On both coasts, the oyster circuits are the new oenological circuits

It’s on an oyster farm.

From central California to Maine, from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Northwest, the oyster tour is becoming the new wine tour as consumers learn more about these salty shellfish and growers build brand loyalty – all in a peaceful waterside setting and against the backdrop of people’s hunger to learn more about their food.

And there’s still time to enjoy them in the temperate fall, before they usually end for the season.

“It’s kind of cool to eat something that’s just been taken out of the ocean and sit next to that seashore while you eat it,” said Gary Fleener, sustainability scientist and agricultural education at Hog Island Oysters in Marin County, where he conducts tours. .

Maine launched the Maine Oyster Trail, with more than 80 tours of farms, raw bars and retailers along the coast, plus an online trip planner and “passport” system to track oyster farm tours and raw sea bass.

The first-ever Maine Oyster Festival was held in July in Freeport, featuring chipping classes, tastings, food trucks, cooking demonstrations, live music and local craft beer.

Hama Hama Oyster Company on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula hosts the annual Hama Hama Oyster Rama, which it describes as the world’s largest subtidal party, complete with “shuckathalon”, oysters, clams, a beer and wine garden and live music.

Even Florida and Alabama oyster farms have come out of their shell and started offering tours, which they see as a way to improve their image in an area where oysters have a reputation for being muddier, sweeter and less brackish than their northern counterparts.

Even tour operators have started offering itineraries that visit one or more oyster farms in one day, often by boat and with wine and beer.

“You have the boat ride, you have beautiful scenery, you get a little education and you have lunch,” said Peter Milholland, the gray-bearded captain and owner of Seacoast Tours in Maine, which takes guests on a modernized oyster lobster boat. farms on Casco Bay from July to October, with a meal of oysters and crab or lobster rolls.

The demand is strong. Oyster farm tours “just exploded” last year, Milholland said, as pandemic-weary travelers sought outdoor activities and producers had to find another way to sell their oysters while restaurants — and, in particular, raw bars — were still limiting capacity.

Hog Island tours are so popular, the VIP version of which costs up to $300 per person, that the company has started using its restaurant reservation system to manage reservations.

The Maine Oyster Trail has already garnered 20,000 website views and nearly 2,000 registered users, double the first-year goal.

“There is definitely an intrigue, a mystique around oyster farming. Many people have never seen an oyster farm,” said Afton Vigue, outreach and development specialist for the Maine Aquaculture Association.

Eighty percent of farm tours available at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, which cost between $100 and $150 per person, depending on the day, were booked on the first day of open bookings last year; this year’s tours began in May and continued until the end of that month.

“It’s incredibly popular,” said Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek.

Island Creek Oyster ToursIsland Creek Oysters

One reason is that people have become more sophisticated about oysters, discerning subtle differences in taste and learning to order them by brand or region.

“We have this super dedicated fan base, the real oyster geeks of the world,” Fleener said. They then spread the word on social media, including oyster farm tours, he said.

Since the rebound from overfishing and disease before the millennium, and with the rise of oyster farming and the popularity of raw bars, oyster production in the United States has reached 28 million pounds per year, from worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars and growing at around 6% per year. year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“People just eat more of it and want to see what it’s about,” said Julie Qiu, oyster expert and founder of the website. In a half shell, which is all about oysters. “Oysters are simply intriguing. You either love them or hate them, but it always sparks a conversation.

Increasingly, this conversation intersects with a broader curiosity about the origins of what people eat.

“There’s been this greater desire to understand where our food comes from,” said Allyson Blake, retail and events manager at Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb, Maine, which also offers tours. from May to October. As a particularly sustainable food, oysters offer “a way to talk to people about our stewardship of the environment that isn’t highbrow or pretentious.”

Martin Byrnes Jr. considers oyster farm tours a type of ecotourism. “People want an environmentally immersive experience,” said Byrnes, who runs tours at Peconic Pearls, one of several oyster farms in the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative in Peconic Bay on Long Island. “They learn how nature works instead of spending money on material things.”

Some just want to go to a raw bar and eat oysters and drink champagne, “and that’s fine,” said Beth Walton, a New Bedford native who raised oysters on Cape Cod and is now executive director of Oyster South, which represents oyster producers. in the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. “But a lot of people want to see the farms and know what the salinity is and who the farmer is.”

Southern producers are turning to farm tours to change people’s perceptions. “There’s always this preconception of, ‘Oh my God, hot water oysters? They must be big and muddy,” Walton said. But she said variety should be as much of a selling point for oysters as it is for wine and beer. “People are blown away by some of the southern oysters. Why not give them a chance?”

Scenes from the Maine Oyster Trail.Joseph Conroy III for the Maine Aquaculture Association

In fact, oyster farm tours are a lot like wine and beer tours – and that’s on purpose. “A lot of oyster tourism is holding hands with wine tourism,” Fleener said. Winegrowers “are the masters of the food tour”. The Maine Oyster Trail is modeled after the Maine Beer Trail, Vigue said.

Just like at a winery or microbrewery, inviting customers to an oyster farm – and tasting the oysters – is a good way to build a brand.

“The more they drink, the more they taste, they start to pick up on the subtle differences,” Vigue said. And the next time those visitors buy shellfish, Fleener said, “they’ll remember you.”

They will also better understand how difficult oysters are to raise, starting in hatcheries as “spat” or tiny seed-like larvae, then transferred to floating bags, cages or baskets – and why they are so expensive.

“People are amazed, who plow through a dozen oysters, how long it takes to grow them,” Blake said.

But the best reason to visit a farm is that the oysters “are grown in some of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen,” Qiu said.

“You feel the tide and you hear the birds. It’s such an amazing experience. It’s a natural connection between the things you eat and the places you want to go.

Jon Marcus can be reached at [email protected]

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