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Beer and . . . oysters?

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; E05

"Oyster stout" originally signified a brew that paired well with oysters. The custom of washing down bivalves with a dark, roasty ale dates to 19th-century Britain, where so many oysters were dredged from the Thames that pubs served them as a free snack, much as modern bars do with pork rinds and peanuts.

Recently, two U.S. breweries have taken the term literally, incorporating the essence of oyster into their beers.

"When they heard we were brewing an oyster stout, half the people were like, 'Wow!' and half scrunched up their faces," says Gene Muller, founder and general manager of Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Exit 1 Bayshore Oyster Stout debuted in November, and a few 25-ounce bottles of this limited release might still be lurking at outlets in Washington and Maryland.

It doesn't taste like seafood, assures Muller.

The freshly harvested whole oysters -- Muller used 100 per 25-barrel batch -- were suspended in mesh sacks in the brew kettle. They spent 15 minutes simmering in the barley broth before they were removed (and eaten). "The oysters opened up, so we got a little of the liquor inside and the calcium from the shell," says Muller.

A slightly different interpretation of the style should hit area shelves soon, courtesy of the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Island Creek Oyster Stout is the latest entry in the company's "100 Barrel Series" of exotic specialty brews. After a pilot batch that turned out "syrupy," brewer Katie Tame limited herself to about 1 1/2 oysters per barrel, which she shucked and added raw to the kettle. The oysters, she reported, disintegrated in the hot liquid, leaving behind a little protein and enhancing the beer's body and mouth feel. They also added a mineral-like quality to the Guinness-style stout.

Tasted side by side, both stouts had a dry, almost chalky note that vied with the mocha flavors typical of this style and left a slight tingle in the front of the mouth. The effect was more striking in the Bayshore Oyster Stout, whose higher alcohol content (7.5 percent by volume, compared with 5.5 percent for the Harpoon) and deep color (ebony body with chocolate-colored head) suggested a much sweeter, richer beer.

Muller and Tame say they brewed their beers not just for the sheer novelty but to call attention to America's once-thriving oyster industry, which has has been decimated by overfishing, pollution and disease. According to the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, the oyster harvest there stood at 1 million to 2 million bushels a year during the 1930s but had declined to fewer than 100,000 annually by the 1990s. Muller says Flying Fish is a supporter of the Partnership, which has been reseeding oyster beds and submerging empty shells where the fragile young oysters can seek shelter.

Harpoon named its beer after its supplier, Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass. "There are no wild oysters where we are," says owner Skip Bennett. "The weather is too cold for them to spawn." So he has to seed a new crop every year, nurturing the young in tanks until they are big enough to fend for themselves in Duxbury Bay.

Asked about the curious affinity of oysters and stout -- wouldn't it make more sense to pair seafood with a pale beer, such as a Pilsener? -- Bennett answers that it is a matter of contrasting flavors balancing each other out. Oysters are sweet and salty. Stout is roasty and a little bitter from the hop additions. The highly roasted grain that gives stouts their ebony color also adds a little acidity. That enhances the subtle flavors of the oyster, just like a spritz of lemon squirted on shrimp or calamari.

"Depending on the method of cooking or garnishing, oysters can be sublime with stout because the dark-roasted malts provide a toasted sweetness to offset the brininess of the oyster," says beer and food expert Lucy Saunders, author of "The Best of American Beer & Food." "Personally, I love oysters with just a bit of extra-virgin olive oil drizzled on top, and a bit of smoked salt, with a stout."

Incidentally, the idea of adding oysters to stout did not spring from the feverish imaginations of American microbrewers. The style actually has a pedigree. According to the late beer writer Michael Jackson, in 1938 the Hammerton Brewery in London brewed an oyster stout using a canned concentrate manufactured in New Zealand. The oyster concentrate was used to improve head retention, not to influence flavor. After one of the cans went rancid, the brewery ceased the experiment.

Variations of this style have appeared on the Isle of Man, in Ireland and at the Brickskeller in the District. At a November 1995 tasting, the brewmaster of Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland added eight dozen oysters, autoclaved and pureed, to a one-sixth barrel of his Emmett's Imperial Stout. The resulting beer had more than a hint of sea spray.

Great Lakes, incidentally, officially entered the Washington area market last month. Among the brewery's offerings is Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, a robust porter sufficiently stouty to sub for Guinness at an oyster feast. But Great Lakes never has tried to duplicate the experiment that Brickskeller owner Dave Alexander calls "beer, chunky-style."

Kitsock can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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