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I woke up with butterflies in my stomach on brew day. After months of planning, contemplating, and strategizing, we were finally going to Harpoon to shuck oysters for the Island Creek Oyster Stout.

After a quick stop at Lucky’s Lounge (we’re planning a stout party there in late February), Shore and I made it over to Harpoon where 6 bags of oysters awaited. Dave Grossman had been at the brewery snapping photos all day and when we got there, a reporter and photographer from the Herald were capturing the event for a piece that ran in the next day’s paper.

Inside the cavernous brewery, we got to work counting out and shucking oysters for the brew itself. Brewer Katie Tame had tested various recipes for the stout and her final version required exactly 180 per batch. Katie does a nice job explaining what exactly the oysters are doing inside the stout for the Herald piece:

Not to worry, drinking the beer won’t be like downing an oyster shooter, nor will there be an intense oyster flavor, according to brewer Katie Tame. The oysters are poached in the heat of the liquid during the brewing process and disintegrated.

“All those proteins boost up the body of the beer, and an increased protein content adds head retention, which is great for the stout,” said Tame, the first female brewer for the 100 Barrel series that started in 2003.

“A lot of the oyster quality – be it the brine or actually the oyster itself – will blend with the darker malts,” she said.

The expected result is what Tame describes as a full-bodied beer that’ll be a bit sweet, with lots of roasted flavor, “bready, biscuity” flavors from the malt and a little dryness at the finish.

Along with Harpooners Bill Leahy and Liz Melby, Katie grabbed a shucking knife and got busy helping Shore and I shuck. We collected the meats into a huge stock pot which Katie dropped into the boil later that afternoon.

Katie & Bill

pot 'o 'sters

By the time Skip and his daughter Maya showed up, we were feeling a little like zoo creatures — we’d attracted quite a crowd of onlookers (the tasting room was in full swing by that point) and there were cameras everywhere.

Skip shows Maya how to shuck

But we muscled through and got all 540 oysters opened (180 per batch/3 batches) with a little fortification from a couple pints of Munich Dark and Ginger Wheat – always helpful when shucking bare-handed.

So now what? We wait two weeks for the brew to ferment and then we’ll head back to the brewery for Bottling Day on February 5th. Personally, I can’t wait to crack one of these heady brews and taste it alongside a couple of freshly shucked oysters. Once it’s bottled, we’re on a whirlwind schedule of tasting events and activities. Part of my fun new office gig is helping the guys plan and put on events and we’ve got a ton planned around the launch of the beer. While I’ve never been that interested in marketing, this is a part of the job I can get into (I think I can add event planner to my resume now).

Meanwhile, back on the farm…

Yes, we’re still harvesting oysters. Despite all this business with beer and parties, the guys are out on the water every day, pulling up our now-dormant oysters. It’s been a weird winter, though. We’re starting to see growth on our seed which is not supposed to happen when the water temps are in the high 20s. Might be the January thaw? It’s hard to say but we’re keeping an eye on it.

The farmers are also putting in orders for new batches of seed. Believe it or not, the cycle starts up again in just a few short months. Both Skip and John Brawley have put in orders and are starting to strategize for the season. Hard to believe we’re talking about upwellers and river trays already. Must mean spring is right around the corner.

snowy January sunrise

There’s a reason they call it The Clubhouse.

The office is a revolving door. Characters come and go, news filters in and out, and the day is peppered with fun, crazy, and sometimes unbelievable events. The growers are in and out, we’re on the phone taking orders all morning, Corydon and CJ spend a lot of time leaning on furniture while waiting for orders, and to my happy surprise, there are plenty of snacks. Aside from having to adjust to a constant seated position (I miss being on my feet… I’m antsy) and being able to see, smell, and feel the oysters all day, it’s really not so bad.

There are, of course, more visitors than there were on the float. Some are unexpected (like a friend from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife who stopped by yesterday) while others are a pleasant surprise. Last week, it was Per Se Chef Jonathan Benno, his wife Liz and their daughter Lucy who stopped by to tour the farm and spend the night in Duxbury.

They were in town for quick getaway while the restaurant was closed. (Jonathan said having the doors closed gave him his only opportunity to relax.) After arriving on a hectic, chilly afternoon, the whole family went down to the water with Skip and Shore for a tour of the float and the waterfront. Skip’s parents, Nancy and Billy, had offered them a place to stay for the night so they decamped for the afternoon before leaving Lucy with Shore’s sister Hadley (a first-class babysitter) to join us back at Skip’s house for dinner.

I’d seen Skip cook feasts on the float but had yet to enjoy a meal at his house. That afternoon we sat down to hash out the menu, which he pulled together on the spot (clearly he’s done this before) and then broke off to run errands. Back at his place, I worked on some easy prep while Shore helped Skip put together a new bench for the table. My mom called as we were prepping and asked who was handling presentation (it was, after all, the chef from Per Se). But Skip was all over it. We would feast at an oyster farmer’s house in the oyster farmer manner: family style.

We started with a platter of Billy’s shrimp, a plate of oysters (Liz had her first Patriot Oyster), some fresh clams, cheeses, and prosciutto. Plus, Don Merry had called. He’d shot a duck that morning. Could he swing by with his son Ben and bring us a little? Jonathan was psyched. Don showed up with a plate of roasted duck breast which we ate with our fingers, dipping them into a raspberry jam he’d made from raspberries off of our friend Myrna’s farm. CJ was the last to arrive carrying in a pizza box. We gathered around him in the kitchen as he opened it slowly. Inside was an incredible spread of charcuterie made by our friend Jamie Bissonnette at his new restaurant Coppa as well as a rich and creamy washed-rind cheese from Formaggio Kitchen. Billy was a huge fan of the tongue pastrami.

We set the table with mismatched cups and silver (Skip and I called it ‘farmer chic’) and sat down to platters of Caesar salad (the dressing was Skip’s made with fresh anchovies), garlicky spaghettini with littleneck clams and lobsters steamed by Skip’s neighbor Peter. We passed around a bottle of Au Bon Climat and later opened a dust-covered 1988 Australian Cabernet that Peter had been saving for 18 years.

Skip doled out heaping plates of pasta and we all got to work. At one end of the table, Nancy described her favorite way to catch eels (bobbing for them, of course) and (reluctantly) shared her secret ingredient for lobster rolls (I’m saving that one for myself). At the other end, Skip told Jonathan and Liz stories about the farm and Peter’s wife Ligaya explained how she’d had to toss out her clothes just so Peter could carry that bottle of Cabernet back in their suitcase all those years ago.

As we finished up with a French Memories meringue tart, Jonathan and Liz let us weigh in on naming his new, upcoming restaurant (he’s leaving Per Se at the end of this month to start the next chapter — an Italian concept near Lincoln Center). While I’m certain he already has the name picked out, we tossed around a few ideas for fun.

I loved watching Jonathan’s face throughout the meal. He sat there smiling, almost in childlike awe, at the sight in front of him. I don’t imagine he gets many invites from people anxious to cook for him considering his role at Per Se — let alone take the time to sit down and enjoy a long meal with friends. But watching he and Skip, the farmer and the chef, sharing food that had come off the water that day and stories about their worlds was an unforgettable experience. I’m guessing it was for him, too.

So I take back what I said there not being anything exciting going on at the office. Clearly, it’s nonstop action. In fact, we’ve got a busy couple weeks coming up and I already have a full plate.

Now, if I can just get used to sitting down all day…

ice on the guzzle

At the start of this project, I decided it would make sense to move into the office towards the end of my year in order to better understand how the company runs as a whole. Last week was my last official week outside on the farm — and my last week on the tide.

For now, anyway.

We spent some time getting back up to speed after Christmas weekend. The company had sold a ton of oysters over the holiday and needed bags from our crew ASAP, especially in time for New Years. But we also had our eyes on the tide: There were just 60 or so cages left to bring in and Berg wanted to get all those bags that we’d laid out flipped so they weren’t drowning in the mud.

But despite good timing, the weather was a factor, as always. Monday afternoon’s tide was rained out. Tuesday’s was risky because it was well below freezing and the windchill put us down into the single digits. But Chris, Will and Berg hustled before it got too low and pulled all but 9 cages out with a few bitter-cold runs on their own. By Wednesday, we were looking at a somewhat milder day (in the teens!) and a tide that coincided with sundown. After spending the day culling, we headed out with some fresh gloves and a couple extra layers under our waders. It was a minus .9, which meant we’d have plenty of time on the flats to get the bags flipped. We started with the bags we’d tied together with a system line, flipping them out of their pockets of mud to give the oysters on the bottom some breathing room. We’d put about 600 bags out there, all full of oysters that had repaired themselves in the warmer weather and were now laying dormant for the winter. The system lines are there to help us if the bay ices over — we’ll be able to pull up 50 bags at a time with the hauler. So it’s our safeguard as well as a contingency plan. We’ll be able to harvest, even in the bitter cold, plus it gives us a couple thousand oysters to pull up if we need them in a pinch.

We still had about 400 bags to tie together: A tricky feat when your gloves are the size of an astronaut’s and the air is biting cold. Chris and I laid the lines down on the bags while Will went at the zip ties bare-handed. But as the sun started to set, the temps dropped and the winds picked up. We were racing the cold, pulling our gloves off to get each tiny plastic tie zipped shut, and wincing at the air exposure. I could get about five bags tied before my hands went numb. As we kept moving, it got down to two bags. Pretty soon, I was leaving the gloves on and doing my best with the big, bulky fingers. (The guys did a much better job fighting the cold.) We got about halfway through the bags before the water came back up. By about 5:30, with a massive full moon rising above us, we were back on land — dry but not nearly warm. As I drove back to the office for a round of shop beers, the thermometer in the car read 19 degrees. Ouch.

The oysters can stand tremendous cold bouts like this. But whenever we leave oysters on the float overnight, we keep them off the ground on a palette (sorry, Cory) and keep a tiny electric heater going.

During the day, we use Mr. Heater, a propane-run space heater. And yes, I’m the one who begged to use it most. So much so that the guys called me pro-Pain for most of the winter.

Mr. Heater

Keeping us warm along with the heater was our trusty new coffee maker, donated by my Mom and Dad. Handy on the days when it’s too cold to make a run to Frenchie’s.

Thursday was New Year’s Eve day and my final day on the float. We culled in the morning, then washed and bagged after a long lunch at Tsang’s. The snow started around 10 that morning — by lunchtime, we were looking at a few inches. But that didn’t stop Berg and Chris from running out to pick up those last 9 cages. Believe it or not, we got all of them out of the water on the last day of the year. I can’t think of a more fitting end to the season. Or a better occasion to celebrate.

loading up in the snow

I ended up spending New Year’s with my crew at a party thrown by Eastern Standard (where we shucked) and later at the Publick House where I brought the guys up to visit Dave, who was working. It was quite the party and a damn fine way to wind down my final week on the farm.

Skip, Nicole, Erin, Shore & Chef Jeremy

a very fuzzy Chris, Berg, and Will

Nicole and Erin behind the boat

So now what? I’m onto a new adventure as Office Girl. I’ll still be blogging (from what I hear, things can get pretty exciting up at the office…sometimes). I got through Day One (not nearly as challenging as my first Day One) and am happy to be holed up inside a warm office while there’s still snow on the ground.

But… I already find myself missing my crew, the float, the water. And oddly enough, the smell of oysters.

I must be hooked.

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