Adventures in Brewery Startup
by Dr. Amber Watts
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.
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.
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.
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.