Photos by Ruta Smith

Oyster. ( ‘o·i-stər ). The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes this tasty morsel as “any of various marine bivalve mollusks (family Ostreidae) that have a rough irregular shell closed by a single adductor muscle and include commercially important shellfish.”

Most Charlestonians just describe oysters as delicious.

In 1946, on a small 13 acre island only accessible by boat at high tide, Bowen’s Island Restaurant opened its doors. Defying the odds of hurricanes, recessions and a fire in 2006, it has been serving up seafood to the Lowcountry for almost 80 years! 

Hope Barber and chef Lee Lipman collaborated on the brewey’s January Oyster Stout.

Each January, Hope Barber and a select crew from Bowen’s Island team up with Holy City Brewing to create a very unique style of beer, the Oyster Stout. Luckily, we were in the right place at the right time this year and joined the crew in the North Charleston brewhouse at Holy City. A damn good time ensued. Combining the delectable flavors of rich, salty oysters and the sweet maltiness of a rich stout, the Bowen’s Island Oyster Stout comes to life. This oyster stout uses the oyster meat and the shell during the boiling process to capture the briney, mouthwatering slurp of a Lowcountry oyster. 

Fun fact: Did you know that in the late 1800s, oysters were used to clarify beer because they are full of calcium carbonate? History doesn’t tell us when oysters were first used as a beer ingredient but some say it was in the 1930s.

The January Oyster Stout brew day has become something of a winter tradition. Holy City co-owner and brewer Chris Brown is always an excellent host for the Bowen’s crew. “It’s always a party when they are here.” said Chris. “and we look forward to it.”

Generations in business

Hope Barber is the great grand-daughter of Jimmy and May Bowen. At an early age, she moved up north to pursue her education and love of ice hockey and cross-country skiing. While studying in Massachusetts, she worked part-time in the restaurant when she was back in town. But soon the calling of the Lowcountry drew her back and in 1998, she joined the family business full-time. 

The Bowen’s Island family is more than a restaurant. It is an institution where the Barber family owns all but two lots on the island. Hope said she now enjoys living and working on the island that her family has called home for almost a century. 

 In 2006, a fire burned down the original structure. Four years later after a lot of planning and organizing, Bowen’s Island Restaurant opened in a new building that boasts a huge covered patio and entertainment venues, inside and out. The gorgeous view of the Folly River waterways doesn’t hurt either. The restaurant continues to thrive in this location today, drawing in everyone from locals and Citadel cadets to visitors from nearby and far away. 

One reason, we’ve chosen to highlight this Lowcountry institution is because all that it has done to give back to the community, including the beer community. With 16 draft lines, Bowen’s Island is always stocked with local brews. It started serving draft beers when only Holy City Brewing, Westbrook and Palmetto Brewing offered kegs. 

“We have always had a connection with local industries, and we love working with them,” said Hope. One very special connection is being with Holy City Brewing. That afternoon as we talked, we enjoyed fresh local oysters (with a little lime, hot sauce and crackers). “I’m pretty sure we were the first local oyster stout, and we love brewing it with Chris and the guys every year.” 

A strong conservation ethic

In keeping with tradition, Bowen’s Island is heavily involved in conservation efforts. It recycles all of the oyster shells is uses in the restaurant and and contributes to the care of the local oyster beds. 

It has partnered with local fishermen to create a sustainable seafood harvesting environment with people like like Richard Singleton, an an employee of Bowen’s Island, as well as a multi-generation oyster farmer. He has been harvesting oysters for over 20 years, and works alongside his cousins and oyster pickers Jamie White and Adrian Wallace. 

“People come into town, harvest up to 100 bushels a day, then get the hell out,” he told Hops. “Our family has a ulture permit. That means we replant and reseed the areas we harvest, making sure there are oysters there to eat tomorrow. Some that we harvest on our lease are as big as your hand. They may have been there five or 10 years.” 

Richard and his family learned their trade from their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. Their association with Bachman Seafood Company and the community of Sol Legare Island stretches for generations and continues to be a part of the seafood community today. 

Bowen’s Island has also hosted Charleston Outdoor Adventures (COA) for the last 11 years. COA is dedicated to educating locals and guests about the value of the natural wonder that is the South Carolina coast. Whether it’s kayaking, paddleboarding, boat tours or fishing, it offers year-round opportunities to join in stewardship of the waterways. You can find COA on the dock at Bowen’s Island Restaurant — just look for the colorful line up of kayaks.

Whether you are a local or a visitor, don’t miss the chance to take the drive down Folly Road to Bowen’s Island. Get the fried shrimp and a bucket of oysters. Grab a local beer — an oyster stout, when it’s available. And take a Sharpie to write your name on the walls. But mainly, take time to relax and enjoy the view and the restaurant’s 76 years of service to the community.

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