While Denver is teeming with bars and restaurants serving icy platters of briny bivalves, there’s something special about the ones being shucked by Oyster Wulff’s Ben Wolven, a north-Atlantic transplant who moved to Denver 14 years ago. The third-generation Mainer not only works with some of the best oyster farmers around, he also travels the country attending oyster festivals, studying shucking techniques, and competing in oyster-shucking competitions. He even got his level-one sommelier certification just so he could identify and communicate the tasting notes and aromas present in each oyster—similar to how connoisseurs talk about wine. Right now, you can taste Wolven’s handiwork at Cherry Creek’s hip cocktail bar, Forget Me Not—where he shucks the freshest catches to order on the patio and shares his expertise with Denverites.
Wolven grew up at the top of the watershed for southern Maine’s Damariscotta River, where oysters have been cultivated and consumed for more than 2,000 years. As a boy, Wolven shucked oysters from the area’s brackish waters with his grandfather and learned about the sea’s terroir—the mineral and vegetal notes imparted to oysters via the silt, flora, and fauna in the water. Wolven’s great-grandmother founded a summer camp in Maine, and as Wolven grew up, he camped around the country, coming to the Rockies for the first time as a teenager. “I came out here for a month and we hiked on the Colorado Trail, and we slept under the stars every night,” Wolven says. “There were no tents, no bugs. It was just so beautiful. I fell in love with the state, and as soon as I could, I moved out here.”
After working as a ski bum in Breckenridge for a year, Wolven moved to Denver and shucked oysters at Jax Fish House and eventually Morin (now A5 Steakhouse), where he started sourcing shellfish from Maine and beyond. When the pandemic hit and Morin closed in spring 2020, Wolven set out on his own, starting the patio pop-up at Forget Me Not later that year when only outdoor dining was available.
“I really love bringing the ocean out here,” he says. “Every foreign food that you see in Colorado, someone brought it here for a reason, because it’s a little piece of them. It’s something that reminds them of home that they feel like they can offer to bring to the table.”
To source the freshest oysters, Wolven maintains close relationships with farmers. Wolven speaks to his producers almost daily and places orders three to four times a week. Oyster farmers don’t harvest on the weekends, but on weekdays, the oysters are plucked from the sea to order and overnighted to Denver. The oysters are packed in ice, and when they arrive, Wolven raises their temperatures to between 33 and 39 degrees. “It’s a race, the second you receive them, to move through as much product as possible and not over-warm them,” Wolven says. “I’ve been blessed to really have that kind of clock in my head.” By the time the oysters are shucked, they’ll only have been out of the water for between 24 to 48 hours.
And Wolven’s attention to detail and expert timing is evident in each plump and briny mollusk. “Pretty much every time I get a new shipment of oysters, I’ll eat one of each, and kind of rewrite my old tasting notes,” Wolven says. “The size varies depending on the water temperature—the more algae an oyster can eat, the faster it’s going to grow. So they’re ever-changing.”
Wolven looks for high salinity, which he says carries tertiary notes of reed grass, moss, or vegetal notes. “And that’s just a couple [varieties] from the East Coast,” he says, noting the vast diversity of flavor combinations. “You can find some dusty, mushroomy notes a little bit farther up depending on the tannins and the leaves that run out to the bays. And then on the West Coast, you get more melony notes and cucumber.”
And he says that despite the rumors that you should only eat oysters during months that have an ‘r’ in them, they’re good year-round. “The best time of year to eat oysters though, is right after summertime, when they just kind of gorge themselves as they’re getting ready to go down for hibernation,” Wolven says. “They’re plump and just the juiciest.”
Slurping down the briny morsels are not only good for your taste buds—they’re also good for the earth. Oysters filter the water and de-acidify the ocean, Wolven says, and building oyster reefs can also help prevent coastline erosion and protect coastlines from storm damage while creating habitats for other ocean dwellers.
“Oysters are so altruistic in the way that they give back without taking,” Wolven says. “It’s a very thankless protein, but it’s just so beautiful. “I just want to bring the freshest oysters to Denver in any capacity I can, wherever I can.”