in late August.  Additional details about it can be found in our September blog post

It wasn’t necessarily our intent when we brewed these six beers to release all of the bottles at once, but when partnering with nature as we do and giving each product the time it needs, this was how the stars happened to align this week, and we couldn’t be more excited to send all of these products out into the world!

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.

Our Journey Down The Garden Path: Part II

by Ron Extract

This is part two of a four part series, originally published in the Summer 2017 “Kung Fu” Issue of CRAFT by Under My Host.

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Tulip Town, Skagit Valley, Washington

May 2017

Spring is a magical time in Washington’s Skagit Valley. Expansive emerald fields surround rows of brightly colored tulips and daffodils with views of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east and the San Juan Islands to the west. It’s easy to understand how a place like this could inspire the sort of romantic dream that led my partner, Amber Watts, and I to come here to start Garden Path Fermentation. We imagined our own stretch of farmland, where we could grow and cultivate grains, hops, honey, and fruit, which native microflora would slowly transform into delicious beer, mead, cider, perry, and wine that we would age, curate, blend, and ultimately present to guests on the land from which those ingredients had sprung. Our focus remains firmly fixed on this vision, but as we have begun to make our way toward it, we’ve also gained a clearer perspective of some of the obstacles that could stand in our way.

Part of our long-term vision also involves transforming local agricultural products into food, which we see as an integral component of the type of agritourism destination that we hope to build. Whether this is something that the county considers an allowable use of what it has designated Agricultural Natural Resource Land, however, remains something of an open question. The Skagit County Code specifically allows for agricultural accessory use, including “activities associated with tourism which promote local agriculture.” Although there are many residents and public officials within the county who support our project, there are also those who are nervous about applying the provision in this way. We had begun what could have a been a six-month long process to seek an official ruling from the county about whether this was something that we would be allowed to do at our prospective site. Unfortunately, for reasons having nothing to do with zoning, the process has not yet made it that far.

When moving to northwest Washington from central Texas, water availability is not something that we had initially given a great deal of thought. Even in a place with a relative abundance of rain, however, seasonal and annual variations can have a significant impact on the water level in area rivers, streams, and lakes, which, in turn, can affect the habitat of local fish and wildlife, causing ripple effects on the surrounding ecosystem. In order to safeguard against this, the state Department of Ecology has put a number of rules and regulations in place, including an Instream Flow Rule, specific to the Skagit River Basin, enacted in 2001. This rule was modified in 2006, following a challenge by Skagit County, but then bolstered in 2011 in response to a successful lawsuit by the Swinomish Tribe. The end result is a complex regulatory framework that can be more difficult to navigate than the rivers and streams it’s designed to protect, leaving many local landowners uncertain as to what is and is not allowed. When we first began our property search, our attorney warned us that water rights were something that we needed to be aware of and look into, so we made a point to inquire about them prior to entering into a contract. It wasn’t until much later, however, that we began to comprehend the complexity of the issue and realized that, although the property did have the right to draw from an onsite well, that right did not extend to our intended use. We considered alternatives such as rainwater collection, trucking in municipal water, or even connecting to the nearest water supply but, unfortunately, none of these proved viable, and the lack of available water ultimately left us no choice but to opt out of our contract during the feasibility contingency phase and to look for another site.

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The Upper Skagit River, North Cascades National Park

Zoning issues aside, if water availability hadn’t killed the deal on what we’d thought would be our location, wastewater handling very well might have. Municipal sewers in Skagit County don’t extend far beyond the main city centers, which, themselves, are quite small. Everything else relies on onsite septic. We had dealt with a septic system in Texas, but as is the case with water sourcing, the rules pertaining to wastewater treatment and disposal are different here. When we began looking into what we would need to do in order to make it work, the recurring piece of advice that we received was not to bother and to look for something on a public sewer system instead. As heeding this advice in Skagit County would almost certainly mean sacrificing the agricultural character and setting that brought us here in the first place, we looked further into what the alternative would entail. We discovered it would mean at least $60K to upwards of $600K of additional infrastructure, depending on the specifics of the site. At a certain point, not far from the low end of that range, this quickly starts to become less than feasible, given both the budget with which we have to work and the projected cash flow, once we’re up and running.

Waste management is perhaps the least romantic thing that one needs to think about when planning to open a brewery, but it is something that needs to be addressed, regardless of what size brewery you’re going to open, or where it’s going to be. As it stands, there are certainly plenty of breweries that wash everything from sour beer to hot caustic to grain down the drain without giving significant thought to its impact, and plenty of municipalities that allow them to do so, but this is something that is quickly starting to change. King County, which encompasses Seattle, the city with the most breweries of any in the U.S., recently instituted new regulations requiring any breweries producing 3000 or more barrels per year or going through 1000 gallons or more of wastewater per day to sidestream and treat its wastewater before sending it into the public sewer. More such regulations are likely to follow. Even with rules requiring pretreatment of municipal sewage become increasingly common, however, working with self-contained, onsite septic systems still presents an additional layer of complication and expense that breweries would do best to avoid, if they can.

“Finding what we think will be an ideal location was a relief,” Amber wrote in our last installment. Realizing that that location was not ideal and ultimately having to walk away from it, six months after we first came across it and three months after entering into a contract, and then having to start all over again, came as a serious blow. Building on an industrial site with appropriate zoning and all the necessary public utilities would certainly make our lives a lot easier, but it also wouldn’t have the character we’re looking for and wouldn’t be the agritourism destination farm brewery/cidery/meadery/winery that we came here to build. Even if we were to go the industrial route, that’s still no guarantee that we wouldn’t face some of the same issues. While discussing the loss of our initial site, Chad Kuehl of Wander Brewing in Bellingham told us: “Finding a location is no doubt the most difficult and stressful part of opening a brewery. One would never think that is the case, but it was for us, and I have heard others say the same. We were fairly far along on four other sites (letters of intent signed), and they all fell through before our current site worked out.” Discouraging as it is to consider, the same could easily happen to us, and is perhaps more likely to happen to us, given the more difficult path we’ve chosen to take.

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Diablo Lake, Upper Skagit River, Washington

We’ve put in an offer on another site, more centrally located than the first, on a stretch of fertile farmland in the heart of the valley, with classic Skagit views. It’s on municipal water, thus alleviating any concern regarding water rights, but like the original property, it’s zoned as Agricultural Natural Resource Land and relies on onsite septic, so even if the current owners accept our offer, those are still issues with which we’ll have to contend.

When we first announced our project, we said that we would be opening sometime in 2017. At the time, we thought that gave us a nice buffer and were, in our own minds, thinking that we would most likely be up and running by spring. Now spring is drawing to a close, and we still find ourselves without a definitive site, hoping, somewhat optimistically, that we’ll have one and be able to start brewing by the end of the year. Meanwhile, well-meaning friends and industry colleagues continue to ask, “How’s the new project coming along?”, and, fending off the initial sting of the question, we continue to answer, “Slowly but surely, we’re making progress,” hoping that indeed we are. Fortunately, we have a plan to keep things moving forward, even if our current prospective site doesn’t work out. More on that next time.

Continue to Part III on our blog

Or read it in the Fall  2017 “Fantasy/Sci-Fi” issue of CRAFT by Under My Host.21457441_1449297701817068_2607881550985896646_o