Many islanders will be feeling a warm glow today — July 27, 2017 — after the San Juan Island Brewing Co. officially opens at 4 p.m. The new brew pub’s proprietors — Sean and Tim Aylward — will be too busy to knock back one of their locally-crafted ales or lagers but they will probably be glowing more than any patron. That contented glow will be from knowing they created a special gathering place for island families.
Opening night July 27 Photo by Matt Pranger
“We were always trying to find a brewery, trying to find some local new brewery,” said Tim, the brewery and pub’s assistant manager. “That was a big push of why we wanted to do this here, why we wanted to bring something that was not only a cool space, but would have a communal vibe that this does.
“We’re very lucky to be from the island, to understand it. Our wives both grew up here. It makes it very easy to be passionate about it because we’ve been part of it our whole lives…This community is really important to everybody who has worked on this project.”
The idea of opening a family-friendly, local craft brewery started fermenting with the brothers five or six years ago. “Tim and I spent a lot of time actually discussing, ‘Maybe we should, there isn’t one,’” said Sean, San Juan Island Brewing Co.’s general manager.
They suggested their stepfather — Verne Howard — open a brewery in a large former lumber yard building he owned on upper Spring Street.
“He was trying to figure out what to do with it,” said Sean. “So we kind of jokingly said, ‘You should put a brewery in. There’s not a brewery on the island and it would be awesome in that space. It kind of fits it with the barn-look.’”
About the same time Nick Gislason — Sean’s classmate at Friday Harbor High School and Western Washington University — approached Howard about opening a brewery. Gislason, winemaker at Screaming Eagle Winery and Vineyards in Oakville, Calif., not only knew wines but also advised on several brewery start-ups. “Nick wanted a brewery on the island and wanted to help start it but didn’t want to run it,” Sean said. “He basically wanted to get one to the island and get it set up and have it ready to succeed, but he wasn’t interested in doing a daily managing, running of it.”
Conversation about a brewery continued between the four until three years ago when Howard expressed more interest in the project. The Aylwards and Howard looked into properties in Friday Harbor ranging from existing buildings to empty lots for a couple of years but could not find a property that fit their needs. “Someone on a whim brought this spot up to Verne,” Sean said of the former Boe property at the upper end of A Street.
About the same time the property was secured, Jesse Visciglia, an avid home brewer, also mulled opening a brewery on the island. “I quickly realized not too far down that rabbit hole that it was going to be an enormous financial risk and would consume more time than I was willing to give it, especially when I was planning on starting a new family,” he said.
The former high school teacher brought a plan for a brewery and some of his home brew to Howard, who eventually offered Visciglia a job as the San Juan Island Brewing Co.’s first head brewer. “I reconciled the desire to open a brewery here on the island and not give up such huge portions of my time, energy and financial stability,” Visciglia said.
“Tim and I knew very little about brewing,” Sean said. “I know a whole lot more now than before we ever started this project.
“We knew we needed someone who was going to be strong enough to work on their own but was going to work with us, and Jessie has been awesome.”
“It worked perfectly,” Tim said. “Jesse wanting to do a brewery, Nick wanted to do something for the island he is from.
“Nick has a ton of experience consulting for breweries. The whole way it came about was match made in heaven.”
With a site and brewer selected, the brothers started considering designs. They visited dozens of breweries and pubs and even went on a long road trip with Howard.
“We drove up the West Coast from Long Beach, Calif. to look at breweries to get ideas about how we wanted to design the building and how we wanted the space to be,” Sean said. “We went to about 45 breweries in three days.”
“We went to some of the coolest breweries ever but we didn’t get beers at most of them,” Tim said.
“We’d spend 10 minutes at brewery and move on to the next one,” Sean said.
“A lot of them wouldn’t even be open,” Tim said. “We’d just be peering in the windows and they would ask if we wanted to come in and they would show us around.”
The craft brewers’ willingness to lend advice and support to potential competitors surprised the brothers but enhanced their desire to enter the brewing business.
“To them it’s more ‘The Little Guys vs. The Big Guys’ and all of us are the The Little Guys,” Tim said.
“It was a big reason why we wanted to get into the industry. It seems more like a family than a business,” Tim added. “And it helps that it’s all family that is here doing it with us.”
The brew pub road trip helped bring to life for Howard what the brothers envisioned. “We wanted to show him how it’s more about the beer than the food, but the ones that ones that are really great emphasize it (the beer) and still have great food,” Sean said.
The brothers started sketching their ideas in greater detail on paper. “We put together floor plan after floor plan,” Sean said. “That was the most fun,” Tim said.
“That was the most fun but I had to keep changing all these iterations,” Sean reminded his brother.
However, they knew they wanted the building — bordered by a freight yard, ferry parking lot, electrical substation and business park, and open lot — to have an industrial feel.
“We always wanted it to be an industrial space, a warehouse-type space,” Sean said.
“But with some warm accents,” Tim said. “We knew it was going to be a big space, but Verne stressed to us to try make it warm … that feeling that it’s a big open space, but it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in a garage or warehouse.”
Hand-picked Douglas fir trees, cut on the island, became posts and beams. Rough barn-wood-style siding also added warmth to the dining area. Massive windows on the building’s 27-foot high front wall allow in plenty of natural light even on cloudy days. Steel framed stools and tables are topped with simply-cut wood.
Windows in a wall behind the bar showcase the structure’s main purpose — the brewery.
“We built the space keeping in mind what works for the restaurant but doing whatever we could to emphasize that you’re in a brewery, making it so you can actually see just about everything that’s going on,” Sean said. “You can see the brewhouse from here and you can see the fermentation tanks behind the patio as you drive up. “It’s apparent what goes on back there, so you’re a part of the whole process, so you’re not just drinking the beer.”
“It’s almost like an open kitchen — you can see how it is all being produced,” Tim said.
Keeping with the family-friendly feel — Sean, Tim and Jesse and their wives each have two young children — there’s a children’s play corner with a mat, wood blocks and other toys.
The mix of concrete, metal, glass and wood meshes, thanks almost entirely to islanders.
“You look at the space in the end and it’s cool, it looks awesome. And they (islanders) all built it,” Tim said. “It was pretty cool to work with that many of the contractors and have them pour that much time and effort into it.”
“There are very few things that we had to bring in someone from the mainland for,” Sean said. “And it was only for things that we couldn’t find someone on the island who knew how to do it.” Experts were brought in to help set up the gleaming and complex, stainless steel 15-barrel (465 gallons) brewhouse.
“It’s a three-vessel, German-style brewhouse, as opposed to an English-style brewhouse, which most of the ones in the United States are,” Visciglia said.
“This is far beyond what I would have done if I was independently putting together a brewery,” Visciglia added. “Honestly, this place is going to be an attraction not just for beer drinkers but for brewers. A lot of the equipment that we have here is really nice. So this going to serve as an example of a brewery that’s done exceptionally well.”
San Juan Island Brewing plans to brew primarily English ales and German lagers.
A lager “is a more refined beer,” Visciglia said.
“It’s cool because you don’t see it a lot,” Tim said. “You go to a lot of craft breweries and you don’t see a lot of them.”
“In the brewing community there’s an undercurrent, swell of lager brewing that’s building right now,” Visciglia said. “And I think there’s a movement toward sessionable beers as well. These are beers that have modest alcohol content. So you can sit down and have a session of three beers or so and not be sloppy.”
“But they still have the robust flavors,” said Tim, who is spending considerable time working in the brewhouse.
San Juan Island Brewery plans to produce “balanced beers” with lower alcohol levels than many craft breweries. “Along with balance comes drinkability,” Visciglia said. “That’s the concept that as you’re drinking it and you finish a sip, it leads to you wanting another sip, as opposed to it having some cloying sweetness or some bracing bitterness…and you go, ‘Here we go again’ and you force down another gulp. It’s all about being balanced, that balance of flavors that leads to high drinkability and you wanting to continually have another sip.”
And of course the “Requisite American IPA” will be on tap. “I’m trying to make ours as drinkable as I can,” Visciglia said. “It’s a little less bitter and has more emphasis on hop flavor and aroma, rather than that kind of bracing bitterness.”
The brewery’s debut offerings — Lane 4 Vienna Lager, Afterglow Golden Ale, Outer Island IPA, Black Boar Porter, Bull Kelp ESB and Quarry No. 9 Pale Ale — range from 4.5 to 5.7 percent alcohol. The brews are available in schooner and pints. Customers unsure of their preference can order a taster flight of five, five-ounce beers. Patrons can also purchase growlers-to-go or bring their own growlers for filling. The brews are also available by the keg.
Brewing an ale takes three weeks and the lagers double that, but the crew has been busy producing hundreds of gallons of their brews. “All the tanks are full back there,” Visciglia said. “We need to start selling beer.”
A pub needs grub too and the brothers — whose food experience was limited to washing dishes at Amigo’s when teens — looked to family and for help setting up their restaurant. Their older brother Trevor owns and operates a restaurant and bar in Australia and their uncle Bobby Tangney does likewise with Haley’s Sports Bar and Grill. Their mother, Susan Howard, probably has the most restaurant experience of their kin. Tim’s wife Natalie managed at the Cask and Schooner and Roche Harbor Resort and also worked at Haley’s and the Market Chef.
“For Tim and I this has been a huge learning curve for us because the restaurant side has been the more difficult part,” Sean said.
“We’ve been pretty lucky as far as the brains we’ve had to pick for the whole project,” Tim said.
Natalie became the logical choice for restaurant manager. “We knew we needed a strong restaurant manager because of our lack of skills,” Sean said. “Natalie wanted to very much be part of it, obviously because of her relationship with Tim, and she’s been awesome.” Steve Anderson, longtime owner of The Place, also helped set up the kitchen and advised on the menu. His son Sean, a experienced cook himself, came on as the pub’s chef.
The menu might change a bit but currently features Stone Hearth pizzas, build-your-own classic burgers, roasted shrimp, pulled pork sandwiches and a beer-braised bratwurst. German-style soft pretzels with beer-cheese dipping sauce and fresh popcorn are starters. There is a kids menu that includes mac 'n cheese.
Sean and Tim are grateful to all who helped on the project, especially their mother and stepfather.
“This whole project, we couldn’t have done it without Verne’s support,” Sean said. “It’s a new venture in every way for him — restaurant and brewery — and he’s been awesome about understanding it’s going to take some time to figure it all out.
“And we all had ideas that had to mesh to get to the end of this and Verne’s been great about letting us come up with things he’s not quite comfortable with but understood it’s kind of new. He was willing to see how it goes and I think he’s really happy with the end result.”
“He’s been great about rolling with the punches and there have been a lot of them,” Tim said. “It’s a new venture he might not understand, some parts we might not understand, so it’s been really great to have somebody who has had our back.”
“I think for him the whole point of it was, like most of the things he wants to do, it’s just for the community” Sean said. “All he really wants is to improve the community and this was one way he thought we could do it.”
“No way it happens without him,” Tim said.
“Mom’s been great,” Sean said. “I think she’s more nervous for us than anything, knowing how much work it is.”
Tim said, “She gave us a sign: I Didn’t Say It Was Going To Be Easy, I Said It Was Going To Be Worth It.”