Back in Black

Oyster stout is an underrated beer style that's making a big comeback
Photo: Elizabeth Reyes
Oyster Stout

To the uninitiated, an oyster stout could sound about as appealing as a peanut butter and sardine sandwich. But this long underrated beer style is at last gaining appreciation in the United States for its mix of briny and roasted flavors. And it's not only beer nerds who are catching on—quite a few American brewers are now whipping up their own fantastic takes on this malty, salty, British beer.

The first of these English ales can be credited to London's Hammerton Brewery, founded in 1868, which began brewing its Pentonville oyster stout in 1938. Though the brewery closed in the late 1950s, it was revived by a descendant of the Hammerton family in 2014. "The oyster stout was the only beer from the original range that we decided to bring back," current owner and brewer Lee Hammerton says. True to the original recipe, Hammerton uses the entire bivalve in his modern version of the product. "We order 100 [wild] Maldon oysters from the Blackwater Estuary in Essex . . . clean them up and put them into muslin bags," he says. "Halfway through the boil, we add the oysters in the shells, and they boil away for around half an hour."

The result is a rich, dark, chocolaty stout with hints of earthy, smoky oyster flavor. "The shells are going to add a lot of mineral content to the beer, and if it's served super cold, you get some of the brininess and seawater taste from the oysters," Hammerton says.

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The surge is happening here, too, as more U.S. breweries are taking advantage of local oysters. Fordham & Dominion Brewing Company in Dover, Delaware, brews its Rosie Parks Oyster Stout with Chesapeake Bay oyster shells, while Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland, uses Rappahannock River oysters for its Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout. And this past fall, San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery began canning its dense, chewy Marooned on Hog Island oyster stout (it was previously brewed exclusively for its taproom in 2012 with local oyster cultivator Hog Island Oyster Co.).

Like Hammerton, 21st Amendment cofounder and brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan uses the entire organism to make his stout. "We put about 300 pounds of oysters in one batch. The salinity from the oyster [and] the calcium that's on the shell will precipitate into the boil, lending a light silkiness to the beer," he explains. The key is to not allow the oyster to dominate the flavor profile: "You want to take on the top notes of the oyster without overwhelming the beer with a fish character."

St. Louis brewery Schlafly even has its own Stout & Oyster Festival, which celebrates its 17th year this March. The fest gathers more than a dozen "starshuckers" and 50,000 oysters from the Pacific Northwest and East Coast alongside a wide array of stouts, including Schlafly's new Coastal Stout, brewed with an oyster stock. Schlafly ambassador brewer Stephen Hale claims that the stock gives the stout "a slightly drier finish, and you could taste a little bit of the salinity provided by the oysters. They all count as oyster stouts if you're adding oysters in one form or another."

On this note, Hammerton warns of a few oyster stouts that are arguably misleadingly labeled. "The wording is that it's a stout to drink while eating oysters," he cautions, referring to two of the larger UK breweries, Adnams and Marston's, which don't actually brew their oyster stouts with oysters. "I think it's a bit naughty calling them oyster stouts," he says.

Just as controversial is the origin of such an odd culinary pairing, whether enjoyed separately or in the same glass. Many theorize that crushed oyster shells were used as a natural fining to clarify beer before the development of yeast filtration techniques. Others reason that brewers would add oysters as they would oatmeal or lactose to make claims about the beer's nutritional value. And some even believe the protein was thought to aid in head retention. But considering the huge number of oysters inhabiting London's River Thames in the late 1930s, Hammerton favors a much simpler theory: "Oysters were kind of seen as 'peasant food' back then, not like the delicacy [they are] now. They were cheap and abundant . . . [Londoners] didn't know what to do with them and thought, Hey, why not let's just chuck them in the brew pot and see what happens?"

What happens is a culinary match made in heaven: The roasted, sweet malts of a stout simultaneously complement and contrast the creaminess and salinity of an oyster. But it's taken nearly 80 years for such a great combination to get its due, until the general rise of craft beer began inspiring Americans to seek out more adventurous, experimental styles. These days, beers brewed with exotic fruit, spicy Sriracha or even pizza are not uncommon. O'Sullivan reminds us that consumers now take beer much more seriously, putting thought and effort into pairing the beverage with food. "We don't chug beer anymore. We allow it to be this culinary, sensory experience, " he says. "If you said 'oyster stout' years ago, people would have probably turned their noses up at it. But now, people are more open and accepting to all different ingredients in beer."

Hale speculates that in the search for the "next great thing," beer drinkers might be especially attracted to indulgent ingredients: "I think [oyster stouts] have resonated with people, because oysters can be considered, to a degree, a luxury food. A dozen oysters can be over $40 sometimes," he points out. As Evil Twin Brewing hopes to prove with its beer brewed with actual money, expensive ingredients can be a draw on their own. But the oyster stout has already proven that when handled with thought and care, any exotic ingredient can be skillfully woven into an elegant, tasteful beverage that elevates consumers' palates . . . without requiring them to dig up too many of their own clams.

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