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Oyster Fest's Beer Choice is Shuck It 

click to enlarge Mad River brewer Ross McCabe adds dry hops to a batch of Steelhead IPA.

Photo by Zach Lathouris, courtesy of Arcata Main Street

Mad River brewer Ross McCabe adds dry hops to a batch of Steelhead IPA.

After virtual Oyster Fests with online entertainment and curbside pickup of oysters and beer, and an in-person tangle of food and drink lines by the Creamery District, the June return to the Arcata Plaza feels nostalgic. No entry fees, no fences. Just the old ouroboros of people circling the lawn and the bands and lining up for food and beer.

In previous plaza celebrations, what's on tap at the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival and how much Arcata Main Street would pay for it has caused some frosty feelings. Local producers balked when the organization requested beer donations in 2018, and brewers and attendees alike took issue when AMS granted Crescent City's SeaQuake Brewery exclusive sales instead of local brewers in 2019 ("Pour One Out," April 25, 2019). That kerfuffle spawned a rival Shuck Yeah event held the same day. And last year's in-person event left the crowd thirsty with long lines and tapped-out kegs ("Oyster Fest's Rocky Return," June 30, 2022). This year, AMS, for whom the festival is the main fundraiser, is again going with a single brewery but a local one. Mad River Brewing Co. will have four beers on the plaza, including a new Indigenous-sourced brew labeled Shuck It, for the festival.

Gil Miracle, event coordinator of Arcata Main Street, who is managing Oyster Fest for the first time, says, "We are digging our way out of the hole of the pandemic like everyone else." The organization, he says, sees partnering with one local brewery as a streamlining and cost-saving measure "instead of negotiating seven different deals with every brewery." The press release sent out last week, he says, was meant to inform those other breweries at once, as well.

The single brand of beer, Miracle says, promises faster lines. He's hesitant to criticize the previous year's team but says the main complaint last year was the long wait for beer. The hope is that upping the number of stands from three to four and saving time by not having to switch out tap handles for different beers will shorten lines. And with 180 kegs, he says, those stands should be "fully stocked" and not leaving folks parched.

Jessica Carenco, marketing director for Mad River Brewing Co., says, "When Arcata Main Street reached out to us directly and kind of presented us with their needs, they were hoping to have a local brewery partner where they could offer something new" and still "work within their fiscal capacity." MRB was already developing a recipe brewers felt would work well with the festival, a "white label" beer that could be specially branded for a company or event, as well as sold under a different label later. "We did a tasting and kind of talked about some other recipes," she says, as well as some "gaps" in promotions and marketing where MRB could provide help and resources for the strapped and stretched AMS staff. "Post COVID, we wanted to see the event thrive."

Brewers Kevin Montgomery and Ross McCabe headed up a team to create the beer MRB has labeled Indigenous-style ale, not only drawing on the company's Yurok tribal ownership but sourcing the native species of corn from the Ioway Tribe in Kansas and Nebraska. "It's a step in the process of getting to our goal of fully Indigenous farm-to-table beer," says Carenco, adding the partnership with the Ioway Tribe supports intertribal commerce, "restoring traditional trade routes ... tribes helping tribes."

Carenco has yet to try the final product but found one of the most recent versions as "surprisingly crisp and light, very session-able, a little sweet from that corn." The team feels it's a match for oysters, too. "We're looking at it as the beer of the festival," she says. Shuck It will also be soft launched at a few local taps before and during the week of Oyster Fest, and it will sell under a yet-to-be-announced label later.

Miracle, who has tasted Shuck It in its final form, says, "I'm not even a beer drinker and I was blown away." He says the slightly lower alcohol content is a plus, "so you'll be able to drink it out in the sun all day." He laughs, adding, "Get a bunch of IPAs in there and everyone's falling out by noon."

Miracle acknowledges "getting heat" for not featuring local beer at previous Oyster Fests but doesn't expect the same blowback despite going with only one brewery. "It's a tribal-owned, woman-run, community-oriented brewery. You'd have to try really hard to come up with a complaint about this one." The publicity campaign in conjunction with MRB was meant to get the word out all at once, he says. "This year, we wanted to communicate with the community effectively and have no surprises."

But after years of working with AMS to slake the thirst of the festival crowds — rocky as it's been at times — finding out MRB would be the only beer on the plaza via the press release was a surprise for some. "Speaking for the Humboldt Brewing Co.," says owner Andy Ardell in an email to the Journal, "I would prefer a variety of breweries to represent an event like this, especially with so many people from outside the county attending." It's exposure some local breweries count on to market their beer to new customers.

"We want these people to enjoy something from all of the breweries and styles of beer," Ardell says. "They might not have a chance to get to the other breweries throughout the weekend."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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