Pensacola, Florida
Monday April 22nd 2019

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A Shucking Good Cause

By Sydney Robinson

The practice of oyster farming is a new one to the Gulf Coast, an industry which promotes a healthier ocean while providing coastal residents with high-quality seafood in a sustainable way.

The industry was just developing its sea legs when the Panama City area was hit in October by Hurricane Michael, a devastating storm which, in addition to widespread damage on land, left much of the oyster farming community in shambles.

Through the upcoming Barleybrine event, attendees have the opportunity to give back to fellow panhandle residents affected by Hurricane Michael with a focus on gulf fishermen and oyster farmers who are struggling more than six months after the storm’s impact.

Described by T.S. Strickland, founder and president of Blue Collards events, as “swarthy and swashbuckling,” the Barleybrine event is going to be approachable and fun, a homier version of their fall event Peat and Pearls.

This time, instead of scotch, attendees can try a variety of Southern craft beer paired with farm-raised oysters from all over the South. And it’s a multi-day event, so you can really get your fill of good stuff.

Things get started Thursday with the Hair Many Hootenanny kickoff event in partnership with Perfect Plain Brewing Co. and Wilfrid’s Barber & Fine Goods with a beard and mustache challenge. Following that is a more upscale five-course meal with recent “Top Chef” winner Kelsey Barnard Clark on Friday, and Saturday is the Grand Tasting.

Saturday’s tasting event will center around high-quality beer featuring an impressive list of Southern craft brews including Abita, Parish, Cigar City, Good People, Idyll Hounds and many more.

Alongside the beer tasting, attendees can opt for an additional Oyster Showcase ticket for $20. The showcase is the best way to experience a variety of oysters from farmers in the region. You can eat them raw on the half-shell or try an expertly crafted small bite from on-site chefs.

Oyster farmers in attendance include North Carolina’s Mera Brothers Oysters, Louisiana Oyster Co., Louisiana’s Grand Isle Sea Farm, Alabama’s Portersville Bay Oyster Co., Florida’s Gulf Springs Sea Farm, South Carolina’s Lowcountry Oyster Co. and Alabama’s Massacre Island Oyster Ranch.

“This isn’t your typical festival,” Strickland said speaking to the Hurricane Michael related mission of Barleybrine. “Of course, we’ll have great beer and delicious food, but we believe people are hungry for more. They crave understanding and connection.”

The Bigger Picture
One Hurricane Michael-impacted oyster company participating in Barleybrine is TAB Oysters from Crawfordville, Fla. Started in 2017 by couple Teresa and Joseph Mercer, TAB is named for their three young daughters—Taylor, Ava and Brooklyn.

The Mercers were driving home from participating in another event hosted by Blue Collards last October when they got word that Hurricane Michael was headed their way. Having just harvested their first season of oysters and invested in doubling their crop, they were forced to sink their oyster farming equipment and hope for the best.

“We lost over half of our oysters out there in the water,” said Teresa Mercer. “They died a few days after the storm and continued to die.”

While the couple was fortunate to have their home left undamaged, Mercer says the impact on their oyster supply has been significant.

“Some oyster farmers lost equipment; some lost almost all of their oysters. This time last year, we were harvesting weekly and bringing in so many oysters, and now it’s kind of bleak,” Mercer told Inweekly.

It’s unclear why exactly the storm killed the oysters, though Mercer theorizes it could be a change in salinity or stress from the storm that did it.

Now, oyster farmers in the area are further hampered by a delay in government assistance. Despite having crop insurance, the government has yet to pay one dime to oyster farmers, making it difficult to buy new oyster seed.

Even if they had the money, hurricane-impacted farmers like the Mercers are finding it hard to buy the seed—tiny oysters the size of a pinky nail required for oyster farming because the variety of oyster used is unable to spawn—while hatcheries struggle to keep up with demand.

In light of these difficulties, Mercer says the mission of Barleybrine is a dear one.

“It means a lot because for the oyster farmers, there’s no kind of relief after a storm like this,” Mercer explained. “[After the storm,] we went to state agricultural meetings, and there’s nothing for oyster [farmers] except loans. I’d say that we’re the forgotten farmers.”

Mercer is excited to share TAB Oyster’s variety of Piney Island Selects—so-named for a nearby island of the same name—and is even more excited to meet and spend time with others in her industry.

“When we do events like this Barleybrine event, it’s a time to meet new farmers from all over,” Mercer said.

TAB Oysters plan to rebuild and are working to build their crop up to its pre-hurricane status and then some.

“We want to get our crop back up, keep building and get bigger,” said Mercer. “The more people find out about farm-raised oysters, the more they taste them and love them.”

BARLEYBRINE
WHEN: Thursday, April 4-Saturday, April 6
DETAILS AND TICKET INFORMATION: bluecollards.com/barleybrine