Jonathan Swift once purportedly said, “He was a bold man, who first ate an oyster.” Surely, bolder is the man who first added oysters to beer. While the oyster stout may seem like a new style of beer reserved for the upper crust, it actually has its roots in the working-class world of Victorian England.
Imagine you are finishing a hard day’s work hauling boxes and shipments around the markets of London a couple of centuries ago. You walk into the local pub and sit at the bar for a pint and a snack. Do you get peanuts and a light lager? No! Placed before you are oysters and a mug of stout. By the early 19th century, porters and stouts were everyday beers, and oysters were common bar snacks. Legend has it that porter actually derived its name from its popularity amongst the porters in the markets of London. During this time, an oyster stout was a dark beer made for pairing with oysters rather than a beer brewed with them. And what could be more perfect than pairing the roasty earthiness of a stout with the tender brininess of oysters?
Some beer historians believe that oysters and beers have a relationship beyond delicious food pairing. Allegedly, crushed oyster shells were added as a natural fining to clarify beer without the use of filtration. Regardless, the pairing enjoyed great popularity during the Victorian era, but approaching changes near the turn of the 20th century resulted in a decline of both oyster and dark-beer consumption. Innovations in malting led to the increasing competitive demand of pale ales and lagers, and oysters became less plentiful due to over-dredging. Happily, a newly-conceptualized oyster stout debuted in 1929 when a New Zealand brewery added oysters to its stout during the brewing process. At the onset of WWII, a couple of British breweries adopted this method. The act of adding oysters to beer became fairly common as part of a trend to fortify beer with nutritional additives in an effort to keep the population well nourished. The oyster-stout phenomenon has continued mostly below popular radar until the past few years’ unprecedented explosion of craft beer and culinary exploration.
It is important to point out that one does not need to be a culinary thrill-seeker or a bivalve enthusiast to enjoy an oyster stout. If done appropriately, adding oysters to the brew will not create a seafood-flavored beer; instead, the result is a rich stout with a hint of the sea – just present enough to pair perfectly with oysters.
Breweries employ different techniques for brewing an oyster stout. Some use only the meat, and others use only the shell. Some breweries add whole oysters to the kettle long enough allow the oyster to melt away, while others boil the whole oyster to leave a bit of the gamey flavors in the brew. The shell imparts a slight minerality and texture, and the oyster liquor, or juice inside the shell, offers a subtle briny flavor and fuller mouth feel to the stout.
For this year’s one-off holiday release, called “Paul’s Working Holiday,” The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery used whole Sewansecott oysters grown in Hog Island Bay, Virginia in its Oyster Stout. In fact, fresh batches of whole oysters were steeped at four different times during the kettle boil for precisely ten minutes each time. The result? As mentioned above, this beer excels in subtlety and suggestion. There is no obvious brininess, yet on top of the layers of roasty malt flavors, a mild herbal hop aroma, and the silky smooth texture imparted by the oats in the grist, there’s a little something that you cannot quite place. Perhaps through mere cognizance of oysters in the stout, you might be convinced of a vague maritime flavor. In reality, it is no more than the slightest tinge of brine that contributes to the complexity of a deep, full-bodied, and beautifully well-balanced stout.
There is no need to further elaborate on food pairing suggestions, so sit down to a peck and a pint and enjoy!
Robin & Katie