Is Wet Storage Good for Oyster Culture?
Wet storage is one of the most contentious oyster topics out there, but it barely registers on the bivalve-buzz-o-meter. It's not particularly cool or sexy, but it's worth knowing about if you want to be in-the-know.
I've been contemplating this topic for over a year now and my thoughts still bounce back and forth. But I'm just going to post what I've got for now and iterate. Comments, questions, thoughts are welcome!
The idea behind wet storage is simple. They exist to temporarily hold oysters, or other live seafood so that they don't die while they're on their way to meet certain death. (Your absentminded uncle's fancy saltwater aquarium is just a long-term wet storage system.) Anyway, you've probably seen an example of it at a fish market or high-end Chinese restaurant. There are many kinds of wet storage systems and few are straightforward.
Why does wet storage even matter to me? Let's start with a little context.
Living in the Age of Oyster Romanticism
In March of 2003, Pacific Northwest-based chef Greg Atkinson and gourmand and the late Jon Rowley were at a loss for a word. They wanted to describe an idea—a feeling—that many other oyster eaters were also experiencing at the time but couldn't quite articulate. Following a particularly memorable oyster outing, The Seattle Times published a charming piece by Atkinson in which he writes:
Voi la. Oyster romanticism was born. 24 years later, I cannot read a single freaking oyster article without running into that word: merroir. In an age where experiences are king, knowing something's provenance has become a premium attribute. Original, authentic experiences are particularly sought after. For the newly initiated oyster-sophisticate, every new variety savored is like earning a stamp in your epicurean passport. The notion that oysters have a distinct sense of place, and that we should obviously appreciate it, has become the foundation of today's premium raw bar experience and has fueled the American oyster resurgence.
Am I Crazy Or Do All of These Taste the Same?
Fast forward to 2015-2016... the more oysters that I eat at raw bars, the more I notice certain oddities. One of the oddest sensations is getting a platter of oysters from different regions and feeling like they all taste more or less the same.
Then a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a rather provocative MUNCHIES interview with Spencer Bezaire of L&E Oyster Bar in LA titled, "Running a Successful Oyster Bar Means Watching Out for Posers and Scammers." Here's the excerpt that raised my eyebrow:
If you see 16 different oysters at my oyster bar, L & E Oyster Bar, that means that I called at least a dozen different oyster farmers to obtain and verify them. Calling them individually is the only way to guarantee that they are pulling the correct oyster out of ocean water and that I am getting it 15 to 18 hours after being harvested. A lot of big seafood companies buy oysters in bulk and then have these huge wet-storage facilities where they keep a bunch of different oyster varieties in the same tank.
So, what ends up happening is that all oysters, no matter their respective region, end up tasting the same because they are all going through the same recycled water. Some companies will also fudge the harvest dates. What you see sometimes when you order through bigger companies is that there are two harvest dates on the tags, one for the ocean harvest date and one for the storage facility harvest date. It's this weird thing that happens in the oyster business.
Why are you going to pay top dollar for that Kusshi if it has been wet-stored in the same location as a regular Pacific oyster? It's going to all taste the same.
Cut the music.
If the taste of an oyster can be adulterated, and there's no good/easy way of distinguishing what's real and what's insta-ocean, then what the heck is this merroir mumbo jumbo that we all keep waxing on about???
I know that this is not a life or death situation—I'm in the 0.0001% that actually gives a shuck—but the uncertainty that this idea casts over every oyster that I eat* is what really drives me crazy.
*The feeling usually goes subsides when I visit a raw bar that I trust.
What Do Oyster Realists Have to Say?
Don't get me wrong. I realize that there are plenty of good reasons why wet storage is valuable, important, the future, blah blah blah. It keeps the product fresh (alive!!), which is what consumers want in the end, right? But what are the tradeoffs? What aren't we being told? I decided to raise my questions up with a handful of oyster professionals across the supply chain. Here's what I learned:
John Finger, Co-Founder & CEO of Hog Island Oyster Farm
From the start of our conversation, John spoke openly about their wet storage system, which was installed in 1988 to help mediate the supply & demand discrepancies that would arise due to rainfall closures. Today, Hog Island Oyster Farm relies on their open flow system year-round to ensure that they always have a quality product at the ready. They filter all of the incoming seawater, pumped directly from Tomales Bay, through a UV disinfection system.
How long do oysters stay in the wet storage facility? Anywhere from 24-48 hours, but no more than three days. A few days apparently does not impact the taste, or so John argues. "You'd be hard pressed to taste the difference." I'd love the opportunity to try that theory out.
"What most people [consumers] don't realize is that wet storage is a common industry practice," said John. He brought up the signature French technique of L'Affinage, a premium refinement phase that is part wet storage, part oyster feedlot. Rough explanation: young, farmed oysters are transported into nutrient-dense basins, aka claires, for about one to four months to fatten and sweeten up. They become the creme de la creme of French oyster society and go for top dollar around the world.
Ben Lloyd, Owner & President of Pangea Shellfish Company
Ben echoed many of John's points and also added another layer from the perspective of a wholesaler. Pangea Shellfish designed their recirculating wet storage system to meet different objectives for different types of shellfish. They selectively store oysters, such as Belons (those suckers aren't great about staying alive) or other varieties that travel great distances. "We couldn't bring in oysters from New Zealand otherwise!"
But many misinterprets Pangea's efforts to improve product quality and customer satisfaction. "I beat my head against the wall sometimes because a lot of chefs don't understand, or tolerate oysters with harvest dates past four or five days." Some oysters can take that long just to get from the farm to the local distributor. There's nothing sadder than getting a bag of thirsty (or dead!) oysters after a long journey. Those types would certainly benefit from a quick dip in a wet storage tank.
I have not seen Pangea's wet storage system yet, but I feel like I'm there when I watch this video:
Marco Pinchot, Former Director of Brand Marketing at Taylor Shellfish Farms
How does wet storage impact the oyster's merroir? Marco has shucked and savored an impressive number of oysters. He believes that a few days in wet storage does not impact an oyster's taste. "The only thing that wetstorage is going to affect is [the oyster's] salinity," he explained. Well, doesn't the liquor play a significant role in the oyster tasting experience? To that, Marco tries to get me to see the bigger picture. "Merroir is comprised of the oyster's entire growing process. From the algae and nutrients in the water to the glycogen that it stores up, which produces the sweetness and flavor notes."
I suppose that the water salinity on any farm could fluctuate from day to day, whereas flavor develops gradually. Based on that, I guess you could downplay the importance of preserving the original liquor and prioritize hydration. Also in some cases, manipulating the salinity can be a good thing. It helps calibrate oysters to appeal to the mass palate.
Two out of the three Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bars in Seattle boasts their own wet storage tanks. The water salinity is set to about 27-28 ppt (seawater is 35 ppt). Marco swears by oysters directly served out of wet storage instead of on ice. "Ultimately, freshness is THE most important thing when it comes to live seafood."
Is Wet Storage Good or Bad? That Depends...
After my lengthy inquiry into wet storage, I've come out feeling conditionally OK with wet storage in principle. Knowing what I know now, it's impossible to generalize everything as either "good" or "bad."
The truth is that when wet storage is done properly, it is a good thing. But to Spencer's point, wet storage also inevitably introduces many more opportunities to screw things up (ie., when all of the oysters taste more or less the same). Some companies refuse to use wet storage, while others embrace it with open arms.
As a last attempt to get closure, I got Spencer on the phone to talk to me about this. He summed up the situation perfectly by quoting his friend and supplier, Adam James from Hama Hama: "If you have it, you love it. If you don't have it, you hate it." Hama Hama Co. employs wet storage, by the way, and I still love them.
I just wish that there was an easy way for consumers to know what they're getting themselves into. Perhaps the truly exceptional raw bars should offer to provide the bag tags with their oyster sampler platters. Now if only they're easy to read... I guess that's my next post, right?