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Bellingham bike riders, students and families often times head the direction of the San Juans, whether it be for the change of scenery or a leisurely day enjoying everything else the islands have to offer. Now, lucky for those who take advantage of how close we are to an island escape, San Juan Island Brewing, the newest island brewery, completes the perfect day trip.

San Juan Island Brewing started with Jesse Visciglia, a brewer who wanted to open a brewery in Friday Harbor, WA. Believe it or not, not everywhere is like Bellingham, with a market to support brewery after brewery, so the decision to open on an island was bold.

“I didn’t get very far down the “rabbit hole” before realizing I was not willing to take the financial risk.” Visciglia said.

After deciding he was serious about the idea of starting a brewery of his own, Visciglia sought a financier. This search brought him to island grocery store owner, Vern Howard, who coincidentally already had a business plan for an island brewery that was to be operated by his stepsons, Sean and Tim Aylward. His plan was drawn up by brewery consultant Nick Gislason. All they were missing was a brewer, and considering this stroke of serendipity, Visciglia was in. It was the perfect team.

About three years after the initial decision to team up, San Juan Island Brewing was open for business. Specializing in English ales and German lagers, SJIB provides Friday Harbor with a place for visitors and locals to enjoy a locally crafted pint, woodfired pizza and other brewpub snacks.

The space does the location justice, allowing natural light to pour in through several windows and glass garage doors. The 26 foot high ceilings are highlighted by the fir posts from island-harvested trees, making for a spacious environment with a lodge-like atmosphere. We all know beer tastes better outside so you’re probably wondering if there’s outdoor seating. You’re in luck– there’s a patio.

The brewhouse is showcased directly behind the beer tower, where Visciglia spends his days crafting the wide variety of beers SJIB has to offer. From their newly released stout to a smooth Vienna lager and several other traditional European styles in between, Visciglia makes traditional beers his own.

“’I’m not necessarily trying to replicate traditional styles. However, my goal of fostering public appreciation of the subtle craftsmanship involved in producing  balanced and sessionable beers often leads me in the direction of the wonderfully balanced beer styles that have been enjoyed by humans for hundreds of years.” Visciglia said of his brew philosophy.

SJIB’s ingredients are a direct reflection of this philosophy. Their hops are sourced in Yakima Valley, and their malt from Simpsons and Crisp in England and Weyermann in Germany. They are however interested in sourcing from local favorite Skagit Valley Malting as well.

“The experience of these old world companies coupled with grain stock that has historically been selected with a priority of nutrition over yield has led to the development of a superior product.” Visciglia said.

While being on an island has it’s perks, there are some challenges faced when it comes to receiving ingredients. SJIB’s location makes for longer waits and greater costs, mostly due to the fact that everything is received by sea.

Shipping on all raw materials costs substantially more, mostly because of ferry costs.” Visciglia said. “Refrigerated liquid carbon dioxide can’t be loaded on the ferry so we pay for it to be shipped on a private barge. Water is limited on the island so we pay significantly for its use. All items shipped take longer to get here. Specialized labor has to be brought in from the mainland. Distribution costs more money.” And the list goes on.

However, it is a double-edged sword. Just because the San Juan Island brew market isn’t anything like Bellingham’s and costs are higher, doesn’t mean a brewery won’t succeed. Being on an island has proven to be a good thing in other ways.

One of the more obvious reasons people seek out San Juan Island as a destination is because of it’s remoteness. This pays off for SJIB, since a large part of their clientele is tourists, especially in the summer.

“Summer seasonals and tourists alike come to take in the beauty and many are looking for fresh local beer. The brewery was very busy this summer and will likely be even busier next summer.” Visciglia said.

While the off season may be slower, the year-round island community doesn’t take a break from wanting a local pint.

“We have a strong local following and have started self distribution but we’re operating within a seasonal tourist economy.”

Whether it’s tourists or island residents and regulars that SJIB is serving, their mission is clear– to provide a unifying experience for people of different backgrounds and lifestyles at their brewery.

“We’re not so much bringing people to beer but, rather, bringing people together through beer.” Visciglia said.

It’s easy to connect with someone over a pint of good beer, and my guess would be even easier in one of Washington’s most beautiful locations. For whatever reason you are making the drive (and withstanding the ferry wait), San Juan Island Brewing makes it worth the trip.

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Layne Carter
Tap Trail's Assistant Editor, Layne Carter, grew up in Spokane, Washington but has spent the last five years in Bellingham studying journalism at WWU. When she’s not beertending around town, you can find her biking, drinking beer or biking to a number of local breweries for a beer.

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