The New Release the First

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.

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The Garden Paths Led to Flowered

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.

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The Dry Table Mead

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.

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Packaging Flowered

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.

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Wort transfer

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.

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Open fermentation

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!

The Path Our Journey Takes Turns

“A garden path,” we once wrote, “is an indirect way to get from Point A to Point B. It’s the scenic route that, more likely than not, leads you somewhere unexpected.”  The path that brought us to Skagit Valley, to our present site, and to the point where we are now nearly ready to release our first beers, has done exactly that.  When we began our journey almost two years ago, it was just two of us: Amber and Ron, with a very raw vision of what we hoped to achieve.  As we progressed along our path, others joined us, helping us to expand and refine our vision and to navigate unanticipated obstacles.  The team that now comprises Garden Path Fermentation consists of nine incredibly talented individuals, with diverse backgrounds and perspectives and an incredibly broad range of talents, many of which we had no idea we needed when we started, but which we now find it nearly impossible to imagine ourselves without.  Each has been an integral part of what Garden Path Fermentation has become.

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Among these immensely talented and seemingly indispensable individuals is Jacob Grisham, who joined us back in January, first drawing on his prior experience as a general contractor to serve as project lead during our buildout, transforming an ultra-bland industrial space into a warm, welcoming tasting room and bottle shop that vastly exceeds anything we could have envisioned on our own.  Jacob’s contributions have continued well beyond buildout, however–not only building things and ensuring that all of our equipment continues to function, but also drawing on his cidermaking background to jump in on the production side, using his chef’s instincts to help with creative contributions, and serving as a major organizing force within our overall operation.  Now, as we transition to the next phase of our operation, we are delighted to announce that Jacob will be taking on an even greater role, serving as Garden Path Fermentation’s new Operations Lead, which means, essentially, that he’ll be responsible for ensuring that everything that needs to get done gets done and helping to come up with creative ways to improve on what we do.  We can’t wait to see what he’ll do in this capacity.

Also joining us back in January was Matthew Edwards.  Matthew came to us with extensive brewery experience, particularly on the production side (which we knew about), and a knack for woodworking and carpentry (which we did not).  Matthew put in countless hours during buildout, sanding and staining our shelves, tables, benches, counters, and bar and assisting with whatever else needed to be done.  Once production began, Matthew immediately stepped in in that area as well, helping to set schedules; source ingredients, equipment, and supplies; establish standard operating procedures; and generally oversee production.  Once we have an established farm of our own, Matthew’s long-term ambition is to shift his focus to the agricultural side of the operation, but in the meantime, his obvious experience and leadership on the production side makes him a natural fit to serve as Garden Path Fermentation’s Production Lead.

As Matthew and Jacob take on expanded roles, however, we’re sorry to say that another two key members of the Garden Path family, Lead Fermentationist Jason Hansen, and Beertender/Retail Wine Specialist Scout Caldwell will soon be leaving Skagit Valley to make their way to the more urban allure of Portland and, in so doing, leaving their current roles at Garden Path.  Rural life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or pint of beer), and we wish them the very best in their future endeavors.

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Jason filling our very first puncheon

Jason and Scout joined our project early on, well before we had a site for the brewery, and their contributions over the past year and a half have been immense.  Jason has overseen our fermentation program up until this point, developing all of our recipes, overseeing our first blends, and creating fermentation and packaging SOPs.  Even before we had a location, however, he spent over a year developing our Skagitonian yeast culture: curating, cultivating, and continually propping up our small spontaneous and flora-based samples, choosing the most efficient and flavorful, combining them and keeping them alive, and, ultimately, creating the wonderful, active community of microorganisms that comprise the Garden Path house culture.  His imprint will be on our fermentations for as long as we’re brewing.

Scout’s imprint is also (literally) all over our tasting room.  The mural on the wall?  Scout’s.  All the art?  Scout’s.  All the plants?  All the decor?  The wine program?  Thank Scout for those.  She’s worked tirelessly to make our tasting room warm, homey, and welcoming, both in appearance and in practice.  Scout is also hard at work on the labels for our first packaged beers, which we can’t wait to tell you about.

Both Jason and Scout will continue to serve as off-site consultants and members of our advisory board but, unfortunately, as of this week, Jason will no longer be involved in onsite  day-to-day activity and Scout will be working her final tasting room shift this Saturday, July 14.  We will miss them.

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Saul, mini-Saul

In addition to the transitions above, we’ve had some organizational changes on the Agricultural side of our operation, as well.  When Saul Phillips joined us as Lead Agriculturalist, our intent was to build our brewery/winery/cidery/meadery on an active farm.  Unfortunately, as you already know if you’ve been following our journey, several attempts to do this did not pan out and after some time had passed, we were a little concerned about whether we’d have enough to keep Saul busy until we found a farm to call our own.  We knew, though, that our friends at Skagit Valley Malting were looking for someone with a strong agriculture and bioscience background to oversee their quality assurance, so we made the appropriate introductions and suggested that perhaps Saul could step in on a temporary basis, while we continued to search for a suitable agricultural site.  Now, after having thrived in this role for over a year, Saul has become an integral part of the Skagit Valley Malting team, which also works out pretty well for us, given that Skagit Valley Malting supplies us with all of our brewing malt.  It does, however, mean that Saul’s time to assist more directly with our project is somewhat more limited than it was when he first signed on.  Though Saul will continue to serve as highly valued member of our team, including helping out occasionally behind the bar in our tasting room, the role of Lead Agriculturalist will no longer exist as such, with the responsibilities attached to it instead be shared among members of our Ag team, currently consisting of Saul, Matthew, and Jacob.

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On the production and fermentation side, Sam Hutchens, who also joined our team in January, will soon return from his annual fishing trip to Alaska to help out Matthew, Jacob, and Co-Creator/Chief Ron Extract, who, in Jason’s absence, hopes to take on more of a hands-on role.

And in the tasting room, once Scout leaves us, front of house guru Cris Sanchez and Co-Creator/Chief Amber Watts may be putting in some extra hours to help make up for her absence, with a bit of help from Ron, Saul, and Matthew, but you may soon see a few new faces as well.  Of course, the appropriate introductions will follow when the time is right.

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