If you pay attention to such things, for the last year, two new Seattle farmhouse breweries have been getting a lot of hype: Garden Path Fermentation and Fair Isle Brewing. Both have connections to Austin, Texas farmhouse brewery Jester King—Garden Path’s owners Ron Extract and Amber Watts worked there; Fair Isle’s Andrew Pogue is friends with the owners and brewed a collaboration beer with Jester King. Both breweries produce subtle mixed-fermentation farmhouse ales. Draft Magazine published articles on both last year (in the case of Fair Isle, three articles). And neither brewery, at time of publication, has opened.
Garden Path, based in Burlington right by Skagit Valley Malting, with whom they and Fair Isle will be working, is set to open its tasting room sometime in April. Watts and Extract hope to soft open for Skagit Farm to Pint Fest on March 31. Fair Isle owners Pogue and Geoffrey Barker plan to be in Seattle, though they've yet to find a space. In the meantime, they’ve been doing private events around the city and brewed a collaboration beer with Jester King.
For the uninitiated, farmhouse is like the rustic sourdough of beer. It’s generally made with mixed-cultures—which are captured from the air in an environment (in western Washington beer yeasts naturally flourish) and then fed, much like a sourdough starter. Though since there are no regulations on what a farmhouse beer is (just like you can call a loaf of bread with vinegar in it “sourdough”), certain brewers can call nearly anything farmhouse, or use one of its semi-synonyms: wild, sour, spontaneous-fermented, mixed-fermentation, rustic ale, et cetera.
Maybe the easiest way to differentiate them from other beers is this: While others might focus on hops or malt, farmhouse brewers tend to focus on yeast. In the case of Fair Isle and Garden Path that yields beers that are frequently tart (though not assaultively sour), lower in alcohol, and subtly funky. Often brewers add fruit and age in wood barrels. Garden Path will also be producing wine, fruit wine, cider, and mead. “Pretty much anything that grows in Skagit that has sugar in it, we’re going to try to ferment,” Watts said.
In the last couple of years local breweries have been playing around with the style. Tacoma’s E9 makes great, nuanced wild ales. Floodland just released its first beers (available right now through its bottle club only), delicate farmhouse brews that have as much in common with wine or cider as they do with your standard pint. Many of Holy Mountain’s beers are mixed culture. And smaller breweries like Atwood and Propoplis have been working the styles. It seems like every brewery in Seattle has knocked out a sour ale or two. Still mixed-culture is a tiny part of our market; in Fair Isle’s estimation, only .03 percent of the beer produced in Washington is in this style. In Oregon, Pogue figures that number would be closer to four or five percent.
While that isn’t surprising exactly—Portland, in particular, always seems a beat or three ahead with food, beer, and wine—Pogue and Watts both think it’s taken longer to catch on here because our beer culture is dominated by hops. Yakima grow more than any region in the country and our brewers and drinkers are damn proud of that, perhaps to the exclusion of yeast-driven brewing.
Still these beers are taking up a growing place in the local market. Fremont Brewing is opening a smaller mixed-fermentation taproom behind their ever-busy Urban Beer Garden. Both locations of The Masonry, including its massive new Fremont spot, focus heavily on farmhouse brews, both by bottle and on tap. Floodland should have some kegs to tap for Seattle Beer Week (May 10–20), so those outside of the bottle club can taste its brews.
The style will never be dominant here—the beers are labor intensive, time consuming, and costly. A 750ml bottle tends to run between $12 and $20 retail, and that's for a subtle, layered beer with an ABV that hovers below six percent—i.e., an inefficient way to get tipsy. But for a certain group of Washington beer lovers—much like those who know there’s little better than the aroma of a sourdough boule, fresh from the oven—the return on investment is clear.