He was a bold man, who first ate an oyster,” so the quote goes. The words have been attributed to Jonathan Swift, Dean Swift, and King James I. Whoever coined it, said it well. Hunger will possess creatures to eat just about anything.
Since that first undocumented experiment, oysters have become the passion of the gastronomically brave. They are cherished, sought after, and cataloged. They are expensive. Restaurants have built reputations on mountains of oyster shells. In fact in the not too distant past, oysters were as popular in the United States as hot dogs are today.
They have become the food of the rich and famous. And more than one historian has suggested that oysters have aphrodisiac qualities, when consumed by humans.
A lesser-known backwater of oyster lore relates to beer. It seems that over the years, beer drinkers, brewers, and marketers have discovered that beer is a perfect accompaniment to the little bivalve. Specifically, dark beer. More specifically, stout.
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described a satisfying day in an 1837 letter to his sister: “I dined or rather supped at the Carlton with a large party of the flower of our side, off oysters, Guinness and broiled bones, and got to bed at half-past twelve. Thus ended the most remarkable day hitherto of my life.”
Irish dry stout is the match-made-in-heaven perfect beverage pairing with raw oysters. A few theories have sprouted in an attempt to explain this cozy relationship. One possibility is a simple matter of proximity. They eat a lot of oysters in Ireland, especially on the West Coast. Galway is famous for its oysters and the inhabitants’ capacity to consume the shell-bound gems. In fact each year in late summer and early autumn, Ireland’s competing stout mills, Guinness and Murphy’s, sponsor oyster festivals in Galway.
Take yourself back a hundred years or so, before this oyster and stout idea became a fashionable marketing phenomenon. You have settled in at your favorite Galway oyster house, preparing to down a bushel or two of your favorite bivalve. You’re in the mood for champagne, but your money pouch dictates you stick to beer.
Now, what do you suppose the waiter would bring this turn-of-the-century Galway oyster eater? Budweiser? Not. Stout would be more likely.
You silently lament that you could not afford the bubbly. Then to your surprise you find the dry, roasty, pleasantly bitter black beer a perfect foil for the silky, salty, tender oyster. A match made in heaven was born.
This rendition is probably a romanticized version of the real story, which carried a dateline of London, not Galway. It seems that just as dark beer became the favorite of London’s theatre district porters, so too were oysters a favorite food of this group of burly stevedores. The reason: Oysters were dirt cheap. Dozens of oysters, bushels even, could be had for mere shillings in those days. Cheap grub, cheap suds. A cheap meal that satisfied your palate and filled your belly. Who could ask for more?
Though the first meeting of dark beer and oysters has faded in history, the combination continues to garner a fair amount of press in today’s world. Part of what has kept the lore of oysters and beer going is the short-lived experiment of adding oysters, oyster shells, and oyster liquor to the brew kettle — a practice that was almost common in post-war England (for nutritional reasons, not gastronomic).
So was it courage, intrigue, or maybe a little too much product sampling that possessed the first brewer to dump some oysters into the brew kettle? Probably none of the above.
Some beer historians theorize that crushed oyster shells would have acted as a natural fining to clear beer in the days before filtration. Others guess that because oysters and stout went together so well, the brewers of oyster stout added oysters to the brew in an attempt to capture the good qualities of both. Perhaps beer writer Michael Jackson hit the nail on the head when he suggested that oyster stout was the product of brewers competing to make their products appear more nutritious and healthful, in the same spirit that created milk stout and oatmeal stout.
Whatever the reason, oyster stout was made in England and its Channel Islands until recent years. It went unproduced for several decades, save an occasional experiment by brewpubs, but has recently seen a revival by at least two British Isles producers: Marston’s of England and Murphy’s of Ireland. Marston’s has no oysters in it. Murphy’s apparently has some extract of Irish West Coast oysters, but not enough to create much of a fishy or oyster flavor in the final beer.
But just what is oyster stout? Again, there is more than one theory. The first claims that some portion of the stout itself actually contains oysters. Less adventurous brewers – or perhaps those with greater compassion for their customers – say oyster stout is a serving suggestion: what to drink it with, not what’s been added.
That’s the opinion of Fal Allen, head brewer at Pike Place Brewery in Seattle. Several years back the idea of putting oysters in a batch of stout — for whatever reason — would not go away at Pike Place. Something had to be done about it, so they experimented with a batch or two of oyster stout.
“I won’t tell you about the first attempts. The one we ended up serving was made with fresh oyster liquor, the juice that runs from the freshly shucked oyster. We added about a sixth of the total volume,” Allen recalls.
“In the kettle it smelled rather nice. Sort of like oyster stew. But in the fermenter it was another story. Very oystery and fishy and not necessarily pleasant. It met with limited success. Some of our patrons really liked it, Michael Jackson among them. Our owner really loved it,” Allen says.
But even with that vote of confidence, the experiment has not been repeated. “I feel the same way about oysters and beer as I do fruit and beer. I love oysters,” Allen says. “And I love beer. But I do not think they should be served in the same glass.”
Allen admits that even though he was not crazy about it, oyster stout would probably sell if it were a regular offering at the Pike Place tap. “The problem is we would need separate tanks and lines. I don’t think routine cleaning techniques would remove the oyster residue in the equipment.”
Allen’s advice: “Drink beer when you eat oysters, but don’t mix them together! If you want to make Oyster Stout, follow Marston’s lead and leave out the oysters.”
If You Insist
If you insist on adding sea creatures to your stout when you brew, you will probably do well with a pint of freshly shucked oysters in their liquor. The oysters will simply dissolve in the kettle. Do not use canned oysters, which contain a lot of added salt as preservative, and do not add more than a quart for a five-gallon batch. Be careful. And don’t say we didn’t warn you!