Every year, my wife and I escape from the hottest days of the Boise summer and head north to Washington's San Juan Islands. Except for the inflatable kayak with gear loaded into a huge, wheeled duffel bag, we pack light. Our needs are as simple as our planned activities—kayaking, hiking and sitting by the water with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine. We stay in a little cottage at the head of a shallow cove on the east sound of Orcas Island. That's where I am now, basking in the cool breeze coming off the water. But I feel your pain.
Each year, I look forward to sampling brews we don't get in Boise. One of my favorites is an island local from the San Juan Brewing Co. You used to be able to buy it at a market on Orcas, but things change even here on the islands, and now it is only available at the Front Street Ale House, their pub in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, about an hour away by ferry.
Eastsound, the main town on Orcas, is quiet most of the week, even during the tourist season. Perhaps that's because it's a few miles up the road from the ferry landing. Friday Harbor, on the other hand, is right at the landing, and the streets and sidewalk are filled with a constant stream of day-trippers. Even at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, the pub had a line waiting out the door. I'm guessing they do so much business on-site that there's no longer enough product to sell anywhere else, so I scored a few 650 milliliter bottles and shuffled back to the ferry for the quiet of the cove.
The brews are about as fresh as you can get, and all are unique takes on a style. Their Haro Strait Pale Ale is a lightly carbonated thirst-quencher with a nice core of citrusy hops. The creamy malt adds body and a smooth richness, with hints of mocha but almost no sweetness. It finishes dry with notes of sea grass, yeast and spice.
The Eichenberger Hefe-Weizen Wheat Beer has aromas and flavors that remind one of the coast. Lightly salty scents of the sea mingle with cardamom and fresh mown hay. There's a light brininess in the mouth that plays against the sweet malt and soft hops. Add a wedge of lemon to help bring out the spicy citrus and you've got the perfect island quaffer.
My surprising favorite is the Starboard Porter. I'm not usually a fan of porters that are too often insipidly sweet—not the Starboard. It's rich but dry with touches of dark coffee and back notes of bittersweet chocolate, and it's amazingly refreshing for a dark beer with a smooth, light finish. It makes the perfect match for the local Judd Cove oysters (which really aren't from Judd Cove, but that's another story).