Beer & Bivalves

The history of Olympia is one of liquid riches


shellfishA scant 10 minutes after stepping out of my car in Olympia, I’m already slurping raw oysters.

My first stop on a road trip to Washington’s state capital is the Olympia Farmers Market, a year-round affair that bustles with shoppers selecting fresh produce, locally-raised meat, cut flowers, artisanal goods, and local crafts, against a backdrop of live music. The air at the market, situated about a block away from Puget Sound, smells deeply of seaweed and salt — rather like oysters.

I visit the Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters table first, where I meet owners Fran and Evan Adams and their son, John, the farm’s third-generation owner. His daughter, Ellie, brings me raw, freshly shucked Olympia oysters — small and shallow-cupped, which the Adamses raise a short distance away, in the Little Skookum Inlet.

Tasting the state’s native oysters is the perfect inauguration for this beer-and-bivalves-themed road trip, one that will knit together the region’s two heritage products, both inextricably tied to the South Sound’s history and culture. Oysters, most notably, have played an important role in the area’s development, so it’s these prized bites that I am most after, among all the other shellfish.

“Our oysters and their flavors are deeply bound by location,” says John, whose customers can eat Sound Fresh oysters raw, right there, with a squeeze of lime and a dash of cocktail sauce made by Hot Babe–Hot Sauce, a local purveyor also present at the market. Customers can take home raw oysters, as well as other bivalves — a fancy term for an aquatic mollusk with a hinged shell — like Manila and Littleneck clams.

John and his wife Amy tell me about the history of the farm and the importance of the farmers market in their family’s work. “Working in the mud is very unglamorous, but it’s rewarding to bring our products to the market and talk face to face with customers,” says Amy. And the customers benefit, too.

“When you’re eating an oyster as a consumer, you’re able to touch it, smell it, taste it, and understand where it came from,” says John. “You’re able to bind with that place through flavor.”

Indeed, preservation of place is an important part of Sound Fresh’s ethos, given they’re the only farm in the Olympia area bringing the namesake oyster — the Sound’s native oyster — to market.

For the Adamses, oysters and clams are important far beyond family history. On their property there’s an ancient shell midden — a sort of early trash heap — left behind by American Indians long ago — proof that these bivalves were a critical part of the indigenous diet. Oysters and other bivalves continued to be important when the first American settlers arrived in late 1845, too late in the year to plant crops. The settlers relied heavily on shellfish to fuel them through the winter.

Starting in the mid-1800s, oyster harvesting became big business in the South Sound. The prized bivalves were sold first to restaurants in Seattle and later shipped to Portland, San Francisco, and beyond, to such an extent that overharvesting led to a sharp decline in oyster populations and new regulations that controlled harvesting. Oyster harvesting has continued to be big business here.

Just a few stands away, Ross Paddock runs his Sea Blossoms Seafoods stand, selling all manner of raw seafood sourced from independent fishers around the region. His bivalve selection the day I visit includes mussels from Kamilche Sea Farm in Shelton, razor clams, and Alaska weathervane scallops dredged in Kodiak. Ross, a former restaurant chef, suggests beer-battering the razor clams in an amber ale before tossing them in the deep fryer, and adding mussels to a linguine with garlic and white wine.

Behind Ross, several small takeout stands sell hot meals. Continuing my bivalve theme, I stop at Dingey’s Puget Sound Cuisine, one of several permanent food trucks at the market. I meet Dan Ricklick, who works the line and the register with his parents, Craig and Teresa, lending her nickname to the restaurant’s moniker.

Just like at Sound Fresh, the food stall is a multi-generational enterprise; Dan’s daughter and two sons also work here. I enjoy a piping hot cup of New England clam chowder and pan-fried oysters while listening to Grammy Award–winning trumpeter Tracey D. Hooker belt out the tunes at the stage nearby.

Despite the South Sound’s long history with oysters, I discover that there aren’t many places locally to get them raw. Attempting to change that are Shina Wysocki and Kyle Lentz, siblings who manage their parents’ Chelsea Farms, which raises oysters, clams, and geoducks in the nearby Eld Inlet, one of the many finger-like waterways forming the intricate Buddha’s hand at the southern end of Puget Sound.

I meet Shina and Kyle at their oyster bar inside the 222 Market, a new multi-purveyor food market in downtown Olympia. Here, under the guidance of Chef Austin Navarre, Chelsea Farms is bringing locally
grown, raw oysters back to the masses.
As we slurp the farm’s tide-tumbled Chelsea gems topped with Navarre’s almost-too-pretty-to-eat mignonette with pear, gin, and delicate purple amaranth flowers, we discuss the bar’s offerings, which include oysters from their own farm and a few nearby, Chelsea’s geoduck prepared with seasonal vegetables and salads, mussels in curry, and a fried-oyster po’boy. As much as possible, the team will source from local purveyors; already, Kirsop Farm, The Fresh Approach, and Black Hills Organics are in the line-up.

Shina and Kyle have also hired experts to run their cocktail, wine, and beer program, all with pairings in mind that will complement the flavors of their oysters.

“Our family’s been sitting around talking about oysters and food our whole lives,” says Shina, “so it’s exciting to bring it full circle.”

We test various beer-and-oyster pairings, including a slightly salty and sour gose, a pilsner, a stout, and a surprisingly light double IPA, each offering a range of interesting flavors that bring out the complexities of the oysters.

“South Puget Sound is the oyster-growing capital of the U.S.,” Kyle muses as we slurp. “This oyster bar helps us have that presence in the community, allowing us to talk to people about what we’re eating. Farmers want to know their consumers just as much as the other way around. One of the most enjoyable things about farming is meeting the people who are tasting what you grew.”

I end my day with beer samples and a few rounds of raw and baked oysters at Three Magnets Brewing, a few blocks from 222 Market downtown. There, owners Nate and Sara Reilly tell me the story of their brewery, which was one of just two in existence in Olympia when it opened in November 2014.

The brewery, named “one to watch” in 2015 by DRAFT Magazine, takes its name from an idea presented in the 1898 book “Garden Cities of To-morrow.” The concept involves three community options — town, country, and a hybrid of the two — acting as magnets that draw people in, just as the Reillys hope to do with their brewery. And, of course, the magnet resembles a horseshoe, the age-old logo for the city’s original Olympia Beer.

Nate and Sara are brewing at full capacity, making award-winning beers that span the spectrum of styles. But, they say, the beer scene in Olympia has a way to go to rival that of Tacoma or even Seattle.

“Olympia is really right on the verge of getting there,” Nate says. “Until the last couple of years, most restaurants carried only local options like Mac & Jack’s. Everyone was really behind the curve. Hello, the 90s wants their tap list back.”

But breweries are popping up around the South Sound, and things are starting to heat up. Downtown Olympia is seeing new housing developments pop up — including one right across the street from Three Magnets — and Nate and Sara think the inevitable population growth will help drive the beer scene development.

So what of Olympia’s namesake beer, that once-ubiquitous, low-price lager with the orange logo and horseshoe arching over Tumwater Falls, which provided power to the brewhouse? To find out, I tour the hulking, former brewery site near downtown Tumwater with Heidi Cerniway, assistant city administrator for the City of Tumwater.

Heidi deftly explains the history of each building we pass, including the towering six-story, 1906-era brewhouse, canning facilities, cellar building, and keg plant. Founded in 1896 by Leopold Schmidt, a German immigrant, Olympia Beer was bought by Pabst in 1983. The brewery closed in 2003, and it has sat empty since then, although the brand continues to be an indelible part of the community.

“You can’t go too far in this town without running into someone who’s worked here,” Heidi says as we step over shards of brick that have chipped off the brewhouse in earthquakes and harsh weather.

The City of Tumwater now owns the old brewhouse building and is pursuing plans to develop it as a craft-brewing and distilling center. The project is still years away from being realized, but the goal is to honor an important part of the area’s history.

Meanwhile, another local brewery is doing its part to honor the area’s beer history. My last stop on the trip is a tasting and tour at Top Rung Brewing in Lacey, cofounded in 2014 by firefighters Jason Stoltz and Casey Stobol.

Top Rung rotates much of its tap list, but two mainstays include a traditional lager and a dark lager, both homages to Olympia Beer. “Most people don’t realize Oly did a dark lager, too,” says Jason, head brewer.

Jason says Top Rung has doubled its capacity each year since opening in 2014, and it is currently figuring out how to maximize the remaining space in its warehouse for more growth. It’s one of those “good problems” facing craft breweries like this one, and in the Olympia area, it’s a sure sign that area residents are still thirsty for local beer.

Megan Hill is Edible Seattle’s Managing Editor and Social Media Manager. She also freelances for a number of other publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

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