by Ron Extract
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.
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.
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.