With a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye, Upright Brewing‘s Alex Ganum places a netted bag full of fresh oysters on the stainless steel counter as a batch of dark wort reaches the boiling point in the Portland, Ore.,-based brewery directly behind the circle of people surrounding him.
“They’re a couple hours out of the water,” Ganum says of the bivalved beauties. “The guy brought them in this morning straight from Hama Hama.”
As Ganum reaches for a knife to shuck the first little gem open, he explains that these oysters are called Blue Pool, and his source in Washington state, says they are some of the best oysters around. That’s saying something in the Pacific Northwest, where oysters are a-plenty.
Ganum expertly lifts the shell away. Always the gentleman, he offers me, the only female in this motley crew, the first one. I accept it, and we all lean in to take a look. It is aptly named, as it seems as if the oyster is resting in its own bluish-gray puddle of briny goodness. It slides effortlessly into my mouth — sweet, salty, with just the right amount of firmness. Oh, yeah. Ganum’s oyster guy wasn’t kidding. These are goooood.
We all wash our tasty treats down with an Alameda Black Bear XX Stout. And, just because it seems like the right thing to do on a random Thursday morning in January, we sip on a beer cocktail called a Hot Scotchy as we take a moment to reflect on the harmonious coupling of oysters and stout.
But our mission today isn’t to enjoy the blissful blending of bivalves and beer. It is to make bivalve beer. And Upright was in the throes of brewing its second annual Oyster Stout seasonal brew while we were slurping up the Blue Pools, stout and Hot Scotchies.
“We started this tradition of enjoying oysters and stout last year when we brewed the first batch,” Ganum explained. “Except last year, we ate the oysters that had been boiled in the beer during the brew. And those turned out to be really bitter. While we are still going to put whole oysters in the beer this year, we decided to get some that don’t go in the beer for us to eat. And the ones they brought us for the beer this year were huge, so they also brought us these Blue Pools specifically for our new annual tradition of eating oysters and drinking stout while brewing our Oyster Stout.”
In addition to the six dozen whole oysters that go into one batch of Upright’s Oyster Stout, another 12 gallons of gray, milky oyster brine are added to the mix. Fittingly, the history of oyster stout is just about as murky as that brine, too. Jack Harris, co-founder of Fort George Brewery + Public House in Astoria, Ore., has been brewing an oyster stout for about a half-dozen years — first at Bill’s Tavern and Brewhouse in Cannon Beach, south of Astoria, and now at Fort George. He took a break from brewing this year’s batch, just days after Upright brewed theirs, to talk a bit about oyster stouts.
“It started as a myth,” he says of the style. “But it has become a reality.”
Harris says the original oyster stouts didn’t have oysters in them. They were made for the pub-goers in England, who had a hankering for oysters and discovered the now classic pairing of oysters and stout. The name, Harris says, came about after some marketing-minded brewer decided to call his beer an Oyster Stout to alert thirsty patrons that it would be suitable for enjoying with oysters, which were all the rage at the time. Marston’s Oyster Stout is an example of this bafflingly named, bivalve-free beer.
But that nomenclature got other brewers thinking, and it wasn’t long before an unknown brewer decided to put oysters in the stout, too. The first known use of oysters being incorporated into the brewing process was probably in New Zealand in 1929. Several British brewers followed suit and used oysters in stouts during a time just after World War II.
And then? Well, the “style” mostly disappeared until craft brewers started experimenting with it. And Harris was among the first to brew it commercially– and consistently.
Harris brews Fort George’s oyster stout, called The Murky Pearl, a bit differently than Upright. He uses his hopback — a vessel that usually holds hops and allows hot wort to wash over them to extract lupulin goodness — and fills it with local Willapa Bay oysters instead of hops; about a bushel, or 12 dozen, in each batch. The 200-degree Fahrenheit wort washes over the fresh oysters in the hopback for about 40 minutes, forcing the oysters to open up and release their sweet juices into the wort. Like those at Upright, the practice eventually cooks the oysters into big, bitter pieces of rubber.
“I tried eating a couple last year. We were going to use them as part of our oyster and stout dinner, but we just couldn’t do that — they were too bitter from the wort,” Harris says.
One of the things Harris says that is difficult about brewing an oyster stout using the hopback is the calcium from the oyster shells can muck up the works — but it’s physical proof that the extra calcium in an oyster stout could be a boon to bones. However, those with a certain dietary inclination will need to reconsider the style.
“Oyster stout is a non-vegan beer,” Harris says. “There are not a lot of non-vegan beers out there.”
And while oyster stouts are still uncommon with few commercial representations, the style does seem to be picking up steam, which is quite all right with Harris.
“I’d love to see everybody make an oyster stout,” he says.
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