Oyster stout edges into popularity

“HE WAS A BOLD MAN,” wrote 18th-century Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, “that first eat an oyster.” But no less bold was the first brewer who added oysters to his stout. After all, salty, squishy and arousing are not adjectives one normally associates with beer.

And, yet, lately we’re seeing an unexpected surge in the quirky style known as oyster stout:

¶Harpoon Brewing (Massachusetts) has released the latest in its 100 Barrel Series, Island Creek Oyster Stout, made with freshly harvested Massachusetts oysters.

¶Upright Brewing (Oregon) bottled a new, limited-edition batch of its Oyster Stout, made with 30 pounds of oysters and oyster liquor.

¶Last month’s Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco featured a symposium beer from California’s Iron Springs, Marin and Magnolia breweries made with 1,000 local oysters.

The unusual variety is not about to supplant the likes of Guinness or even cultish Harpoon Island Creek Oyster StoutRussian imperial stout. But the growing popularity of oyster stout surely takes the whole food-and-beer-pairing trend to another level.

Indeed, that’s where the entire idea of dumping bivalves into the kettle began: Beer drinkers have always known that the roastiness of strong, cold, dark beer was the perfect complement to a briny oyster.

In “Beer & Food: An American History” (Jefferson Press), author Bob Skilnik writes, “It’s always amusing to read about the contemporary beer writer or cookbook author who ‘discovers’ the tastiness of pairing something like a stout with a chilled oyster, when Dutch patroons were already sluppering down beers and oysters at places like the White Horse Tavern more than 350 years earlier.”

By the 1850s, so-called Oyster Saloons were as common in big cities as McDonald’s are today. A Scottish writer named Charles Mackay (a latter-day Alexis de Tocqueville) marveled at the “Oyster and Lager Beer Saloons” of New York City’s Broadway, where “oysters as large as a lady’s hand are to be had at all hours.” In Philadelphia, he wrote, “the rich consume oysters and Champagne; the poorer classes consume oysters and lager bier . . . “

But actually brewing beer with oysters?

Beer critic Michael Jackson traced that brave idea to New Zealand, where in 1929 the Young & Son Portsmouth Brewery produced Victory Oyster Stout. British breweries would take up the practice as part of the trend of supplementing stout with nutrients (milk, sugar, etc.) for added nourishment.

The health benefits are dubious. Meanwhile, the brewers I’ve spoken to offer mixed assessments on the impact of oysterized brews.

It’s said that the calcium in the shells helps clarify the beer and enhance body. Others believe shellfish reduce acidity, which will help produce a better head. When Cherry Hill’s Flying Fish Brewing released its one-off Exit 1 Bayshore Oyster Stout a couple of years ago, the company said the oysters improved its dryness.

The oyster meat itself mostly dissolves during the brewing process, and it takes a refined palate to detect even a hint of saltiness.

Perhaps most importantly, adding oysters underscores what is truly one of the great bar food delights of all time. My own heaven is an ivory-handed shucker delicately icing endless plates of fresh Quonset Points while I sit on a stool, watching and quaffing from a bottomless pint of black-as-ink Irish stout. The bite of Tabasco is a temptation; the brine and vinegar are a seduction; the roasted malt is a mouthy kiss.

No question, oysters are an aphrodisiac. Here’s a few others that do the trick.

Yards Love Stout (Philadelphia): Smooth and creamy, especially when served from a nitro tap.

Iwatekura Oyster Stout (Japan): A strong (8 percent alcohol by volume) chocolatelike Russian imperial stout.

Porterhouse Oyster Stout (England): Its aroma carries a light touch of sea air in the nose.

Marston’s Oyster Stout (England): Despite its label, this one does not contain shellfish. It’s just an indication that this sweet stout pairs well with oysters.

Finally, here’s something for the daring beer drinker: An oyster shooter. Just shuck one and drop it into a glass of your favorite stout. It’s not nearly as gross as it sounds.

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