Xin Liu peers out across the steely-blue waters of Yaquina Bay, where long-legged herons wade and a winter mist drifts to shore. It’s here, he promises, you can get a taste of place like no other.
“Yaquina Bay oysters are unique because they grow in this small estuary,” Liu says. “There’s a lot of water exchange daily. With low tides comes fresh water, and with the high tide, salt water rushes in.”
Located upriver from Newport, this deep-water estuary has been a haven for growing oysters since the farm was established by the Wachsmuth family in 1907 to supply oysters for Dan and Louis Oyster Bar. Liu learned this when he came to Oregon in 1992. A career academic, he left a teaching position at the Ocean University of China in 1992 to pursue doctoral studies at Oregon State University. His research at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport focused on genetic diversity in oysters. In 1997, he became a full-time oyster farmer for Oregon Oyster Farms, the state’s longest-standing operation of its kind.
“Here we have pristine water and a dynamic ecosystem that provides good food for the oysters to eat,” Liu says. His 500-acre farm has minimal freshwater inputs, which keeps the water clean of predators at bay (like starfish and Japanese oyster drills).
But even with these distinct qualities, Yaquina Bay does have one thing in common with many other spots on the Oregon Coast — it’s a place where oysters thrive.
Briny and crisp, a raw oyster evokes the best of the sea. As French poet Leon-Paul Fargue said, eating oysters is “like kissing the sea on the lips.” Part of oysters’ enduring mystique is how they can transport us to a place through taste. More than any other seafood, the taste of an oyster reflects its provenance, the place it comes from and how it is grown.
While oyster varieties number in the thousands, explains Liu, only five species are commercially cultured and harvested in the United States. “On the West Coast, the majority of growers focus on the Pacific — it’s sweet and rich with a slight hint of cucumber on the finish,” he says. Two other oysters found in Oregon waters are the deeply cupped Kumamoto and Olympias. The latter — the Olys — is the only oyster native to the West Coast, and returned from the brink of extinction in recent years due to a concerted restoration project. The popular Kumamoto tastes crisp and sweet with a hint of melon, while the petit Olys combines briny flavors with a distinct coppery finish.
Liu grows these three oyster varieties using suspended raft culture, a method where the mollusks dangle from 16-foot-long ropes attached to wooden floats. Each rope holds about 160 oysters, and the drifting floats can house up to 30,000 oysters. This technique keeps the oysters above the muddy floor and allows for crop rotation — since different parts of the bay affect growth rate, shell development and taste of the oyster.
“There are so many factors at play, from the temperature of the water to tidal activity,” Liu says, “but it’s the salinity of the water and the micro-algae the oysters eat that influence the flavor the most.” In this sense, oysters are similar to wine grapes — pinot noir from a vineyard in California tastes different than pinot noir grown in Oregon because the grapes are influenced by the region’s climate, soil and terrain. The French call this “terroir.”
In the oyster world, the natural surroundings that shape the personality and flavor of an oyster is known as “merroir.” “Oysters take on characteristics of their surroundings,” Liu says, “and you can taste those differences.” Oregon’s oyster “appellations” span the coast, from Tillamook and Netarts Bay to North Bend and Winchester Bay.
“Each bay grows oysters with distinct flavors,” Liu says. “When you eat an oyster from Yaquina Bay, it has a sweeter taste, it’s not as salty,” he says. An oyster plucked from Netarts Bay will splash with more sea-salt zing. Ask any farmer and they’ll agree to this one undeniable oyster truth: The best way to experience the essence of an oyster is to head to the coast and taste directly for yourself. There’s nothing more wildly satisfying than raw-oyster-eating straight from the sea, especially in Oregon.
Experience Oregon Oysters
The bays and inlets dotting the Oregon Coast, from Netarts to Coos Bay, are ideal for oyster production. As the demand for this briny bivalve soars, so does the interest in the waters where these oysters grow. Here are a few oyster-focused tours and farms open to visitors where you can slurp at the source.
Since 1983, Steve and Sharon Roso have been farming oysters on 17 acres in Netarts Bay. Soon after, they began hosting U-pick Oyster days. “We have a farm in Washington County with u-pick blueberries and boysenberries,” Roso says. “So we decided why not u-pick oysters?” When it’s low tide, the couple invites oyster lovers to harvest their own Pacifics from the pristine bay. The oyster gatherings happen about eight times annually. Before a harvest weekend, Roso runs an ad in the local paper, and places his hand-painted signs along Highway 101 and Whiskey Creek Road in the small community of Netarts. “When we get calls, I tell people, C’mon out and harvest some oysters.”(Netarts Bay by Don Frank)
As part of the recent oyster renaissance in Netarts, Friends of Netarts Bay hosts year-round Oyster Tours that focus on the culinary and cultural aspect of oysters, plus the history and ecology of Netarts Bay — one of Oregon’s cleanest and most-revered bays thanks to Jacobsen Salt Co. Tours take participants to oyster farms, seafood processing plants and Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, the largest oyster hatchery in the United States. Other stops include a behind-the-scenes visit to Netarts Bay Oyster Company, which grows Olympia oysters. Find upcoming tours on the Friends of Netarts Bay website or Facebook events page. Hop on the “Shellfish Shuffle” with Tillamook Eco Adventures for a guided tour of Tillamook and Netarts Bay, and a visit with various shellfish producers, including JAndy Oyster Company.(JAndy Oysters by Shawn Linehan)
Venture to the southern coast to taste a different merroir at Umpqua Aquaculture in Winchester Bay, a farm founded by Cindy Sardina and Vern Simmons in 1991. After researching bays along the coastline, the couple picked this one-of-a-kind spot where Winchester Bay and the Umpqua River flow into the Pacific Ocean. Oysters grow suspended on 15-foot rope, bobbing in a mix of 20 percent freshwater and 80 percent seawater, which Sardina and Simmons feel provides a high-quality oyster with a distinct flavor. At their retail store and processing center, you can watch a 7-minute video on their cultivation methods, then peek in as shuckers process oysters with remarkable ease. In the retail shop, they offer oysters shucked with cocktail sauce for a sea-salt picnic or in the shell to go.(Oyster by Shawn Linehan)