Ron Extract Talks New Brewery Project: Garden Path Fermentation

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Jason Hansen

For two decades, Ron Extract helped others in the beer business execute their visions. As an early member of the Jester King team, he helped shape the Austin, Texas-based farmhouse brewery into an award winning craft-beer darling synonymous with wild ales and spontaneous fermentation.

But Extract, who was a managing member of Jester King’s LLC and co-owner, wanted to chase his own vision — one shared by his girlfriend of 13 years, Amber Watts.

So Extract and Watts, who had helped manage Jester King’s tasting room and front office, decided to strike out on their own in June. Sparse details of the couple’s plans to open a brewery in rural Washington were shared in a farewell note on the Jester King website, but now the duo’s intentions are becoming clear. The pair announced this week their plans for Garden Path Fermentation, a farmhouse brewery, cidery, meadery and winery slated to open this year in Skagit Valley, Washington.

“At this stage of our lives, it was important that we do something that was ours and ours together,” Extract told Brewbound Tuesday. “Now, while we’re young enough to do it, we wanted to do a project that was uniquely ours.”

Extract and Watts won’t stray from the Jester King ethos of making fermented beverages with a mixed culture of naturally occurring microbes.

“That’s what really gets us excited,” Extract said. “That is our background.”

Still, in order for that background to take root, the pair need to find a place. Though Extract and Watts have settled on Skagit Valley, Garden Path is still “actively” searching for a site.

Although the brewery has one in mind, Extract said, “we don’t know if it’s going to work out.”

For now, there’s definitely some flexibility in the vision: Without a location, Garden Path hasn’t formalized plans for its brewhouse. In fact, Garden Path may not have a production brewhouse, instead partner brewing elsewhere while returning the beer for on-site fermentation while still maintaining a pilot brewhouse. (Talks with potential partners are ongoing.)

“We have a pretty good idea who we want to work with, but the devil is in the details,” Extract said. “We have a few backup options.”

Despite the uncertainty, Extract said he hopes to have beer production by midyear with product available by the second half of the year. Garden Path will, however, operate without a a release schedule.

It’s kind of in keeping with the product idea: The essence of Garden Path’s mixed culture drinks puts it at nature’s mercy.

“We’ll give all of our products the time that they need so that when we present them, they’re ready to be presented,” Extract said. “We need to sell some things at some point to pay the bills. The more we have ready the better, but we’re not going to release things until they’re representative of what we want them to be.”

Extract said the project will be supported through loans not private investors.

“We’d prefer not to take on outside investors at this stage,” he said. “We don’t want to be obligated to investors over a long period of time. We’d rather borrow and pay back over fixed period of time.”

If there’s uncertainty about the exact location, however, the pair have plenty of confidence in the larger area. In the Skagit Valley, Garden Path will have more local agriculture and natural resources at their disposal in a brewing-friendly climate.

Extract said Skagit Valley gives Garden Path a much longer season for spontaneous fermentation, the introduction of naturally occurring microbes from the night air into the wort.

“It’s pretty much cool every night here, even in the summer,” he said. “Year round, it’s really a great range to make beer with little to no temperature control.”

Garden Path intends to source all ingredients, including its yeast, from the region and ultimately from the valley, where the climate allows barley, apples, pears, grapes, hops and berries to thrive. Some will be grown on site while others will be sourced through family farms in the valley. Garden Path will also lean on Skagit Valley Malting for its malt. Being in a different geographic region with different local agriculture will help differentiate the new venture from Jester King.

“We have things they would have a tough time sourcing locally in Texas, like raspberries and cherries and other fruits that grow more readily in this part of the world,” Extract said.

Running the brewing program will be Jason Hansen, formerly the head brewer of Capitola, California-based Sante Adairius Rustic Ales. Earlier this week, Garden Path announced Hansen would be joining the project as lead fermentationist.

Extract, who was admittedly a fan of Hansen’s work at SARA, said a Facebook conversation with the brewer led to the hire.

“We couldn’t have found a better fit for our project,” Extract said. “We weren’t looking for someone to fill that position yet, but if we had been looking, Jason would have been at the top of the list.”

Much like Jester King, Extract and Watts’ vision is for Garden Path to become a farm-brewery destination, with a tasting room and eventually a restaurant serving locally sourced food. Their plan is to sell the majority of their products on site with no desire to fight for shelf space or tap handles.

“Most of what we sell will be on site or here in northern Washington,” Extract said. “A little will make it out into the world for festivals and special events.”

Any distribution would be on a small scale with product being spread around the region, the state and the world through relationships with beer and wine shops that will “take good care of it and present it in the way that we want it to be presented,” Extract said.

“We have no ambitions of being a large regional brewery,” he said. “There’s only so much beer that we’re able to make. There’s only so much beer that we want to make.”

Washington’s brewery-friendly laws were also attractive to Extract and Watts, especially coming from Texas, where restrictive laws have curtailed the number of small breweries.

“It’s not friendly to small brewers,” Extract said of the Lone Star State. “While everything isn’t perfect here, from legal standpoint, it’s a much friendlier environment than Texas.”