by Amber Watts
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:
- “Don’t open a brewery.”
- “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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.