Oysters ‘n’ Beer

Fresh oysters and a good stout ale are a classic combination — second only to the oysters and white wine in the spirits and seafood pairing pantheon.

But oysters IN the beer itself? Now that’s a little odd. It sounds like the unwelcome consequence of a slip of an oyster fork on a night out, rather than something a brewer would intentionally do. At the Harpoon brewery, however, they are doing just that, dumping bivalves into beer by the bucketful to make their Island Creek Oyster Stout.

I visited Harpoon on brew day to take a look at how this unusual beer is made (see the photos above) and learn more about its history from brewer Bill Leahy. I also got a lesson in shucking oysters from Skip Bennett, Shore Gregory, and Chris Sherman of the Island Creek Oyster Company, whose oysters give the beer its distinctive briny finish. Two hundred oysters go in each batch of  Oyster Stout, along with a mix of specialty grains, such as caramel, biscuit and black malts, which impart flavors of nuts and chocolate, along with a little bitterness.

As unusual as it is, oyster stout is no flight of brewer’s fancy. There is a history of incorporating oysters into the brewing process itself. According to Leahy, oysters were first added to beer to add a little extra nutritional punch. The brewers at Harpoon and the oyster farmers at Island Creek don’t aspire to make a mollusc-enhanced health tonic; they’re just drawing on that tradition in the hopes of making a really nice beer with a compelling backstory.

That’s all well and good, but the proof of a beer is in the drinking. So how does it taste?

On bottling day, which rather fortuitously fell on St. Patrick’s Day, I got to sample the finished product. It a malty, surprisingly light stout with hints of chocolate. It’s only at the very end that you get a hint of sea and salt in what is a really lovely beer. Leahy says that the stout pairs beautifully with oysters, but you’ll have to take his word for that. I can say that the bottle that I got went very well indeed with a spicy banh mi — and I often find that stouts overwhelm such dishes.

Harpoon’s Island Creek Oyster Stout is part of the brewery’s 100 Barrel series of limited edition craft beers, so it won’t be available for long, if you want to sample some of it yourself.