Aw, shucks! Seaweed Blonde and Oyster Stout.
Updated: Feb 13
Have you ever heard of a Fish Bladder IPA or a Seaweed Blonde Ale? How about an Oyster Stout? You've likely never heard of the first two - for good reason - they sound disgusting. You very easily could have heard of the third one and you may have even tried one before. However, I can assure you, you've tasted far more Fish Bladder IPAs and Seaweed Blonde Ales than Oyster Stouts.
The Flaggy Shore
Before I explain myself, let me take you on a trip to Ireland. My parents, my siblings, and our SO's rented a cottage on the west coast, just south of Galway in the Burren, on the Flaggy Shore. It's a very rural part of the country, filled with low green hills, dotted with grazing cows and partitioned by ancient stone walls. Waves calmly brush up against the shore that is more stone than sand, leaving behind strands of seaweed. The smell of the ocean permeates everything, laced with peat smoke. Along the shore, within stumbling distance of our cottage, is a pub, a favorite of the local fishermen.
One night, I'm sitting in the pub next to the fire, talking to a local about many things, most pertinent here being beer. We were likely on our 3rd or 4th Guinness at that point in the conversation. I pointed toward a shelf behind the bar, near bottles of Jameson and gin, where a dusty bottle of Oyster Stout rested. "How's that?" I asked my new friend. "Never tried it. Why would I when we have this?" he replied while lifting his Guinness. So it goes.
I noticed many bottles of Oyster Stout on shelves behind Irish bars, more as an oddity than an offering as few had any fresh or any at all in stock. One pub had a draught line dedicated to oyster stout, but sadly, it was sold out when I visited. There was plenty of stout, and plenty of oysters, but never did they comingle in the bottle.
Back in the US, a few breweries occasionally release an oyster stout (I've had 3 or 4 commercial examples). I'm not aware of any that have one as a flagship. That is entirely understandable as the consensus appears to be to turn one's nose up at the thought of oysters in beer. Which is a shame, as anyone that has paired a stout such as Guinness with well-prepared oysters can tell you that it is a lovely combination. The dark roasty beer mixing with the brine of the oyster takes me back to Linnane's.
Chef Juan is a master shucker.
The origin story of Oyster Stout is (allegedly) that breweries on the coast with easy access to oysters discovered that adding shells to the boil would cause the beer to drop more clearly, resulting in a more attractive pint - without affecting the flavor of the beer. This went on for some time amongst brewers until one such pub brewer, likely seeing his or her patrons slurping oysters alongside porter and stout thought to cut out the middleman and added the oyster meat into the beer as well.
I don't know how true that story is, but there's reason to believe it. Calcium does help a beer drop clear and oyster shells are loaded with calcium. Fish bladders and seaweed also help beers drop clear and are prevalent enough that the last beer you drank likely had one of those two ingredients added to it (I told you I'd come back to why I asked you that question). And the decision to add the meat to the beer? Admittedly the first person to do so was likely a little strange (/brave), it is a totally valid way to cook oysters - they pick up the flavor of the beer!
A stainless steel strainer helps fish them out
I pitched the idea of brewing a small batch of oyster stout for our Valentine's Day Beer Dinner (wink wink, nudge nudge) to the other managing partners and they looked worried, but to their credit, they didn't say no(!). So I worked with our head chef Juan to source and shuck enough oysters to get over 2 pounds of meat. Two pounds of shells (which was a little less than half the total shells) were added at the start of the boil and then in the last 5 or so minutes, I boiled the meat in a strainer so I could easily pull them out. Juan then promptly battered and fried the oysters, which made for a delicious meal as the stout cooled down on its way to the fermenter.
That 2 pounds of meat wasn't exactly an arbitrary decision. From what limited information I could find online, it looked like you want to use between 2 to 6 pounds of oyster meat per barrel of beer (between 1-3oz per gallon). That's quite the range. From my experience, too few oysters and it's just another beer - not even perceptible on the palate. Too many and you have fish soup beer. Somewhere in the middle, you get an increased perception of sweetness thanks to the salinity of the oyster liquor and whiff of coastal character, not unlike a mild Islay Whiskey.
What it doesn't taste like, is oysters. So if you've never tried oyster stout before, your chance is coming up soon with the release of Father of Perl. To quote one of the initially skeptical partners when he tried it, "Hey! This actually isn't bad. It's good!"