By Easton Richmond
Every few months, Timber City Ginger Beer takes a road trip to Sequim, Washington to harvest cedar and new growth Douglas fir tips.
As he emerges from the dense old-growth forests of the Olympic National Park, Kyle McKnight extends his arm to show me his prize catch — a small, dry, perfectly sized and developed branch that he cut from a Douglas fir tree.
“Got a good one,” he says, explaining that the color of the needles will provide the bright flavors he looks for in the ginger beer he and co-owner Kara Patt have been making in Seattle for the past two years at Timber City Ginger Beer, a small company producing a spicy concoction that strays from the sugar-heavy recipes of mass market ginger beer and stays true to the drink’s Caribbean roots.
A community-centric mindset informs every aspect of their business — meaning regular duties, like this trip into the wilderness, turn into adventures. And even as the rain falls harder and the sky darkens, they march further into the damp woodlands. A bit of stormy weather can’t stop this crew of harvesters, including several friends of the business, from having a good time. Here, McKnight and Patt's passion for their work shines.
The duo's ginger beer is clearly influenced by the terroir of western Washington, where they source ingredients necessary for making this classic drink — one that has grown in popularity in the Pacific Northwest in the last decade. But they also draw inspiration from their years spent working in restaurants across the United States.
The two first met in Durango, Colorado while working at a prime rib house. Together, they moved to New York City when Patt was accepted at New York University in a food studies program, which focuses on the academics, politics and business of food. Several years later, they moved west, eventually settling in Seattle where they spent time working at bars like The Unicorn and E. Smith Mercantile. It was at The Unicorn where McKnight, who was working as the kitchen manager at the time, started making ginger beer to satisfy the needs of the bar.
“It got to the point where I was making more ginger beer than prepping food,” says McKnight, “and that was the light-bulb moment when I thought, ‘Wow, I might actually be able to take this further than just the kitchen.’”
One night, while having a beer at the legendary Linda’s Tavern in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, McKnight suggested that he and Patt should focus more on making ginger beer. Seeing the potential, Patt negotiated a deal for the two of them to brew in the basement kitchen of another downtown bar.
They soon discovered there was unexpectedly high demand for their distinctive brew. “Our first farmers’ market was Phinney Ridge and we brought one keg not expecting to sell much at all, but we sold out half an hour before the market closed,” Patt chuckles. “We had to go back to E. Smith Mercantile and stay up all night brewing for the next day's market. It was a long night.”
The two now brew their ginger beer in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood in a shared facility that also includes two local breweries. But regular participation in farmers' markets is still a foundation of their business.
“We have our best customers at the farmers' markets,” says Patt. "Their support, feedback and enthusiasm has really helped the business grow.”
And due to their participation in these markets, Patt and McKnight have been able to forge relationships with local farmers, who provide them with herbs and produce they need to make their apricot, blueberry, cherry cedar, apple-honey-mint and other flavored seasonal products.
And even as their market grows and ginger beer gains mainstream appeal, quarterly trips to Sequim, Washington helps the Timber City Ginger Beer team retain a sense of community and adventure — certainly an essential ingredient, though you won’t see it on the label.
Easton Richmond is a Seattle-based photographer.