Oysters and stout

A classic match comes together in one beer

[Originally published at Culinate, 6/7/10.]

Courtesy of Culinate.
Courtesy of Culinate.

For beer lovers, oysters and stout are a classic pairing. But how about oysters instout? It may seem strange, but oyster stouts have emerged as one of the hot trends in beer this year, with brewers across the country tossing a few shellfish into traditional stouts.

If oyster beer doesn’t sound appetizing, fear not; it doesn’t actually taste like oysters. At least, not too much. The hope is that the oysters add a touch of brine to the ale and perhaps some extra body to enhance its mouthfeel.

When tasting an oyster stout, you may struggle to pick out the bivalve’s contribution among the darkly roasted malts and bitter hops that go into stout beers. When it’s there at all, the oyster taste is in the finish, in a slight minerality that lingers on after other flavors fade. If you were to drink an oyster stout unknowingly, you’d probably assume it’s just a regular dark beer; you certainly wouldn’t be assaulted with the taste of fresh seafood.

Inventive American brewers have found ways to flavor beers with everything from pizza to bacon tochocolate donuts, so you might think oyster stouts are just the latest in the modern line of weird, sometimes gimmicky ales.

In fact, the style has a long, if mysterious, pedigree. Famed beer writer Michael Jackson wrote in 1988that it was one of the few styles of beer he had never found an opportunity to taste, spurring him to dig into its history. He discovered one oyster stout dating back to around 1900, from England’s Colchester Brewing Company. However, it’s unclear whether Colchester’s “Oyster Feast Stout” was actually made with oysters or merely intended to accompany them. Oysters and stout would have both been plentiful, and it’s possible no one thought of adding one to the other instead of enjoying them side by side.

By 1938, however, at least one commercial brewery, J. J. Young, was making a stout fortified with a canned oyster concentrate. But World War II is believed to have put a stop to production, and details about these early brews are scarce.

Over the past few years, there’s been a slow resurgence of interest in the style, with well-known breweries like the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams), Rogue, and Dogfish Head trying them out. This past winter, a handful of other breweries forayed into the style, including Harpoon in Boston, Flying Fish in New Jersey, Fort George in Oregon, and the aptly-named Oyster House Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina. Together they piqued national interest in the style as word of their beers spread online.

In Portland, Oregon, the recently established Upright Brewing found that its oyster stout became a cult favorite after building anticipation for the brew on Twitter and the company blog. Owner Alex Ganum described brewing the beer as one of his “most memorable brew days ever” as he and fellow brewer Jason McAdam (from the forthcoming Alchemy Brewing) tossed eight dozen DeCourcy oysters into the brewing kettle. (A perk of making an oyster stout: The brewers get to eat the oysters after they cook in the beer.) They also poured in 10 gallons of oyster liquor and added the cleaned shells back to the beer post-fermentation.

Ganum says Upright’s oyster stout was inspired by his love for the classic oysters-and-stout pairing. “We believed that the minerality of the oyster liquor would blend beautifully with the roast bite in the stout, and after tasting the beer in its final form, I’d like to think we were right,” he said. “The beer has lots of depth through the long finish.” Customers agreed, with nearly 100 of them crowding the brewery during the February release party to sample a pint of the beer and down an oyster shooter.

Oysters

It’s an excellent, subtle beer, which is how it should be. A stout that tasted overwhelmingly of oysters might be interesting to try once, but a beer meriting repeated enjoyment will keep those flavors in the background. Upright’s oyster stout stands on its own regardless of the novelty of its ingredients.

Finding an oyster stout to try may require some searching. It remains a niche style even in the world of craft beer brewing. Yet with the successful reception of this year’s brews, there will likely be more appearing on store shelves and tap lists soon.

In the meantime, you can still enjoy a plate of freshly shucked oysters and a dry stout to get a hint of why the two go so well together in the bottle.