In the year-plus since Amber Watts and Ron Extract left their positions at Austin’s Jester King Brewery to open their own venture, they’ve learned a lot about beer’s primary ingredient.
“Coming from Texas, it’s so dry, we didn’t expect to have water issues in Washington,” Watts says.
Turns out, “things are a bit more strictly regulated here than they were in, say, unincorporated rural areas in Texas,” Extract adds.
The business partners, who are also a couple, have encountered a set of unanticipated challenges as they search for a location for their forthcoming project, called Garden Path Fermentation, in Washington’s Skagit Valley. They’d promised to open in 2017, and are now confronting the obstacles they face to meet that timeline.
Much rural property in Skagit Valley isn’t connected to a municipal sewer or water system, and the use of well water for commercial endeavors is strictly regulated. The choice facing Watts and Extract once they found a tentative location: shell out more than a million dollars for a line to hook up to municipal water or ditch the location and search for a less rural spot. They couldn’t stomach the first option, so they walked away from that property.
The difficulties are a result of the pair’s ambitions for Garden Path. If they’d set out to open a brewery in a downtown industrial building, they’d be well on their way. But Garden Path won’t just be a brewery, and they’re not aiming for an industrial, cookie-cutter location.
“If it ferments, we’re interested in fermenting it,” says Extract, explaining that Garden Path Fermentation plans to produce beer, cider, mead, fruit wines and even fermented food from local ingredients. “I’ve seen comments online that we’re probably overextending ourselves or taking on too much, but converting sugar to alcohol, it’s the same process whether those sugars come from barley or fruit or what have you. We don’t see that in any way as overreaching.”
The pair originally conceived of an “estate brewery,” growing all its own raw ingredients to make cider, beer and wine. That was part of the lure of Washington’s Skagit Valley, a fertile area with a climate well-suited to farming nearly all year long.
“That was something we abandoned really quickly, actually,” says Watts. Once she and Extract spent more time in the valley, they realized that the area was full of multigenerational farmers already growing much of what Garden Path would need. “It would be really arrogant of us to come here from Texas and say ‘We’re going to grow everything.’”
The focus soon shifted from an estate brewery to a locally minded brewery/cidery/winery. Garden Path does intend to grow certain ingredients, including some apples and pears for cider and perry (wine made from pears). To that aim, the business has hired Saul Phillips, who has an orchard background, as lead agriculturalist. Phillips’ previous experience in both agriculture and biotech/cell research make him especially curious about native yeast, uncommon cider apple varietals and what the combination of the two can yield.
“Long-term, what I’d like to see with Garden Path cider is the opportunity to provide quality ciders that highlight varietal characteristics and year-to-year vintage differences,” he says. “Each batch should be a unique expression of something, even if it’s roughly the same recipe. I’m interested in consistent quality rather than consistent product.”
His interest in cider terroir and mixed fermentation mirrored what Watts and Extract were hoping to achieve on the beer side.
“When we met him, he was talking to us about his process for making a spontaneous-fermented cider using traditional varietals and we thought ‘We need to bring this guy on board,’” says Extract.
When it comes to beermaking, the pair plans to work closely with another brewery who will produce Garden Path’s wort, the unfermented liquid that yeast chomps on to create beer.
“For us and for our team, wort production is not necessarily the most interesting part of the process. I wouldn’t say it’s the least interesting, but our focus is on what happens afterwards, about transforming ingredients through partnership with our microbial friends,” Extract says. Garden Path will make ample use of native and wild yeast and bacteria, which are already being developed into a house culture that will ferment beer and cider. They also plan to make beer “in a non-interventionist way” without the use of temperature control for their fermentations. Luckily, the valley’s warm months are suited to ale yeast fermentation while cooler months make more sense for lager brewing.
To head this endeavor, Garden Path snagged Jason Hansen as lead fermentationist; he formerly held the role of head brewer at Sante Adairius Rustic Ales. There, he used SARA’s house culture to create the brewery’s thumbprint: balanced, characterful saisons and farmhouse-style beers. Garden Path hopes he’ll bring much of that same perspective to the new brewery.
“We love beers that have this sensibility of balance, of nuance, of lower ABV, of not pushing extremes, but using a mixed-fermentation approach,” says Extract.
All of the brewery’s beers will be mixed-fermented, which means they’ll be fermented with a culture of locally-cultivated microbes. But some of Garden Path’s ales will probably be a bit “cleaner” tasting than some mixed-fermentation or farmhouse beers, Watts says. For a portion of beers, Hansen will select the saccharomyces (“clean” brewers yeast) present within the house mixed culture to ferment the beers, which will be slightly accented by Brettanomyces and bacteria for complexity and balance.
“We want to make beers that will confuse people at beer festivals. The beers people tend to gravitate towards at festivals are generally ones that you can understand in two ounces; we want to brew beers that people end up drinking a pint of,” she says.
All of that, of course, hinges on Garden Path eventually finding a location. Extract says they’re doing “literally a bit of digging” to find a spot with the character they’re looking for as well as proper zoning. Acknowledging that could take some time, Watts says the pair is open to a plan B: setting up shop in a temporary space to get up and running while they continue to build out a permanent site.
“It was hard to come to this decision but we could compromise on our start-up site so we don’t have to compromise on our permanent site,” she says.
It’s already been a winding road for Garden Path, whose name is a reference to the idea that a garden path is an indirect, meandering way of getting from one place to another. Is it beginning to seem too apt?
“We’ve said that,” Extract says. “We have.”