If you’ve been following our journey since the beginning, you’ll probably understand how exciting it is for us to announce that we’re now serving both house-made beer and house-made mead on draught in our tasting room, with bottles to follow soon!
Our first house-made beer, The Experimental Spund, was tapped on Wednesday, July 11. As its name implies, it was an experiment—one of many we’ve done—that we thought turned out really nicely, but of which we only had a single five-gallon keg. By Thursday afternoon, the Experimental Spund was gone.
The following day, however, Friday, July 13, exactly three months after opening our tasting room for the first time, we served our first full production beer: The Garden Paths Led to Flowered. “Flowered” was made by blending a hoppy blonde ale, open fermented with our native Skagit yeast culture in one of our beautiful oak foudres, with barrel-aged beer, dry-hopping it with a blend of Pacific Northwest hops, and then naturally conditioning it with Skagit honey. This sounds complicated, but, to us, it’s a process that allows our yeast to flourish and develop subtle, balanced character over time.
Our native Skagit yeast is at the heart of our fermentation program and is or will be used not only to make beer, but also mead, cider, perry, wine, and possibly other fermented beverages, with our first experimental batch of mead, “The Dry Table Mead” also now available on draft in our tasting room—for as long as it lasts.
The Dry Table Mead was made using only fireweed honey purchased from The Valley’s Buzz in Concrete, WA and municipal water from the Judy reservoir, fermented in a single upright oak barrel with our house culture. The initial batch was roughly 200 liters (52.8 gallons). From that initial batch, four 30-liter (7.9 gallon) kegs were filled prior to the completion of fermentation, so that they would become naturally effervescent as a result of the final fermentation—the same technique winemakers use to make pétillant naturel or pét-nat wines. Of the remaining mead, about one-third was racked on top of 2.5 lb/gallon of fresh, local strawberries, and allowed to ferment to dryness, before being transferred to two 20-liter kegs, one of which we plan to serve in our taproom sometime soon and the other which we’ll be presenting next weekend with our friends from B. Nektar Meadery at Ferndalepalooza. The rest of the initial batch of The Dry Table Mead served as a starter for a second, larger batch, following the same recipe, which we will also bottle when it’s ready.
In addition to The Garden Paths Led to Flowered, four other beers have been packaged thus far, with two more being packaged today. All will ultimately be sold in both bottles and on draught, but all are also exceedingly small runs, which will be sold primarily in our tasting room and at small number of off-site venues and events. As it stands, only Flowered and The Dry Table Mead are ready, but we anticipate that some of the others will follow fairly soon.
The yeast we use in all of our fermentations is the result of more than a year of curation and cultivation, and, staying true to our mission of locally sourcing all ingredients, it’s all native Skagit yeast. We began our yeast experiments by taking fresh wort (unfermented beer) and leaving it outside in the air to attract yeast. We also added flowers, berries, and other flora we foraged locally to other small mason jars of wort and allowed them to ferment. The most delicious and active cultures were combined, propped up, and naturally selected, largely by our former Lead Fermentationist Jason Hansen, to become a dynamic, saccharomyces (beer yeast) dominant culture that thrives on the ingredients we’re using and the climate we’re in. Many beers made with a mixed culture (not a single yeast strain) tend towards the tart and funky. Despite the multiple organisms active in our fermentations, however, our yeast expresses as estery, floral, and pretty quaffable—but elegant and complex.
Our beers start with wort we brew at Chuckanut Brewery South, our next-door neighbors, and transport back to our facility in stainless steel totes. Our first several batches underwent primary fermentation in these same totes, prior to being transferred to oak barrels, while the primary fermentation for subsequent batches has taken place in open-top oak foudres.
Open fermentation is wonderful for yeast, especially a culture as diverse and dynamic as our native Skagit culture. Our yeast is very active, and fermentation takes off, sometimes very excitedly, within a few hours. Once we’re experiencing an active fermentation and the beer has reached high kräusen (in other words, it’s really foamy), we’ll leave the foudre open for 48 hours or so. In an open vessel, the yeast isn’t under pressure, can interact with oxygen, and can burn off some off-flavors/odors like sulfur. After the kräusen has diminished, we’ll put a lid on the foudre and allow the fermentation to finish in a closed vessel. At this point in time, all of our beers and meads begin with open fermentation in oak.
Once the beer is fully attenuated (has little residual sugar left to ferment), we may transfer it to horizontal oak barrels of various sized and pedigrees for additional secondary fermentation and aging, we may use it to top off existing barrels, or we may move it back into stainless steel where, in most cases, we’ll also blend it with at least a small portion of older, barrel-aged beer. Very little of what we produce follows a direct, linear path from recipe to finished product, instead going through an extended regimen of fermentation, blending, aging, and more blending prior to packaging, even more aging, and, finally, release.
The beer that served as the base for The Garden Paths Led to Flowered was brewed using mostly Pilot malt, with some acidulated malt and raw wheat, all from our neighbors down the road at Skagit Valley Malting, with the addition of Willamette, Perle, and Mount Hood hops from the greater Pacific Northwest. In this particular case, half of the batch went into barrels, while the other half went into stainless for dry-hopping with Tettnang, Sterling, and Cascade hops. After about a week, that beer was then blended with 20 gallons of an earlier batch of open-fermented blonde ale that had spent more time in barrels, and then packaged.
All of our products at Garden Path are naturally conditioned, which means that all carbonation comes naturally from fermentation. Before packaging, we need to add a sugar source to restart the yeast. Many breweries that naturally condition their products will add commercial-grade dextrose; however, as Skagit County is lacking a dextrose farm, we are using local blackberry honey from The Valley’s Buzz as our primer. On packaging day, June 29, we blended the beer in a stainless tank, added honey, recirculated everything in the tank, and then bottled and kegged the beer, filling a total a total of 771 750ml bottles, and a dozen each 20- and 30-liter kegs. Natural conditioning takes some time, so the beer was first tapped in our tasting room a few weeks later. The bottles are also tasting great, and we’ll release them as soon as we have labels in house!