Taking Root

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Timber City Ginger Beer taps into local seasonal tastes to create zingy drinks with a Northwest twist.

STORY BY ISABEL THOTTAM
PHOTOS BY HILARY MCMULLEN

Kyle and Kara use botanicals harvested from family land in Sequim.

Open any bar menu in Seattle these days, and you’re likely to find ginger beer listed among ingredients like rum, vodka, and citrus. The fizzy, zesty drink has cemented itself as an ever-present aspect of cocktail culture, thanks to perennially-popular drinks like Moscow Mules and Dark ‘n’ Stormys.

Kyle McKnight wants Seattleites to think of ginger beer as more than just a cocktail mixer. The founder and co-owner of Timber City Ginger Beer thinks the beverage can stand on its own; he’s created a balanced, nuanced product that shines with Northwest flavors like pears, fir tips, peaches, and apples, and it’s become a favorite at farmers markets, groceries, bars, and restaurants around the region.

Kyle’s interest in ginger beer has its roots in his Durango, Colorado, childhood. He remembers being hooked on Reed’s Ginger Beer, a small company known for its Jamaican-style, natural-ginger brew, packed with spice and sweetened with cane sugar.

After training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and spending years working various restaurant jobs across the country, Kyle accepted a kitchen manager position at The Unicorn on Capitol Hill.

Over time, Kyle noticed that many customers were requesting ginger beer. Since the bar was looking to add more sophisticated food to their menu, he felt they could also evolve to offer high-brow cocktails alongside their new menu items that featured gussied-up takes on street food. That meant the bar needed to purchase ginger beer, but Kyle’s first instinct was to make his own.

“I convinced my general manager to buy me what I needed, and I just started fermenting,” Kyle says. “Then I started making drinks at the bar and, suddenly, I was brewing ginger beer more than I was cooking.”

Kyle spent a lot of time testing his process from how to cut the ginger, to the timing of adding ingredients, to the precise ratios of each addition until he found a recipe that both he and The Unicorn’s customers enjoyed.

That final product came some 120 recipes later and meant a new career-calling for Kyle. He called a longtime friend and co-worker, Kara Patt, an experienced business manager and a lover of ginger beer, for help with the fledgling business.

“When I first tried Kyle’s ginger beer, it all became very clear,” Kara says. “There’s a lot stirring under people like us who want to make a product and make a difference. But you have to learn how to make that work as a business.”

Now, Kyle and Kara sell their ginger beer in cans at groceries like Central Co-op, West Seattle Liquor, Cone & Steiner, and the Phinney Ridge, Madrona, and West Seattle farmers markets. It’s also on tap at Beer Junction, Full Throttle Bottles, Good Bar, and, of course, The Unicorn.

The recipe changes weekly, celebrating the changes of seasonal produce.

Timber City puts a Northwest twist on the drink. Kyle and Kara use botanicals harvested from Kara’s family’s land in Sequim to add flavors like Douglas fir and apple cedar. And Kyle continues to experiment with a rich selection of local flavors.

“In the summer, I brew a different recipe every other week, because there are so many different types of produce, and doing so allows us to celebrate the change of seasons with a product that uses ingredients sourced directly from a farm,” Kyle says. “Being a part of that small system is really important to us.” That ethos has given rise to seasonal flavors like beet and peach.

To start a brew, Kyle grinds fresh ginger in a bowl chopper, then sets it to “mash” while adding fresh herbs, filtered water, and seasonal ingredients. The concoction steeps for a set amount of time at a specific temperature to achieve the intended flavor profile. Most of Timber City’s ginger beers taste spicy, but the zing never overpowers the seasonal herb or fruit flavoring. 

“We have always used the same base recipe, but have tweaked the levels of fresh ginger and sugar,” Kara says. “It also took time to decide on the perfect moment to add the fresh herbs so that they shine, but don’t dominate the flavor profile.”

After reaching its proper steep time, the ginger beer is sent through a series of filters and put into a kettle to boil. Next, Kyle adds fresh lemon juice and a small amount of cane sugar. Rather than ferment their concoctions with yeast – a process that naturally produces carbon dioxide and alcohol, Timber City uses forced-carbonation, which achieves a pleasant fizz while avoiding the alcoholic by-product.

Early on, Kyle and Kara sought a domestic source for their ginger root, so in 2015, they traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island. There, they met a farmer who provides much of Timber City’s ginger throughout the year; in the off-season, they turn to sources in Brazil and Peru.

Timber City uses much less sugar than the Reed’s bottles Kyle cracked open as a kid in Colorado. That makes for a refreshing drink that carries health benefits, like anti-nausea properties and antioxidants.

And, as Kara says, “It will make for some really awesome cocktails.”

Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She writes about food, technology, and business and is working on her first children’s book.

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