LOCAL BREW IN THE LITTLE TOWN THAT COULD
Words by Melanie Cissons
Photos by Wes Frazer
In Apalachicola, Florida at the corner of Commerce Street and Avenue D, across from the longstanding Owl Café, and a block from where the Apalachicola River meets its bay, stands Oyster City Brewing Company. Aptly named for the town that has long been known as the Oyster Capital of Florida, both the tiny old fishing village and its new native brewery emblemize a crossroad in time and place. The lifeblood of this seafaring community can be felt coursing through the salty veins of friends, neighbors, and visitors who sidle up proudly to the brewery’s tasting room bar to chat and swig its homegrown brews poured from taps made of oystermen’s culling irons mounted to the disassembled stern of an old oyster boat on its wall.
Oyster City Brewing Company (OCBC) is the definitive poster child for “third place,” an informal gathering spot, as it’s known among urban planners, where folks congregate between home first and workplace second. Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist, professor emeritus at University of West Florida, and author of “The Great Good Place,” writes that the third place is not “a mere haven of escape from home and work.” Citing the social and cultural vitality it imparts on society, Oldenburg says, “The first and most important function of third places is that of uniting the neighborhood.” It’s the German beer garten, the English pub, the French café, and coffeehouses the world over. It is Oyster City Brewing Company.
Hopeful proprietors open such businesses in towns and cities around the world. But the assemblage of people who, for example, notice when someone doesn’t show for three days and will go to check on them is an ecosystem that can’t be thrust on any establishment. Whether it’s a bar or barber shop, an atmosphere that arises from a perfect storm of passionate origins, superior products or services, and an organically grown attendance of neighborly regulars, are what make a third place a magical stopover in an otherwise ordinary day. Certainly, it’s nothing that can be strategized in a business plan; it happens.
What is deliberate in the burgeoning craft- and micro-brewing beer industry are the wily names given to beers. Six-year-old OCBC is no exception. In the wake of hurricanes, a brewmaster’s love of alliteration, names already taken, the fishing town’s rich history and folklore, in addition to its coastal locality, offers unique material on which Oyster City Brewery draws.
Water, sewer, and power interruptions in the six days following 2018’s Hurricane Michael resulted in OCBC’s first and only hazy beer, Fermentus Interruptus Hurricane Hazy IPA. A one-off of pure ingenuity, a category five portion of its sales proceeds went to victim relief. Hoping to use the name Cooter Brown—yes, as in “drunk as Cooter Brown”—but finding the permanently-plastered Civil War draft dodger’s renown already in use, OCBC had to look no further than its ingredients and hometown for a clever twist up. With OCBC’s founders’ other operation named Owl Café and such ingredients as tupelo and gallberry honey harvested at Owl Creek, an Apalachicola River tributary, “Cooter” was wisely modified to Hooter for a wry and satisfying adjustment. Tate’s Helles is OCBC’s German-style lager. According to local legend, nearby Tate’s Hell State Forest was named for a lost homesteader who journeyed into the 200,000-acre wood to hunt the panther that killed his livestock. In OCBC land, Hell became Helles, German for light in color, und da hast du malt lager. Rounding out OCBC’s cleverly named brews is Red Right Return, an amber ale dubbed for the side of the boat where buoys should be when a mariner is shore bound.
Clayton Mathis is OCBC’s Director of Operations. A craft beer enthusiast, the Gafney, South Carolina, native approached OCBC’s owners in 2014 while employed full-time as a drugstore manager in Apalach, as locals say, with the idea of apprenticeship. With little more than homebrewing as experience, Clayton was there daily after drugstore hours and continues today to maintain the stick-to-it attitude that got him the job. Having done everything from scrub floors to manage equipment operations, Clayton came aboard as the brewery’s cellarman in 2015 and swiftly became responsible for what he describes as “the sanitary creation and movement of liquids.”
OCBC’s owners hadn’t really brewed beer commercially. They did recognize, however, that their café’s next-door Tap Room offered about a dozen draft beers and its bartenders endured a daily barrage of inquiries about what local beers were among them. There weren’t any. Inexperience be damned, they placed their faith in Clayton’s drive and his willingness to learn during his apprenticeship, loaded him up with dozens of books on brewing beer, and entrusted him to turn out recipes that would distinguish the brand as a discerning local brewery that delivers a wink and a nod to the people, industry, and waterside locale on which it was established.
Clayton yields the brewmaster label to OCBC’s 30-year veteran, Jamie Ray. Initially hired in 2014 as a consultant, Jamie was working as Birmingham-based Back Forty Beer Co.’s brewmaster before joining the Apalach gang. Colleagues Clayton and Jamie are decidedly OCBC’s secret sauce makers.
Gem state native Jamie Ray began brewing beer as a hobby in the late 1980s. After college, he bought a book, read it, and acquired home brew equipment to try his hand. He and a buddy brewed beer every weekend. Rarely does a novice’s first batch turn out well, but theirs did. As a result of his early successes, Jamie was propelled into continuing the adventure. When he was a graduate student at University of Idaho studying plant science and genetics, the home brewer says, “I was roped into” starting a club. A posting for club membership on a local health food store bulletin board led to brewing for a local pub. Ultimately, the creative nature of craft brewing combined with its science was enough for Jamie to leave graduate school. An unexpected career was born.
Apalachicola, once the Gulf of Mexico’s third largest port next to New Orleans and Mobile, is home to fishermen, shrimpers, and oyster harvesters. If its surname derives from the region’s indigenous people, resilience is its middle name.
Natively populated by the coastal farming Apalachee tribe for some 1,000 years, Apalachicola was colonized by the Spanish in the early 16th century and traded back and forth with the British during the late 18th century until its incorporation in 1830. Nestled on a bay between St. Vincent and St. George islands, Apalachicola is somewhat protected from the ravages of hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico. It’s really the little town that could! In recent history, the people of Apalach have withstood devastating weather, a far-reaching oil spill, the long arm of the Army Corps of Engineers’ control over its bay’s freshwater supply, and the economic damage wrought by whole industries that have come and gone.
OCBC investor, native Floridian, and one half of the Florida Georgia Line country duo, Brian Kelley, says, “I’m filled up every time I go to Apalachicola.” Brian connects the spirit of its residents with the brewery.
“To me, Oyster City is more than just beer. There’s a little bit of Apalach in everything we make. There’s an entire community embracing it.”
Creating a superior product by sticking to classic beer profiles, treating its employees well in the context of making a profit, and keeping growth contained and manageable, are what rule OCBC’s offerings and its eye to future opportunity. Brewmaster Jamie says, “I love the culture of one-offs, but it doesn’t mean you have to have 16 IPAs and sours.”
OCBC is in the early stages of introducing its products to the packaging market through an alternating proprietorship with Brew Hub in Lakeland, Florida, which is where Jamie is based. By canning Tate’s Helles; Apalach IPA; Hooter Brown; Mangrove Pale Ale; and Mill Pond Dirty Blonde, a blonde ale; OCBC is on track for broader regional distribution.
Not one to limit the scope of Oyster City’s market, big thinking singer-songwriter Brian Kelley acknowledges that oysters are harvested around the world. Virtually salivating, OCBC’s celebrity partner thinks aloud about how heavenly tasting a cold beer is paired with a sweet ‘n’ salty raw bi-valve. Invoking the tenacious will of Apalachicola’s people who’ve welcomed OCBC as a partner in the local nature of neighborhood building as a model, Brian says, “Oyster City could have a global presence.” One might argue that the world is Oyster City’s pearl.