In this episode, I’m right on the US & Canadian border in Blaine, WA. At the newly opened Atwood Ales, Blaine’s first & oldest brewery, Josh & Monica Smith began releasing their beers in Spring 2016.
Podcast Created and Hosted by: Aaron Johnson
Recorded on location at Atwood Ales, Blaine, WA
Editing & Mixing by: Aaron Johnson
Theme music by: A:M (Aaron Johnson & Danny Moffat)
Josh: Team, I'm Josh, I am co-owner and head brewer/janitor.
Monica: I'm Monica and I'm wife, assistant, and sales and director of marketing.
Aaron: And the name of your brewery?
Josh: Atwood Ales.
Aaron: And where does that name come from?
Josh: Atwood is my middle name, it's my dad's middle name, it was my grandfather's middle name. And when we were talking about names, Atwood Ales sounded like a more interesting family, family-owned brewery name than Smith Ales or... Ale Smith was already taken, so that was not available to us. But just because it's family-owned and operated, we thought that Atwood was a good family name for it.
Aaron: And where does that middle name come from in the family?
Josh: I'm not actually sure. I think it's a maiden name somewhere before that, but looking at genealogy, I couldn't see where it fit in past my grandfather where it came from. So I'm not really sure, yeah.
Aaron: [chuckle] And this brewery's interesting because it's on a farm. Where are we and what is this farm?
Josh: We're on the farm that I grew up on just east of Blaine, Washington. It's just 5 acres, which is honestly plenty for growing the things that we're growing for brewing. But the brewery itself is in our barn, it's a 100 year-old barn, family-owned, operated. My folks lived in the farmhouse, Monica and I live in one of the barns in an apartment that we built. And our son kind of lives in between the two houses, and we all work together on the brewery. We all have different roles and we all help each other out with harvesting and brewing, and selling and talking to people, and all of the necessary components of running a business.
Aaron: Monica, what's it like being out on the farm all the time and having this out here?
Monica: Oh, it's beautiful. I grew up on property like this and so it was always my dream to hopefully end up back on property like this where you get to work together as a family. There's fruit and gardens and everything around you that we get to then take and use and put into our beers, which is pretty amazing to be able to use what we have here to do that. Yeah, we love it out here, it's hard to leave here. When you come home you don't wanna go anywhere. [chuckle]
Josh: Well, we joke... Well, sort of joke, that a really great day is a day where we don't have to leave the property. I can get up in the morning, walk across the yard to the barn and get to work in the brewery or out in the field or whatever. And then if we don't have to go anywhere, it's awesome. [chuckle]
Aaron: Yeah, that's pretty nice feeling leaving the car in the garage for the day.
Aaron: Yeah, how did the brewery come about?
Josh: Well, this incarnation of the idea has been floating around in my brain for probably five or six years. I moved back here to the area in 2008. I quickly got started home brewing and finagled a job at a small little brew pub that was in Ferndale called Frankenstein. And then through working there learned more about production and what to do and what not to do, how to run a business, how to not run a business. And then I got involved with another group of guys. The ringleader of that group was Jim Parker, who is a legendary character in craft beer. He connected the five of us who are all home brewers thinking about starting nano breweries, so we started actually this coaster here, the Bellingham Beer League, which was actually originally the Bellingham Beer Lab, but for some trademark reasons involving a brewery in Seattle that shall remain nameless that doesn't exist anymore, we changed it to Beer League. Anyway, it was a co-op. The idea was it was a cooperative brewery incubator and each of us had our own brands and would work together, share the brew house, and figure out how to launch our businesses and grow outside of the cooperative at some point.
Josh: We ran out of steam at some point with that and it folded without ever really getting off the ground. I fooled around for a while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with beer, while at the same time working other jobs and giving up on my former career as a landscape architect, altogether. And then just talking to my dad and like, "Hey, what do you think about putting a brewery out in the barn and having a farmhouse brewery and doing some stuff?" And he was like, "Yeah, I've been waiting for you to ask me that question for a couple years now. [chuckle] Let's do that, let's figure it out." We spent probably six months getting all of our ducks in a row permit-wise, financially and so forth. A big help was the whole process I'd gone through with the co-op and developing that business plan with those guys, so I had a head-start on everything. And we did our own general contracting and put everything together over the course of about I guess a little over a year. Time we incorporated to the time that we were actually brewing our first batch of beer was probably 15 months, which was March of this year. That's the long answer, but that's how we got here. [chuckle]
Aaron: Monica, what did you think of this whole process going on? Did you wanna see a brewery come out here? Or did you think it would work?
Monica: Well, I was working. I guess I had left Maggie's Pub at that point and Josh was working at Maggie's Pub when we met. I was like, "Oh yeah, he's rad." And then I was like, "Oh, he's opening a brewery, I'm not sure I wanna get involved with him." [laughter] Not that I don't like breweries, I was just like, "Oh, I don't know what that entails. I'm never gonna see him."
Josh: Then all your worst fears came true. [laughter]
Monica: Yeah, but I'm part of it too, so that's fantastic. I'm super excited about it. I'm excited about what we're doing and the beer that we're putting out, and I'm proud of him.
Aaron: Now, are these beers that you've always brewed? Or did you want to do something special by being on the farm with 'em?
Josh: There's really only one beer that we make that I brewed prior to this project and that's Lodge, that's the Scottish ale. Which is like a Scottish Heavy, it's 3.2%, just an easy drinker. And I brewed that for years as sort of our house beer downstairs in the kegerator. It's because you can drink it all day and it tastes good. Other than that, we did the Grange recipe is something that I worked out for about a year and a half knowing that we were gonna be doing this project and was trying to dial that recipe in. But everything else has just been, "Well, we're a farmhouse brewery. Philosophically, what else we can do?" So like the saison that we make, which Mo's is named after Monica because she likes those light, fruity, peppery saisons. And so we change that recipe every time we make it. The base malt situation stays the same. But we, "Oh, we have some barley. Let's use some of our raw barley. Let's use our estate hops. Let's throw some apples in there." Whatever we have that's looking good, we throw into it.
Josh: The Oyster Stout Dark Harbor is, even though it's kind of an English stout, it's still to me is a farmhouse beer just because, "Well, what do we got? Oh, oysters, two miles away down the road. Let's put oysters in this stout." And that's, to me, fits right in with our philosophy. And then the Lodge really is just like you gotta have beer to drink while you're making other beer. So there it is, your Scottish session ale.
Monica: And you can drink all afternoon.
Josh: Mm-hmm, and sometimes we do.
Aaron: Monica, your saison, has there been a favorite version of it for you? Or is it just keeps getting better and better each time?
Monica: I don't think that there's a favorite. It's been the first one was a two row barley. The second version of it was the Tettnang hops from our hop field.
Josh: I think I liked that one the best.
Monica: That one was amazing but I think that they all have been. I'm super excited for the one that's coming out with the fresh apples from our orchard. That's gonna be great. It's really fun to be the size we are because we have the ability to play around with ingredients and recipes, and what we have around here to use.
Josh: We can take risks that larger breweries can't because if we mess up two barrels of something and we have to dump it, we're out some labor and probably a couple hundred bucks on that beer. Whereas if was 10, 15, 20 barrels, it's a hard pill to swallow. But we can mess around and try and recover something that's messed up, which fortunately hasn't really happened yet.
Aaron: So what is the size of the brew house then?
Josh: We have a two barrel brew house and a couple of two barrel tanks, and a one barrel tank. And other than the fermenters, it's all Craigslist scrapyard stuff that a welder friend of ours fabricated and turned into a brew house. It's custom and a little bit weird in some ways, but it works really well for us and it's a comfortable system size-wise and operationally for us to use. It's all electric fired with kind of the standard control panel that everybody builds nowadays with the electric brewery plans that are out there.
Aaron: Any idea of expanding or are you quite happy to stay at that size?
Josh: I think eventually there'll be some expansion. We've talked about this a lot and I still don't wanna be bigger than five barrels for the flexibility that affords us to play around with the things like we do.
Aaron: And you really don't have that much more space in that barn either when we were looking at, right? So, yeah.
Josh: Yeah, not in there. That's 375 square feet. We have the opportunity to kind of push that wall back into the other bays. The building itself is 2,400 square feet, but we do have to maintain some of that to park tractors and things that we use on the farm. [chuckle]
Aaron: It is a farm.
Josh: Yeah, yeah. But yeah, we wanna expand a little bit. We don't wanna be so big that we have to have a plethora of employees, and we like to keep the family component of it intact. And like we were saying, be able to play around like we do with beers. It keeps it fun. It keeps it exciting. I think if we get locked into too crazy of a production schedule with huge vats full of beer then it'll be less fun and we'll get burned out.
Aaron: How is the response been? How many accounts do you have and what's the overall reaction to your beer?
Monica: People seem really excited about it. It's always funny. Not funny, but odd for Josh and I, I guess, especially for Josh. It's his dream that he's living in. Just to have people super excited about his beer, he's still trying to get used to. He doesn't know if he ever will. [chuckle] I think it's awesome. But I think we're doing something different than what's out there right now too with what we have with our beers and being on the farm. Yeah, our accounts are growing. We started off with three about.
Josh: Yeah, yeah.
Monica: And we have double that, if not more now.
Josh: I think we're probably at 10 or so now.
Monica: Yeah, and still going out and talking to people. We wanted to make sure that we were able to keep the accounts that we started with full and happy before we started spreading ourselves too thin. We wanna make sure that we maintain those relationships that we've created in the beginning to people who have walked the path with us. We now are seeing that we can expand a little bit more. And then with that then we'll be able to expand the brewery out a little bit more and produce a little bit more as well, so it's exciting. It's all happening really fast. [chuckle]
Aaron: And especially in Whatcom County. You're very unique in being a farmhouse brewery 'cause I don't think there's another one in the county, right? And your closest competition is Bellingham.
Josh: Yeah, yeah.
Aaron: Yeah, so you are bringing something different to the area.
Aaron: Who in the area is inspiring you to keep brewing? And is there any influence that's really strong in the local area that kind of inspires you to make beer?
Josh: Yeah, there are definitely a few. First of all, when Monica and Xavier and I lived in Bellingham, we lived very near to Elizabeth Station and Chuckanut, and so we spent a lot of time at Chuckanut. We loved their beers. They're just for drinking, they're drinking beers and they're great, but they have depths to them. And the Vienna Lager was the beer that we had at our wedding. And technically, we don't have the same sort of capabilities to be able to produce the lagers the way that they do, but we have so much respect for Will and Brian and Steve and Michael and all the other guys that work there, that the beers they make are just fantastic. And then Wander is the other Bellingham brewery that jumps out at us that we really like a lot, and a big part of that is of course the Belgian influence, and the barrel program. And just the way that they handle their malts, and the depth that they get out of the non-hoppy beers that they're doing is really inspiring. And then North Fork.
Monica: Eric Jorgenson, mm-hmm.
Josh: Eric Jorgenson is just a phenomenal brewer, and the system that he brews on reminds us a lot of our system. It's kind of pieced together from good equipment, but it's kinda funky and they make just really consistent English ales. And then it's just killer, killer, killer sours and wild stuff that he's doing. Mind-blowing, really. We got to hang out with him probably a month ago, month-and-a-half ago one afternoon, just for a little bit and talk about beer, and walk around and taste some stuff that he hadn't released yet, and just hear about little projects he's got going on. And it's really inspiring for us because what he's doing there and what Sandy was doing before him in that space is really impressive, and he's kinda taking it to another level.
Aaron: Is there any beer that you haven't brewed yet that you really wanna have a go at?
Josh: I think the things that I'm excited about, and I think that you are, too, is being able to do wild fermentations. We haven't been able to really produce a wild ale yet. We've been doing some kettle sours, and then we have kind of farmhouse saison-influenced things, but the wild ale, getting the terroir of our farm into beers. Now we're doing with the hops a little bit too, and the other ingredients we use, but we've done some little micro coolship, one or two gallon experiments, and we've kind of built up those cultures. And we just don't have the space right now to be able to have crap-load of barrels and inoculate them with this stuff, but that's the direction that I've always wanted to go is having a bunch of oak. We have the barn for it, we have the micro climate to be able to hopefully culture something that's good that doesn't taste like baby diapers.
Josh: But that's what excites me the most, and it's funny to... I guess every brewer probably goes through this at some point, but you start off with being really anal about, "Oh, I gotta be sanitary, and I gotta do everything by the book in this way, and jump through all the hoops, and step-by-step." And then at some point... You still gotta do that of course 'cause if you don't, you make crappy beer. But to turn off your brain a little bit, or just let go, give up some control and let the beer take care of itself, it's exciting to me. It's hard because I'm a little bit of a control freak when it comes to things in my life. [chuckle]
Monica: You're a perfectionist.
Josh: A perfectionist. And so it's weird. You give up some control over the process of brewing wild ales and using oak and bret and all these things. You give up control of the microbes to achieve the perfection that you were trying to achieve through all of your tightly-controlled brewing processes. It's a weird philosophical point to come to in life, I don't know, but that's kinda where I'm at.
Aaron: Alright. [chuckle] And speaking of wild beers, the one that I tried when I actually first met you was your oyster stout. That's quite the story. How do you make that beer?
Josh: About the time that we were building out the brewery here, I had subscribed to a CSA program here with the oyster farm and they were just kinda getting started. It had been a community-run farm for a number of years. And the guy who was managing it kinda got burned out, and turned it back over to his old business partner, Steve Seymour. And Steve and his son, Mark, kicked it back into commercial mode. So I started buying oysters from Mark, and they're really, really, really, really, really good oysters. We can't really say enough about how good they are.
Monica: They're really different than any oysters that you taste in this area.
Josh: Yeah. The harbor out there has its own little micro climate and its own little situation that makes them really sweet and just really, really good. Anyway, so I'd been eating oysters, and they open up a retail shop and we're eating more oysters and talking about business things. And he's, "Oh, we're gonna get some beer and wine in here, and have a little raw bar and stuff." And I was like, "Oh, I'm brewing beer. We should throw some oysters in a beer, and then you should sell the beer." So just through multiple conversations like that, and then doing research, of course, on the history of oyster stout, which is pretty interesting. It's on the webpage. I probably don't need to delve into it here 'cause I'll get really, really nerdy.
Aaron: I have the time, nerd out if you want.
Josh: It's a collaboration with those guys, Drayton Harbor Oysters. But in researching how to make oyster stout and where it came from, I guess the first record of oysters in beer, in a commercial beer, was actually from New Zealand in 1920 something. But prior to that, looking at brewing records from England in particular, oysters' shells are primarily calcium carbonate, which is the same as chalk so it's used in brewing chemistry, adjusting water chemistry. So shells had been ground up and used for a long time since Victorian England. There's no real clear path from where they went from adding shells to that official record of putting the whole oyster into the beer.
Aaron: Chuck it all in, yep.
Josh: Yeah, but it just seems like we're sort of surmising that well, at some point somebody was hungover or somebody was lazy or they were in a hurry, whatever it was, that they just started chucking the whole thing in. It would've been sometime in the Victorian Era which is the same time when they were brewing Old Cock Ale and throwing chickens and stuff in beers, too, so that would make sense. It's such a good combo. Oysters and stout is like eating oysters and drinking stout with the briny, mineraly character of the oyster and the beer that it makes sense that they ended up together. Our version of it, Monica tells the story best I think of the whole... The brew day.
Monica: Yeah. Josh goes down and meets Mark at the dock. Mark comes in from the oyster beds with oysters. Josh meets him at the dock and then within half hour the oysters are being tossed into the kettle so they go from really, really fresh to really, really cooked. [laughter]
Josh: People always ask, "Wow, what do the oysters taste like after you cook 'em?" I'm like, "Really, really terrible." They're really tough and really bitter. They're not good. We feed them to I guess the raccoons is probably who eats them. [chuckle] The beer, yeah, it has a really distinct mineral brine character to it that's not... I don't think it's overpowering. It finishes with that and you go, "Oh."
Monica: We like to describe it as if you're taking a walk on the beach and you get that spray of the ocean.
Aaron: Yeah, I think that's what I said to you when I first tried it. I was like, "This is like beach time in the Pacific Northwest in November in a storm."
Monica: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. The essence of the sea.
Aaron: Is it your favorite beer that you make?
Josh: Oh, this is always a hard question. People at the farmer's market when we're doing samples often ask, "So which one of these is your favorite?" And Monica says, "Oh... " Every time she pours a beer basically she's like, "This one's my favorite," and then she pours it.
Aaron: That's a salesperson right there, yeah.
Josh: And then the next three or four beers that she pours directly after that, like, "Okay, now that you've had that, you can have my favorite which is this one, and then I'll pour you my other favorite."
Monica: It's really hard to pick 'cause they all hold something so different.
Josh: It is. They're all so different.
Aaron: And I guess you're also at the mercy of what the farm's doing, too. If the fruit's good or fruit's not that good.
Monica: Right. Exactly.
Josh: It always changes and it changes situationally for us, too. One day, "I really want Oyster Stout. That's what we should drink with dinner today," and then the next day it's like, "I want Mo's," or, "I want the Sour." We always have four or five beers available, and depending on the day one of those five is our favorite and the other ones we're like, "Meh."
Aaron: So speaking of that then, what is your favorite beer that you make to pair with your favorite food?
Josh: I like Grange. I think that Grange has the most... Probably the most levels of complexity to it.
Aaron: And what kind of beer is that?
Josh: We call it a farmhouse ale. It started off originally as a saison and it just kept getting a little bit darker and a little bit maltier, and then we started playing with fermentation and spices and it just turned into something... I don't even really know how to describe it. It's not really a saison, it's not really a bier de garde, it's not really a Belgian pale ale, but it has a nice malt backbone to it. It has a little bit of caramel. It has some spicy, peppery, gingery components to it. It's a little bit hoppy. It just fits in nicely with a lot of different things. I think it's good with spicy food. It's good with meat. It's good with dessert.
Aaron: Sounds like a good all-purpose beer.
Josh: Yeah, yeah.
Monica: There's just nothing else out there that tastes like that. It's hard to put your finger on it exactly but the first time I tasted it I'm like, "I've never tasted a beer like that." And to this day, I still have not tasted a beer that tastes anything like the Grange. It's totally unique.
Josh: Yeah, and a lot of people have told us that, too. Just it's cool. And the other fun thing about Grange that always is exciting for me anyway as a brewer is that it's the beer that I worked the hardest on developing the recipe and was really excited about, and hoping and hoping and hoping that it would be something that sold really well. And it's turned into our flagship beer which pretty much never happens unless you're trying to brew a really good IPA, 'cause everybody wants IPAs. We don't make IPAs, so that has to be our flagship.
Aaron: Alright. And so Monica, what's your favorite food and beer then combo?
Monica: I really like the Kettle One for breakfast so...
Josh: It makes a good beermosa without the orange juice.
Monica: Yeah, you don't even really... You don't have to add anything to it. It already has that champaign cider component to it and it's delicious with just some ranchero. I like to have... I like spices, so I like to have... I'm a little bit spicier than the rest of 'em. [chuckle]
Aaron: And if somebody else was wanting to go down this path of opening up their own brewery, what would be some advice you'd give 'em?
Josh: Don't do it! No, no, just kidding. Just planning. If you're gonna do it, you gotta do it right. And what's right for you is different than what's right for me and what's right for us, but planning is the biggest component, to not be surprised by anything that your local government or the TTB or whoever is gonna throw at you with permits. Just be prepared. Good project management skills, whether that comes from you or someone you hire to help you with that, are really critical. You're gonna spend more money than you planned on but you gotta do it. You just gotta do it. Gotta live the dream and the dream...
Monica: Be prepared to work hard.
Josh: Yeah. The dream consists of working really, really hard, long hours all the time seven days a week for a really long time before maybe you can start working 10 hour days, four or five days a week in a few years, if we're lucky.
Monica: Yeah. I just think be realistic.
Josh: You just gotta be realistic about it's gonna cost a lot of money, it's gonna be a lot of work, it's gonna be a lot of headaches. Eventually though if you're passionate about it, it'll all be worth it.
Monica: Just persevere.
Aaron: Well, thank you so much.