Our Journey Down the Garden Path

Adventures in Brewery Startup

by Dr. Amber Watts

 

This is part one 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Read the second installment of our story in the Summer “Kung Fu” issue of CRAFT by Under My Host.No automatic alt text available.

Meet Garden Path Fermentation’s Lead Agriculturalist, Saul Phillips

Our mission at Garden Path Fermentation is to make delicious fermented beverages (and maybe foods, someday) using the abundant agricultural resources available to us here in the Skagit Valley, including some ingredients that we plan to grow ourselves.  To do this most effectively, we will need someone who knows the land, what grows here, and how it grows, and who can work with farmers throughout the valley to help us find the best possible ingredients with which to work.  That person will be our Lead Agriculturalist, Saul Phillips.

Photo of Garden Path Fermentation Lead Agriculturalist Saul Phillips

Garden Path Fermentation Lead Agriculturalist Saul Phillips

We first met Saul in October while visiting the WSU Extension Campus in Mount Vernon, where he currently works, helping tend to their research orchard, which includes more than 70 varietals of cider apples, 15 varieties of perry pears, and numerous other fruit trees.  When Saul, an accomplished amateur cidermaker and homebrewer, began telling us about his ideas for commercial production of spontaneously fermented cider and perry, we immediately knew that we had much more to discuss.  As part of our team, Saul will also continue to spend a portion of his time assisting with the WSU orchard and will serve as liaison between Garden Path Fermentation and the WSU Extension. By fostering this relationship, we will develop our goal of being involved in community education and outreach here in the Skagit Valley. 

 

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Saul working with native Skagit Valley yeast

Saul’s interest in cider and perry led him to attend this year’s Cider Con in Chicago, where he had an opportunity to network, taste cider, and exchange ideas with cidermakers and other industry professionals from all over the world.  He offered the following thoughts: 

 

At Cider Con 2017, held this year in Chicago, IL, I got a chance to taste a broad range of ciders. While mixed culture and wild fermentation were a predictably small share of the industry, they were some of the most inspiring examples of cider craft. Considering America’s muddled relationship with cider where many examples on the market are essentially alcoholic soda, we can learn a great deal from our European brethren whose spontaneously fermented cider tradition continues unbroken by any past dalliance with alcohol prohibition.

An especially interesting area of research from Dr. Bradshaw’s lab at the University of Vermont is looking at the commercial viability of minimal pruning, a low-input strategy that jives well with our plans for minimal input, sustainable poly-culture on the land at Garden Path. I look forward to more definitive results over the next few years of the study.

Cider Con gave me a useful view of the cider market and producer strategies. Our plans for Garden Path, wild fermentation and sustainable poly-culture agriculture, fly in the face of the status quo, and I welcome the challenge! Since helping to press juice from my grandmother’s apple orchard as a child, I’ve been an apple aficionado and very much look forward to highlighting in fermentation the unique qualities of fruit grown here in the bountiful Skagit Valley.

Jason Hansen Joining Garden Path Fermentation

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We are thrilled to announce that Jason Hansen, formerly of Sante Adairius Rustic Ales in Capitola, California, will be joining Garden Path Fermentation as our Lead Fermentationist. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to bring him on board. Jason has spent the last three years as Head Brewer at SARA, where he oversaw an extensive mixed fermentation and barrel program, and, frankly, made some of our favorite beers in the world. Jason’s vast experience creating and brewing both complex-yet-approachable clean beers as well as delicate, nuanced barrel-aged mixed fermentations makes him the ideal person to head up Garden Path’s fermentation program. He’ll be in charge of our beer, wine, cider, and mead production, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do with the amazing fermentables in Skagit Valley.

Welcome to Garden Path Fermentation

GPF LogoBrewing industry veterans Ron Extract and Amber Watts will be opening Garden Path Fermentation, a destination farmhouse brewery, cidery, meadery, and winery, in Skagit County, Washington in 2017.

The goal of Garden Path Fermentation is to produce hand-crafted beer, cider, wine, mead, and other fermented products that showcase the natural resources of the beautiful Skagit Valley, nestled between the North Cascades and the Pacific Ocean, and home to some of the most fertile soil on earth. Barley, apples, pears, grapes, hops, and berries all thrive in Skagit’s climate, and the abundant assets in the area—including craft maltster Skagit Valley Malting and a bounty of generations-old small family farms—make it possible for Garden Path Fermentation to source the vast majority of its ingredients solely from the Valley. All products will be fermented with a mixed culture of naturally occurring microbes cultivated from the brewery site and will take advantage of the temperate year-round climate of northwest Washington to minimize the need for temperature control during fermentation while showcasing the region’s distinct seasons.

Garden Path Fermentation’s co-creators, Ron Extract and Amber Watts, have a long history in the brewing industry. Most recently, they were at Jester King Brewery in Austin, TX, where Ron was an owner and managing partner, and Amber helped manage the tasting room and front office. While it was inspiring to be part of the team that helped Jester King grow into a world-class farmhouse brewery, Ron and Amber were ready to start their own project from the ground up.

The name Garden Path Fermentation stems from the idea that a garden path is an indirect way to get from Point A to Point B. It’s the scenic route that, more likely than not, leads you somewhere unexpected. Mixed-culture products take time to ferment, and tend toward complex, interesting flavor profiles that may be surprising to the palate; they’re fermentation’s way of taking you “down the garden path” to a place you may not have thought you’d end up. The name was also partially inspired by Ron and Amber’s appreciation of “garden path sentences”—sentences that initially appear incomplete or nonsensical, but that, when interpreted correctly, are actually completely coherent and grammatically correct.

Garden Path’s logo was created in collaboration with and illustrated by Skagit Valley artist and designer R. Ben Turpin, whose other work can be seen on his website at www.rbenturpin.com.

There will be exciting news about location, staffing, and timing in the very near future. Follow Garden Path Fermentation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or subscribe to the mailing list for further updates on the project. Please direct all press inquiries to info@gardenpathfermentation.com.