Our Journey Down the Garden Path: Part III

by Amber Watts

This is part three of a four part series, originally published last August in the Fall 2017 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Issue of CRAFT by Under My Host.

Skagit County Cherries

Cherries at the WSU Mount Vernon research orchard

August 2017

Last fall, I was the lucky recipient of a Pink Boots Society scholarship to attend a class at the Food Craft Institute in Oakland, CA called The Business of Beer. Over the course of a month, a small group of us future brewery owners toured and spoke candidly to the owners of countless Bay Area breweries about their startup stories. They gave us a wealth of incredibly valuable information about the myriad hurdles, setbacks, and successes each founder had encountered on his or her brewery’s journey. The two most common pieces of advice we received about opening a brewery, reiterated in some form by pretty much every speaker, were the following:

  1. Don’t open a brewery.”
  2. If you still want to open a brewery, remember that it will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you’ve planned.”

Clearly, my partner Ron and I are completely ignoring that first piece of advice in our quest to open Garden Path Fermentation. But the second piece of advice is one we unfortunately have come to heed. When we ventured from Austin, Texas to Skagit County, Washington last August, we’d planned on being open in some capacity by this summer.

It’s summer, and we’re not open.

Our dream is to open a destination farmhouse brewery/cidery/meadery/winery in this magical valley in Northwest Washington. We want to grow as many of our own ingredients as we can, work with local farmers to source everything we can’t grow ourselves, and make products that showcase the unique qualities of this region. Key to our vision is an onsite tasting room, where patrons can experience a complete seed-to-glass tasting experience, drinking beer and cider at their ingredients’ source, understanding and falling in love with the terroir of Skagit just as we have.

Obsidian Barley

Skagit Obsidian Barley

As we’ve learned, though, building this experience on a farm here in Skagit is much more difficult than we’d anticipated. We moved here from Texas, where beer laws are incredibly strict but there’s comparatively little regulation regarding rural land use; the opposite is true in Washington, which has some of the friendliest beer laws in the country but much more tightly regulated land and water usage. In our previous installment, Ron wrote about the zoning, water, and waste management issues that have hindered our location search to this point. Unfortunately, our second site also fell through, largely because of what turned out to be a lack of internal consensus among the sellers about whether they were actually ready to sell. Had it gone through, however, we would still have had to deal with the same zoning and septic issues as before, which would have inevitably turned into a long, expensive process. There may be a mystical place in the Valley that will allow us to do everything we want without having to face these issues, but if it does exist, it’s not currently for sale.

We’re not the only ones to have this experience in Northwest Washington. Other brewers with similar visions in the region have given up and started their projects elsewhere. Adam Paysse, one of the founders of Seattle’s Holy Mountain Brewing Company, recently started Floodland Brewing, the first solely mixed fermentation brewery in Washington. Floodland is located in Seattle instead of on a farm northwest of the city, as Adam had originally intended. He had found what seemed like a favorable site in a neighboring county last year, but was discouraged by a county representative who told him they looked very unfavorably on breweries opening in “non-commercial zoning,” and he likely wouldn’t be able to get permitting. Despite the extra expenses—Seattle’s not cheap, y’all—he felt it made a lot more sense to get started in the city and work on the farm down the line. The idea of opening a true farmhouse brewery seems like it should be possible, and welcomed, in Washington, a state that loves its beer just as much as its farms. But it’s far more difficult than it appears.

It’s definitely been difficult for us, and every setback has been disheartening. But we’ve also realized that in order to get open before burning through our entire operating budget and completely losing both our morale and our amazing team, we may have to consider a different type of site than we’d originally envisioned, at least at the start. At this point, we really just want to ferment stuff.

Our plan as it stands now is to lease a somewhat more industrial startup space where we can start making things, open a smaller-scale tasting room, and begin to establish ourselves while we work on building from the ground up on a long-term site. The startup space we’re currently looking at isn’t ideal in a number of ways, including the lack of a sloped floor or floor drains of any kind, and a building that, though surrounded by majestic Washington evergreens, isn’t exactly the most picturesque. However, we’ll be able to start a fermentation program there with minimal initial costs. In the meantime, we also plan to lease some nearby agricultural land to begin the process of growing some of our ingredients. While it’s disappointing that we won’t be able to make our entire vision a cohesive reality right away, we can at least make part of it: delicious, thoughtful Skagit beer, cider, wine, and mead.

The prospect of starting in a temporary space with little drainage, though challenging, is made somewhat more palatable for us than it would be for other brewers, since we plan on starting without a brewhouse. Instead, we’ll make our wort offsite and transport it to our facility in stainless steel totes, which will double as primary fermenters. While getting started, we’re also working with our friends at Skagit Valley Malting, which is actually a state and federally licensed brewery, to start making some test batches on their pilot system using their malt and our yeast.

Skagit Flowers

Some of the Skagit flowers from which we sourced our native microbes

And our yeast! We’re so excited about the yeast! Part of our goal at Garden Path has always been to ferment using only naturally cultivated yeast from the Valley for fermentation, and we’ve been experimenting with yeast capture since we first arrived. Unfortunately, our first capture experiments, involving mason jars of fresh hot wort left overnight in the orchard of our first, failed potential brewery site, only succeeded in capturing and cultivating mold. The failure could have resulted from previous spraying in the orchard, which would limit the amount of live active yeast and bacteria; alternatively, a cheesecloth-covered mason jar may not have offered enough surface area for happy yeast to gather. I prefer to see it as an omen, though, that it wasn’t the right site for our project.

More Skagit Flowers

More lovely Skagit flowers

This spring, we tried again. On one beautiful April day when it felt like every square inch of the Valley was in bloom, Ron and I ventured out with Jason Hansen, our Lead Fermentationist, on a foliage mission. We picked one of every flower we saw—tulips, daffodils, cherry blossoms, dandelions, daisies, rhododendrons, and many “mysteries” from various Washington trees and gardens—and put them in mason jars and kegs of hot wort. That evening, a particularly windy night, we also left a batch of wort outside in a shallow pot overnight to capture wild yeast from the air. Over the next few months, Jason has been brewing small test batches and propping up yeast samples, working to develop what will become the basis of our initial signature Skagit culture.

Cherries

Cherries!

A few weeks ago, we put the yeast to its first real test. We went with our Lead Agriculturalist Saul Phillips to the cherry orchard at Washington State University’s Skagit agricultural extension and picked 50 or so pounds of cherries that Saul selected (mostly NY242, a slightly tart experimental variety). We pressed the cherries, pitched some of our favorite yeast cultures from Jason’s samples, and let the juice and must ferment. After primary fermentation, we racked our cherry wine off the fruit, which we then used, along with the yeast sediment, to start a batch of low-gravity second-use cherry mead.

And I’m so proud of what we’ve made. The wine is complex, slightly tart, slightly funky, and, despite being the most cherry-intense liquid I’ve ever tasted, incredibly easy to drink. The mead is gentle, with a clear honey and cherry character, but with that same yeast complexity. Both are very small batches, too small to release—even if we legally could—but if these are indicative of what we can make, I continue to be very excited about the future.

Cherry Wine

The beginning of our first cherry wine.

This is why we’re willing to take a temporary detour on our site. We want to make world-class beer, wine, cider, and mead, and we want people to be able to drink it. It’s disheartening that they won’t be able to do so under a pavilion on a picturesque Washington farm right away, but we know that will come in time. This is a way to achieve at least part of the goal sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we’re following our own garden path, which, as we should have predicted, isn’t always taking us exactly where we’d anticipated. However, we’re pretty sure it’s leading us somewhere special. Via the scenic route.

 

Read the final installment of our story (for now) in the Winter “Classics” issue of  CRAFT by Under My Host .Image may contain: text

 

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

Our Journey Down the Garden Path

Part I:: Adventures in Brewery Startup

by Amber Watts

This is the first of a four part series, originally published in the Spring 2017 “Spaghetti Western” Issue of CRAFT by Under My Host.

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Amber Watts and Ron Extract, not in Washington

February 2017

Last summer, my life and business partner Ron Extract and I made a very bittersweet announcement: we would be leaving our positions at Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas to start our own project, a destination farm brewery/cidery/meadery/winery in the Pacific Northwest, later to be known as Garden Path Fermentation. In August, we moved from Texas to Skagit County, Washington, and began our startup adventures.

We had already decided to build our brewery in Skagit before we’d ever set foot here. The Skagit Valley, nestled between the North Cascades and the Puget Sound, has a rich agricultural history and is home to some of the most fertile soil on the planet. When we arrived, we were greeted by the lushest, most beautiful landscape we’ve ever seen—which, for us, was a welcome contrast from the hot, dusty Texas summer we left behind. On our first day in Washington, we repeatedly had to pull over to take in the view while driving down a mountain road. There were more colors and textures in a 10-foot radius of our rental car than it seemed there were in all of Texas that summer.

deception_pass

Deception Pass, Oak Harbor, Washington

Our inspiration for Garden Path began during our years at Jester King, where Ron was a managing partner, and I helped run the tasting room and the front office. Jester King, located on ranchland about 20 minutes outside of Austin, Texas, focuses on making beer with a “sense of place,” using as many local ingredients as possible, including water from an onsite well, grain from an independent Central Texas maltster, and, what they’re most famous for, a mixed culture of native yeast and bacteria used in all fermentation. Texas, however, doesn’t necessarily offer the most hospitable climate for making beer with local ingredients. It’s too far south for most hops to thrive, there isn’t much barley grown in-state, and the expense of keeping a large barrel room cool enough to keep acetobacter at bay during a southwestern summer is pretty daunting. It’s also not the best political climate in which to make beer. The legislative battles we had to fight in order to function as a small brewery were constant and difficult, and small independent breweries in Texas still have unique state restrictions that limit their ability to grow and succeed.

Our decision to leave Jester King wasn’t an easy one. We’re incredibly proud to have been part of such an amazing project and to have had a hand in shaping its growth. At a certain point, though, we felt it was time to move on. Ron, in particular, had spent the bulk of his career in the beer industry helping others build their dreams; it was time for us to build our own.

Starting a brewery from scratch is terrifying. But it’s also terribly exciting, especially when you have no boundaries. We weren’t tied to Texas, by any means, which meant that we could start our project anywhere in the world. Our vision in our earliest planning phases, well before our first trip to Washington, was to develop an estate brewery. We dreamed of growing all of our ingredients—grains, hops, and fruit—onsite, and fermenting using only wild yeast we’d cultivated from our land. We wanted to move somewhere fertile with a mild climate, to limit the need for temperature control during fermentation. We wanted to be in a place where all our ingredients would grow happily, and with laws friendly to craft brewers. There aren’t that many places in the world, let alone the United States, with those conditions, but the Pacific Northwest seems almost designed for brewing, and Washington in particular, unlike Texas, has some of the friendliest beer laws in the country. Skagit Valley came onto our radar in large part thanks to Skagit Valley Malting, a wonderful maltster working with local farmers to develop flavorful heritage grain varietals for brewing, distilling, and baking. SVM’s founder, Wayne Carpenter, is perhaps the Valley’s best spokesman; it’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to move to Skagit after talking to him for twenty minutes. It wasn’t only the malt that sold us, though—it was the extremely fertile soil, the unique temperate microclimate, the produce, the mountain views, and the rich agricultural history of the Valley that made it hard to imagine a more perfect place for a destination farm brewery. The first time we set foot in the Valley, we knew it was the right place for our vision.

Skagit_Pears

Skagit Valley, Washington

We hadn’t been in Skagit more than a few days, though, when our vision shifted. The more we learned about the Valley and the family farms that constitute the backbone of Skagit agriculture, the more we realized that our plan to grow all our ingredients ourselves was not only unnecessary, but somewhat arrogant. If farmers in Skagit have been growing barley for five generations, why would we—former East Coast academics with no farming background—be able to do it better? Instead, we realized that the focus of Garden Path Fermentation should be Skagit ingredients. While we still want to grow some ingredients ourselves, particularly cider apples and Perry pears, which aren’t grown commercially in the Valley. And we’re equally excited about working with local farmers to source some of the best ingredients in the world—because we’re in a place where we can. Being able to use the bounty of natural resources surrounding us, being able to source the most beautiful grains and fruit from small family farms, and being able to bring beer lovers to the Valley from Seattle and Vancouver—both an hour away—and beyond, was a way to tell the story of this beautiful place through fermentation. We want everyone to fall in love with Skagit as thoroughly as we have.

Finding a site that could serve as a destination has been our next challenge. We wanted to build in a place that captures the essence of Skagit, where we have space to ferment and farm, and where customers can have an unforgettable tasting room experience in a stunning location. Our original plans involved starting up in space owned by the Port of Skagit, another set of wonderful people who helped sell us on the Valley, which would give us time to find our perfect destination location while still being able to produce beer. However, a few weeks into our Skagit adventure, we saw a property for sale that changed our plans: A lush working farm with breathtaking mountain views, fruit trees, and some of the infrastructure we’d need to start up. We changed course and put in an offer, which was accepted right before the New Year.

LaConner_sunset

LaConner, Washington

Finding what we think will be an ideal location was a relief, but there’s a lot to do before we’ll have a brewery. We’re still working on financing; we’re trying to start the project solely through bank loans—and convincing bankers that a boutique, small-batch destination brewery is viable (even though we helped run one successfully before) has been a harder sell than anticipated. We’re still in the feasibility period of our real estate offer, and still trying to figure out if the septic and water systems in place on the farm can support our project, and if the county will allow us to operate a tasting room on agricultural land. Plus, the average turnaround time for TTB approval of a new brewery license is currently just shy of six months. Meanwhile, we already have a wonderful Lead Fermentationist—Jason Hansen, formerly from Sante Adairius Rustic Ales—and other future employees waiting in the wings, and we’re antsy to stop making financial projection spreadsheets and start making beer. These are the adventures that aren’t quite as fun as fermentation, but we’re pretty sure they will make everything else worthwhile in the end.

Continue to Part II on our blog

Or read it in the Summer 2017 “Kung Fu” issue of CRAFT by Under My Host.