Friday Harbor now has a brewery and it’s located in a boat shop — because this is Friday Harbor, so of course it is.
Called The Friday Harbor Oar House, their mantra is “brewed by locals, for locals” and the location leans more towards “hard to find” than “easy to miss.” One might conclude that visitors to the island aren’t welcome, but after a few trips to the brewery, I’ve found that isn’t really true.
Visitors to Friday Harbor fall into many categories, but seasoned boaters and informed wildlife lovers that frequent San Juan Island are more along the lines of new friends that the locals haven’t met yet. Which is why some of the tables in the brewery are large to encourage strangers to sit together. That feature, according to co-founder Mike Close, has been fun to watch over the last several months. It helps build community, which is near the core of why the brewery exists in the first place.
There’s another category of less informed tourists (“uh, no, we’re surrounded by salt water”). While certainly not excluded, there’s no red carpet laid out for them with a convenient storefront and a catchy sign encouraging walk-ins. There’s no real store front at all, and the sign is a single word that is direct and to the point. “Beer.”
Founders Mike Close and Bob Williams were both home brewers and had been part of a beer making club. Presumably over pints, one bad idea led to another and it seems their collective feathers may have been ruffled a bit when all the other communities in the Northwest could claim at least one brewery and usually dozens, yet Friday Harbor had been without one since 2008.
So on February 18th of this year, the “Oar House” opened its doors. They brew small batches. Really small batches. One at time. Why? Because that’s all the equipment they have. One brew magic system, a one pass chiller, two conical fermenters, two bright tanks and 18 one half kegs. All batches are hand measured, hand stirred and hand crafted using mostly local products.
They’re only open Friday and Saturday, largely owing to the limited capacity to make beer in greater volume. This is a hobby that has creaked and groaned its way through trial, error and success to becoming a business. There was no business plan. Just a lot of ideas — some of which actually worked. They’d run into an unexpected pinch point, adjust and move forward. Or backward, make a change and then move forward again. True Northwest boater style.
Barbara Jensen, working the taps and the cash register, is passionate about the project. A former National Park Ranger and current president of the local Audubon Society, she knows her beers. And birds. And quite a bit about the natural surroundings of the islands. So if you want to move up a level in the informed visitors hierarchy, she can help with the transition.
The taproom does have TVs, but only for major events. Major being defined by Mike, Bob and Barbara. I’ve only been in twice, but not yet seen them on. This is a taproom meant for sampling beer and chatting with friends old and new. Not watching the tube.
Bob Williams is the brewmaster. But Mike described all the moving parts in making beer with scores of little steps, each of which can influence the taste of the beer. It goes well beyond the ingredients and amounts and Bob, according to Mike, is the master at making beer. Bob also knows a lot about things mycological: Mushrooms. He’s an avid collector, leading trips around the island during season. The trips are sought after and his donated trips to the local annual theater auction fetch a pretty penny from theater patrons wanting to collect mushrooms. He’s also a local ophthalmologist.
Mike owns Friday Harbor Marine and supplied much of the nautical décor enriching the taproom. Boaters will find themselves right at home. And perhaps some boaters will find the place owing to looking for a part for their boat. The brewery is within Mike’s Friday Harbor Marine facility off of Mullis Street.
Mike and Bob wear many hats in town and you get the sense they take the process of making beer and offering a place to share their beer far more seriously than the business of selling beer. Their loftiest goal may be a hobby that roughly breaks even. Which seems just fine with them.
One unique idea that they turned into a reality is their “Pints for Pals” program. A patron can “pay it forward” by buying a friend a beer in advance. When the friend comes in there’s a paid for beer ready and waiting. For the first three Three Sheets Northwest readers who visits the brewery, there’s a paid for pint waiting to be quaffed. Just tell them you read this article!
To claim your pint, walk the four tenths of a mile up Spring Street from the harbor and take a left on Mullis, just beyond the art museum. You’ll see some of Mike’s boats for sale on the right and a driveway leading to the Thrift Store and Friday Harbor Marine. If you look really carefully, you’ll see a door with a sign that says “Beer” above it. If you are there between 4:30 and 9 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, that door may just be open or at least unlocked. Walk in. Sample a beer or two. Meet some new friends and enjoy a welcome addition to Friday Harbor.