Garden Path Fermentation is bringing a wild, rustic, spontaneous approach to the Washington beer scene
Barrel, foudres and coolships, oh my!
Garden Path Fermentation recently opened its taproom and brewery in Burlington, Washington. For the moment, they are pouring guest beers but will soon begin serving their own creations, which are currently fermenting in foudres and barrels. Below, I share their story in their own words, but here are some highlights. One thing is certain, Garden Path Brewing plans to do things a bit different than most every other brewery in the state.
The founders, Amber Watts and Ron Extract, come to Burlington by way of Austin, Texas where they both worked for Jester King Brewery. As most well-informed beer nerds are probably aware, Jester King Brewery is widely recognized for its wild, sour, mixed culture, and spontaneously fermented beers. Expect something similar from Amber and Ron’s new venture.
Garden Path Fermentation will focus on a less-common approach. For example, they will utilize a coolship (koelschip in Flemish), which is a large, shallow, open-air vessel where the hot wort is cooled to a temperature appropriate for adding yeast. Most often, hot wort is run through a heat exchanger and is cooled almost instantly. A coolship exposes the beer to a slower cooling process and allows airborne microbes to influence the beer’s character. The beers are then fermented in foudres and barrels instead of stainless steel tanks. Again, this adds unique character to each batch.
Currently, Garden Path Fermentation is working with Chuckanut Brewery, which is their nearest neighbor, to produce wort (the pre-fermentation beer). The Garden Path team brews up the wort nextdoor at Chuckanut Brewery and then trucks the hot wort down the street where it is transferred to the coolship. Once it has cooled to a yeast-ready temperature, it is transferred to a fermentation vessel and the yeast is added.
Jason Hansen, the head fermentationist at Garden Path, spent the last year cultivating wild yeast from flowers, fruits and the air of the Skagit Valley. Before joining the team, Hanson was head brewer at Sante Adairius Rustic Ales in Capitola, California.
Because of the nature of this production method, expect each and every batch of beer to have it’s own unique character. The fact that each beer will probably be a blend of two or more beers helps add unique character to each product.
Below, I share the larger story in their own words. No doubt, those of us who appreciate these kinds rustic, wild beers should start getting excited.
GARDEN PATH FERMENTATION OPENS TASTING ROOM, BEGINS ONSITE PRODUCTION
Above – Garden Path Fermentation taproom.
Skagit Valley, Washington-based Garden Path Fermentation is now fully operational, making its own products onsite and opening its boutique tasting room, bottle shop, and outdoor beer garden to the public on weekends. The tasting room features a carefully curated selection of guest beer, wine, and cider from their favorite independent, artisan producers around the world. It includes not only a wide range of mixed-fermentation and naturally conditioned cider and beer, but also an extensive selection of natural and minimal-intervention wines, many of which customers would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the region.
The first of Garden Path’s own beer may be available as soon as next month. Their product lineup will ultimately include beer, mead, cider, perry, other fruit wines, and possibly grape wine, all made from local ingredients, using 100% naturally cultivated, native Skagit Valley yeast.
Garden Path Fermentation is located at 11653 Higgins Airport Way, in Burlington, in what’s been deemed the Port of Skagit “Brewery Zone”, which also includes Chuckanut Brewery’s South Nut location, Skagit Valley Malting, Skagit Valley College’s Cardinal Craft Brewing Academy, and the Skagit Valley outpost of Oak Harbor based Flyers Brewhouse and Restaurant.
Garden Path Fermentation was created by Amber Watts and Ron Extract, who came to Washington State from Austin, Texas, where both worked at Jester King Brewery before heading northwest in August, 2016, to start their own venture. They chose the Skagit Valley, nestled between the North Cascades and the Pacific Ocean, due to its fertile soil, abundant natural resources, and temperate climate. Their goal was to start their project in a place where fermentation would require little temperature intervention and most, if not all, ingredients could be sourced hyperlocally. Resources like Skagit Valley Malting and numerous generations-old family farms make it possible to create truly local products with a distinct sense of place.
From the time they set out to start their new project, Watts and Extract’s ultimate goal has been to build to a destination farm brewery, cidery, meadery, winery, and someday, farm-to-table restaurant, where consumers can experience the entire production process from seed to glass. As soon as they chose Washington as their new home, they began searching for a location where they could execute this vision, but the combination of zoning and land use restrictions, water availability, wastewater management, and a variety of other factors made a suitable property seemingly impossible to find. Fortunately, the Port of Skagit, which serves as an economic development engine for the county and had been a strong supporter of Watts and Extract’s vision from the outset, was able to offer a site that would allow Garden Path to get started and establish itself, while continuing to look for the perfect farm setting for the next phase of its development.
The Garden Path team spent the last several months renovating its current space, under the direction of in-house project lead Jacob Grisham, a licensed general contractor and former chef with an extensive cidermaking background. The building, prior to being used for records storage by the Port of Skagit, was home to Coast Lumber, which provided the local Douglas fir that was used to make the bar, window counters, large communal tables, benches, and shelves in Garden Path’s tasting room.
Garden Path’s brewing process thus far has involved their brewers working with the brewers at Chuckanut, their next-door neighbors, to produce wort with malted and raw grain from their fellow neighbors at Skagit Valley Malting, and Pacific Northwest hops. They add the wort to Garden Path’s native yeast culture in stainless steel totes and transport it up the road to Garden Path for fermentation. With Chuckanut’s proximity and excess capacity on the wort-production side, and the highly congenial relationship between the two companies, Garden Path was able to avoid having to put in its own brewhouse and to focus its resources wholly on fermentation.
Above – Part of Garden Path Fermentation’s foudre collection
Garden Path’s production space holds a variety of oak barrels and vats of different sizes, many of which are already full. To date, they have made five batches of wort at Chuckanut. However, because much of their process involves dividing batches, using different vessels and techniques, and then blending from various sources to taste, this will likely result in a different number of variations of finished beer that don’t directly correlate to batches brewed.
Lead Fermentationist Jason Hansen, who, before moving to Skagit, served as Head Brewer at Capitola, CA based Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, spent the better part of the last year cultivating Garden Path’s native yeast culture from the flowers, fruits, and air in Skagit Valley. It started with a collection of mason jars, which he then slowly grew and blended to make 5-gallon test batches. Those were then blended and used to make two initial 10-barrel (310 gallon) half-batches, before scaling up to Chuckanut’s full 20-barrel batch size.
Above – Active barrel fermentation
As the yeast is not a pure, isolated, laboratory strain, but rather a complex community of many different organisms, shifting and evolving over time, every batch is going to be somewhat different from the last, even if the same recipe, the same ingredients, and the same processes are used. While the conventional wisdom at most breweries is that this type of batch-to-batch variation is to be avoided, Garden Path embraces it, seeing the presentation of their products as a type of live performance, where the unique interplay of all of the various elements involved results in the creation of something with details and nuances that are unrepeatable and can only be appreciated fully in the moment. They see their role in the creative process not as exercising absolute control, but rather as creating the best possible conditions for fermentation and then ensuring quality through selection, blending, and curation of the finished products.
Above – Filling the Garden Path coolship
The individualized, performative nature of Garden Path’s fermentation process comes into play even more through a technique where, rather than cooling the wort quickly after boiling and adding it to active yeast, they instead transport it from Chuckanut while still hot and leave it to cool overnight in a broad, shallow, open stainless steel tank called a coolship. As it sits exposed to the cool nighttime air, it becomes inoculated with ambient, airborne microbes. In the morning, the naturally cooled and inoculated wort is transferred to oak barrels, where it will ferment very slowly over the course of several years. During that time, it may or may not develop tart, complex flavors that may or may not be enjoyable. Similar techniques are used by a small number of breweries around the world, most notably in Belgium’s Zenne Valley for a type of beer called lambic (a term that should only be used for beer made in this region). Those who have been doing it for multiple generations have been able to achieve a relatively high rate of success, but even the best of them may still end up having to dump about 10% or more of what they produce, in some cases after having aged it for several years. The year-round climatic conditions in Skagit are, at least on paper, nearly ideal for making this type of beer, which is part of what led Garden Path to choose this location. However, there are a lot of variables at play when embracing nature in this way, and no way to know for sure, other through time and ongoing experimentation, exactly how those variables will play out.
As the beer they’ve brewed matures, the Garden Path team will evaluate it continually to determine what each batch and each vessel needs. Some may benefit from aging, blending, more aging, and more blending. Others may be suitable to package just as they are, and still others may never make the cut. At the time of this writing, two 600-liter oak puncheons, pulled from the first and second brews, are beginning to show promise, so there’s a possibility that at least one of them will soon be transferred to bottles and/or kegs. Packaging will involve the addition of local honey, added just prior to kegging or bottling. The yeast will break down the honey inside the closed containers, trapping CO2 and naturally carbonating the finished product. Though this can happen in as little as a few days, the secondary fermentation process can also create some new, transitional flavors that may take several more weeks or months to work through. If Garden Path decides to package its first beer next week and all goes well, that beer might be ready to serve sometime next month. Then again, it may not be. The beer will be ready when it tastes ready.
When Garden Path feels the first of its products are ready to serve, they will host a release party and grand opening celebration. Look for details of that future event on its website at GardenPathWA.com or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @GardenPathWA.