Curiouser and Curiouser
We are inspired by so many things when it comes to making beer: old-world brewing traditions; the multitude of ingredients that grow in our little valley; our robust house culture of native yeast; subtlety, nuance, and the unexpected; and, ultimately, the magic of fermentation itself. All of the products we make reflect these inspirations in their own ways, but probably the most “Garden Path” of our beers is The Curious Mix Methods series, which explores multiple fermentation methods in each unique edition.
We ferment the majority of our products with our house native yeast culture—a community of organisms cultivated from flowers, berries, and the air around our home and brewery in Burlington, Washington. There are exceptions, though. Many of our wines and ciders are fermented with the native yeast from the fruit itself. And, of course, as lovers of old-world brewing techniques, we especially love spontaneous fermentation, using a coolship full of boiling wort to capture wild yeast from the air and then letting it slowly ferment and age in oak until the beer is ready for blending.
Spontaneous fermentation feels like magic, and it produces some of the most delicious, nuanced, complex beers on the planet. As such, it’s rightfully been given a privileged position in the brewing world, particularly because of true lambic breweries in the Zenne Valley of Belgium. We’re not in Belgium, and we’ll never make something we call “lambic” at Garden Path out of our deep respect to these producers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore some of the same techniques as lambic brewers and blenders. In fact, without hot summers and hard freezes in winter, northwest Washington has an ideal climate for spontaneous fermentation almost year-round. However, our location also means that we’re not bound to the same traditions and rules as our Belgian counterparts The Curious Mix Methods is an exploration of what happens when we bend the rules, when spontaneously fermented beer meets our house culture in as many ways as we can think of, every batch combining them with new and interesting methods.
We began using our coolship (a shallow vessel used for yeast capture in spontaneous fermentation) in May of 2018, shortly after we were officially licensed as a brewery. It’s not the most traditional coolship—instead of a majestic copper wading pool in a wood-beamed brewing chapel, it’s a repurposed dairy vat on wheels we purchased from a scrapyard in Wisconsin ($2000 delivered! Can’t beat the price! Still works!). While May is traditionally a little late to be using the coolship for spontaneous fermentation, our mild spring weather put us into the acceptable temperature range on May 1. The brewhouse at Chuckanut, where we make our wort, is 20bbls, and our coolship only holds 10bbls, so we split the batch. Half went through a heat exchanger and then into one of our stainless steel totes. We transported the other half hot, and transferred it into the coolship where it rested in the brewery overnight, capturing yeast and bacteria from the air. The coolship wort then went into barrels, where we let it rest for several years. At least most of it did.
Our first and second editions of The Curious Mix Methods originated partially from that first spontaneous batch. For the first, we wanted to explore what would happen if we fermented a beer simultaneously with both our house culture and spontaneous wort. The stainless tote of cooled wort was left unpitched until the next morning, when we added a portion of wort from the coolship along with a small amount of our house yeast. After primary co-fermentation in the open tote, the beer was then transferred to barrels for an extended secondary fermentation. Before packaging, we blended a non-spontaneous, older barrel-aged golden ale into the beer, primed with honey, and let the beer naturally condition for several weeks before its release in September 2018. The end result was a beer with a slightly funky, lambic-like nose—a slight misdirect for a beer with a clean, bright, citrusy palate—thanks to the multiple forms of fermentation in the process.
The second edition, released in May 2019, also originated from that same coolship batch. After using some of the coolship wort for the beer that eventually became the first edition, we filled two freshly washed 225L barrels, along with a 600L puncheon that had previously held the very first beer we’d ever made at Garden Path (later to be named Our First Take Time), which we’d transferred out earlier that day, leaving a good bit of yeast residue behind. Unlike our experience with most spontaneously fermented beers, where fermentation doesn’t noticeably take off for at least a few days (if not longer), this co-ferment puncheon began to krausen within 24 hours. We called it our “helper puncheon,” because the barrel yeast bolstered the completely wild yeast from the coolship into a complex base. After six months of primary and secondary fermentation in the puncheon, we blended the beer with some brettanomyces-forward beer from one of our closed foudres, as well as some younger barrel-aged beer, before packaging with honey for natural conditioning. Like the first edition, this co-fermented beer’s nose leads the drinker down a garden path of sorts; the funky, barnyardy nose from the spontaneously fermented beer mellows somewhat unexpectedly into a clean, rich, approachable palate with notes of lemon and mango and the slightest hint of tartness.
We took a different approach for our third edition of Curious: instead of co-fermentation, we focused on blending aged spontaneous and pitched beers. The base of Curious 3 was two barrels of a blonde rye beer brewed on January 3 of 2019 with our house culture, which was then blended with two barrels of a spontaneously fermented beer brewed on January 10, 2019. The blend was rounded out with some younger beer from our two horizontal foudres (which we call our brett foudres, as they’re our main source of brettanomyces in our barrel house). This beer, a blend of finished native yeast, spontaneous, and house brett fermentations, naturally conditioned with honey, was slightly funkier and more tart than the first two versions, but still with a palate that was “cleaner” than expected for a multi-method fermentation beer.
This Friday, June 4, we will release our fourth edition of The Curious Mix Methods in our taproom, blended and packaged in November 2020. Curious 4 is one of the more eclectic blends we’ve ever released. A good portion of the base is a blend itself, of the last batch of spontaneous beer brewed in the 2019/2020 season, and a cooled portion of the base of our fresh hop beer The Wet Hopped Ship (minus the wet hops!) that was inoculated with spontaneous wort in the fall of 2020. To this blend, we added a single, very oaky, barrel of hoppy blonde ale brewed in June of 2018, a barrel of “solera beer” (a blend of several batches of beer from the previous few months), and a special 2020-Covid-era addition: approximately 5bbls of Curious 3. The result is a beer comprised of multiple ages and multiple types and stages of fermentation (native yeast, spontaneous, solera-ed, foudred, blended, naturally conditioned), that drinks with as much nuance as the blend is varied. With notes of oak, stonefruit, and earthiness on the nose, the palate is soft and rounded, with hints of tropical fruit, and a lightly tart finish. A wonderful food beer, The Curious Mix Methods. 4th Ed. makes us crave goat cheese, summer risotto, and strawberry rhubarb pie.
A garden path is a scenic way to get somewhere you may not have imagined you’d end up; this very curious series of beers takes its own strange and wonderful path to an unexpected but beautiful place.