Local Liquid Arts
The gourmet archipelago is a tasting paradise
When it comes to drinking great locally made beverages, the San Juan Islands are coming of age. It used to be, visitors to Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands – and liquid-loving locals – would have to cart in their own cases and kegs. But in the past couple of years, a new winery, brewery and distillery have opened to join the small but dedicated cadre of tasty options. Now, even a bitters producer adds a splash of botanical magic to the mix.
The name was inevitable. Island Hoppin’ Brewery was started by three young Orcas entrepreneurs, Becca Gray, Nate Schons, and Jim Parker in August 2011, and after some zoning glitches, moved to their current location on Hope Lane in Eastsound. The street’s name is appropriate, too, as these three met the challenges of starting a new business from scratch. “We wanted to make handcrafted beers and create a sustainable brewery that could serve and satisfy the islands,” says Parker. And so they have, with Island Hoppin’ taps in almost all the major restaurants and bars in the San Juans. A new partner, Megan Stocklin, who has worked at several island restaurants and seen the brewery grow, now markets the beer off-island. “The brewery ties people to the islands. They come here and enjoy a taste of Orcas, and then they enjoy it in a Seattle pub,” says Stocklin. “I’m always hearing people say ‘Now I have another reason to come back to the island. I’m happy we can be an additional draw to the islands. Living in an isolated, close-knit community fosters a real “terroir” in the beers – the water, hops and botanicals, the people that create it – like the islands in a glass.”
The beers are classically northwest: the Old Salts Brown Ale has notes of chocolate and a smooth finish; the K-Pod Kolsch has become a favorite as a lighter ale that pairs well with food. But many of the locals – and Parker – love the Old Madrona Imperial Red Ale, an 8 percent ABV strong ale, with powerful malt and good hop backbone. “I love the challenges we are constantly facing as a team,” says Parker, “and the people we are constantly meeting – the brewery is really a tool to further our community that we are so connected to.”
A trip to the San Juan Distillery tasting room is a gustatory adventure into the world of island botanicals. In addition to traditional aromatics such as juniper berries, lemon, star anise, cardamom and orris root, distiller Suzy Pingree and co-owner and ‘berry picker’ Hawk Pingree scour the islands for aromatic plants and luscious fruits, including madrone bark and blossoms, blackberries, Nootka rose petals, thimbleberries, salal berries, snowberries, nettle, lavender, nasturtium blossoms, and various beach plants and seaweeds to create spirits that truly reflect the island landscape. Their select gins are made with a distillation of Washington apples; the basic gins are made from grain alcohol. While all the spirits are exciting and creative, the truly special bottles are the Calvados-like, oak-aged apple brandy and the Pommeau, a cider-based aperitif made with fresh apple juice, a splash of Apple Eau de Vie, then aged in oak barrels.
Although the distillery may be the new kid on the block, Westcott Bay Cider is better than ever, with three ciders very close in style to French or English dry ciders, including the Traditional Very Dry, Traditional Dry, and Traditional Medium Sweet. The fruit comes from mid-1900s replantings of an original 1890s orchards, with the first cider produced in 1999.
Kari Koski can often be seen alongside Suzy Pingree at the distillery, whether pouring gin and educating tasters about the distillation process, or helping with the process itself. She has also created her own line of bitters and shrubs, called Kari’s Island Elixirs, which are sold in a few select places, including the San Juan Island Farmers’ Market, online (above) and at the distillery. She uses an array of locally grown aromatic botanicals and fruits, including Oregon grape, angelica, anise hyssop, hawthorn, gentian, rhubarb and yarrow, as well as flavored and sweetened vinegars, or shrubs, that can be served with sparkling water for a refreshing non-alcoholic sipper. The Elderflower Blackcurrant, Hop Citrus, and Spicy Lovage are three great examples of how she has used island ingredients and blended them with traditional bitters for a unique taste.
For years, Brent Charnley, owner/winemaker for Lopez Island Vineyards, was a lone island winegrower, farming organically and making varietal wines from obscure grapes no one knew how to pronounce. Fast forward 20-something years. Charnley may still be a loner and a pioneer, but his wines have found many fans over the years – and many awards. Two big hits are his estate grown wines: Madeleine Angevine – a white Loire Valley grape, and Siegerrebe (or “victory vine” in German) – an aromatic cross of Gewurztraminer and Madeleine Angevine. The Mad Angie, as he calls it, ferments into a dry, crisp white similar to Pinot Blanc, and a lovely food wine. The 2013 Siegerrebe, a floral-spiced, just off-dry stunner of a wine, won a coveted 2nd place in the Sip Northwest Wine Awards. Both are in much demand at restaurants who boast island-centric menus, served with fresh Buck Bay oysters on the half-shell, or fresh Dungeness crab or locally caught salmon. Lopez Vineyards Pinot Noir – if you can find it – is one of the best Washington Pinots available – rich with lovely red fruit, yet austere with minerality and good acidity – we hope Charnley produces more from his small vineyard in future.
San Juan Vineyards is one of the most picturesque vineyards in the state, overlooking a historic schoolhouse-turned winery, and a beautiful chapel near the vineyard. The 20+-acre site, owner Yvonne Swanberg grows classic island grapes – Siegerrebe and Madeline Angevine – and also creates reds from Eastern Washington fruit. Over the years, SJV has developed a much simpler style, trying to show the fruit – whether from the estate or from respected vineyards in Yakima or Walla Walla Valley – with low use of oak, and little manipulation.
Island living is a dream for many – as is owning a winery. For winemaker Alex Schemkes and his father Randy, the two dreams came together in 2011, when they opened the first winery on Orcas Island, along with a barn-like tasting room with all the rustic charm you’d expect in the slow lane. After going through “struggles, our hardships, some small disasters, smiles and laughs,” the winery and tasting room is up and running in Crow Valley, on the road to West Sound. The Schemkes have also planted 2-3 acres of grapes – to see what will do well on this island noted for its fruit. Orcas, in fact was one of the top producers of plums and prunes, apricots and apples in the early part of the 20th century, until the railroad and irrigation made it easier to grow and ship fruit from Eastern Washington. Schemkes is ambitious, making three whites (Chardonnay, Riesling and the local Siegerrebe) and six reds, including Syrah, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Malbec and Lemberger. Although the grapes are from Eastern Washington, except for the Siegerrebe, to have handcrafted wine made on the island along with a tasting room available for visitors and locals to enjoy for tasting, parties, and weddings is a welcome addition to this remote community.
Hidden in the back streets of Friday Harbor is the Friday Harbor Brew House, a new nano-brewery (read: tiny), located in a boat repair shop a few blocks up from the ferry landing. FHB produces very small batches of craft beer, including a nut brown ale, wild-fermented American ale, Scotch ale and other tasty options. There are also light snacks available, but you can also bring your own food, hang out and listen to the conversation between boaters and brewers.