Making salt from the Salish Sea is a labor of love
Brady Ryan is turning bay water into San Juan Island Sea Salt, sharing a taste of his native island — and the Salish Sea — one pinch at a time.
Seattle Times food writer
SALT RUNS thick in Brady Ryan's blood. It's the salt of San Juan Island.
Here, he grew up along Griffin Bay to be a thinker and a tinkerer, a farmhand and a laborer, an educator and entrepreneur.
At 27, Ryan is freckled by the sun whose power he's harnessed to turn bay water into San Juan Island Sea Salt, sharing a taste of his native island — and the Salish Sea — one pinch at a time.
"You're Mary Karen's son!" marvels a woman at the local food co-op when Ryan stops to look in on his stock of solar-evaporated, hand-harvested finishing salt. "I held you in my arms when you were 6 weeks old!"
Now 6 feet tall, this homeboy sells his seasonal product in wide-mouthed jars, gift-packed with salt cellars carved from Douglas fir, and in pocket-size vials ("for sneaking into restaurants" he says with a wink). His distinctive black logo, designed by a childhood chum, reads "SALT" — the uppercase "L" drawn to replicate the geography of their beloved island.
Ryan sprinkles sunshine in Seattle, too, where the UW grad lives with a band of buddies in a sprawling home in Ravenna: when he's not carting beehives around for his business mentor, Ballard Bee-man Corky Luster, or dropping San Juan Island Sea Salt off at specialty stores such as Picnic and DeLaurenti, or commuting by ferry to work the land on his folks' back 40.
It is there, on a windswept stretch of San Juan Valley farmland, that the first of his four hoop-houses was erected last summer. Ryan had replicated those plastic-covered constructs time and again during his post-college tenure as a hand at Duvall's Local Roots Farm. But he credits his sweetheart with the idea of using that style of greenhouse for drying and harvesting salt. "She saw it on a YouTube video," he says. "I just adapted my knowledge."
That knowledge extends to a degree in mathematics, an interest in salt science and a business sense that led him to plant an apple orchard with an eye toward cider-making, seed a plot of garlic for farmers marketing and turn to Mother Nature for her ancient seasoning.
Last July he excavated, held a weekend work party and, with family and friends, built his original salt house in a day: a 90-foot, plastic-covered tunnel. In August, it was flooded with 1,500 gallons of bay water culled from a fast-moving site "as far away from human activity as you can get" in a tank truck, Ryan says.
Mother Nature delivered: "In September it didn't rain a drop," and with greenhouse temps reaching 130 degrees, in less than a month he produced 250 pounds of coarse salt, ground, sifted and sorted in an adjacent cabin: the one the inspector from the state Department of Agriculture dubbed his "one-butt kitchen."
At Seattle's Sugarpill, a culinarian's apothecary on Capitol Hill, owner Karyn Schwartz prizes Ryan's salt for its "beautiful crystals" and a texture that lies between France's famous fleur de sel and its mineral-rich cousin, sel gris. In the Northwest "we're surrounded by water," she says, "so why shouldn't we have our own salt?"
Like wine that takes its character from its terroir, Ryan's salt is meant to reflect the mer-oir of San Juan Island. Like lifting a conch shell to your ear to hear the ocean, he says, his salt should conjure a briny taste and sense of place.
"I love this island more than anything, and this salt is the manifestation of my relationship with it."
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.