Awhile back Brady Ryan, a San Juan Island native whose family has a farm there, read something in the newspaper about making salt. Intrigued, he and a buddy gathered 20 gallons of the stuff and boiled it. "We made an absolute mess," he recalls.
The experience, he says, stuck and inspired Ryan to start his own company. San Juan Island Salt made its debut last month at the Broadway and University District farmers markets, and products now appear at Seattle retailers Sugarpill and Picnic.
Fancy salt is nothing new but hasn't caught on among local purveyors, possibly because the product is a hard sell. "Salt is so bloody cheap when you buy it from a store," Ryan notes. Still, certain signs point to a change in tides.
There's SaltWorks on the Eastside, a big-time distributor that's dabbling in its own line. Ryan knows of a handful of people doing a small-scale racket but without a food processor's license; the Washington State Department of Agriculture has been fielding inquiries about obtaining permits, he says. For now, though, Ryan remains the first licensed sea salt producer in the state.
What further sets Ryan's wares apart is the way in which they're made. He's steered clear of boiling since that first go—it isn't exactly energy efficient and again, it's messy. Instead Ryan employs a little-used method in which the salt is solar evaporated in unheated hoop houses—like rudimentary greenhouses but without the glass.
Why this way? For three years Ryan has worked with Local Roots building greenhouses, so this setup is right up his alley. The hoophouses also leave crystals with a bigger mix of minerals than other gourmet salts. (Worming around in them also looks kinda fun.)
Considering this process is dependent on the sun, Ryan has plenty of other farm-related plans up his sleeve. He recently fired up a cider press, for example. Still Ryan, who also works with Ballard Bee Company, expects to invest considerable time in this fledgling venture. He will return to the Broadway and U District farmers markets next December and hopes to get his products in more stores soon. Keeps tabs on his whereabouts via Facebook.