Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway)
Now that we’re into winter, Stouts are fully in season. Every week right now there are great new and returning Stouts on the market. Just this week we will see the return of Founder’s Imperial Stout (in quantities we’ve never seen in Virginia), Southern Tier Choklat Stout, and Left Hand Barrel-Aged Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout (for the first time in a couple years); this after having received the excellent new Sierra Nevada Narwhal Imperial Stout, Dogfish Head Bitches Brew, Terrapin’s W-n-B Imperial Coffee Oatmeal Stout and Moo Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout, and Evil Twin Aun Mas A Jesus Imperial Stout over the past couple of months. For this week, I’m not going to look at the biggest, high-ABV monster Stouts out there—I’m going to look at one of my favorite styles out there: Oyster Stout.
Oyster Stout is one of the best and earliest examples of food’s beer pairing ability, not to mention a style that sounds strange but in fact is quite practical. In Victorian England, oysters were plentiful and cheap enough to be the common bar snacks of the day. The smooth, roasty, dark malt notes of Stout were a perfect match for the briny, sharp oysters and thus the common man’s beer was paired with the common man’s snack. The term Oyster Stout originally was only meant to suggest a beer that pair well with oysters. If you look up old Guinness advertising a lot of it was based on how well it went with oysters — and if you haven’t been looking up old Guinness advertising… well, you’re just wasting your weekends, people.
The next logical (?) step was using oysters in the beer itself. The late 19th Century saw brewers discovering that the calcium carbonate in oyster shells not only clarified their Stout, but also accentuated the bitter flavors of their beers. The first usage of oyster meat in Oyster Stout is commonly accepted to have taken place in New Zealand in 1929. The great beer writer Michael Jackson, who was himself a big Oyster Stout fan, wrote this great piece tracing the use of oysters from New Zealand to the Hammerton brewery in London in 1938, to its period of scarcity before a mid-80s reemergence.
The expectation of many who haven’t tried Oyster Stout is that it will be overtly briny, or redolent with the flavors of oyster meat. While that sounds delicious, it isn’t exactly the case; even in beers where whole oysters are used, most of the liquor (the liquid inside an oyster’s shell—but being from the Mid-Atlantic you knew that, right?) cooks off during the boil. Some Oyster Stouts have salinity to them, but more often than not what tasters perceive as ‘briny’ is a combination of the shells having brought out more of the sharpness in the ingredients and the power of suggestion. While there aren’t a great number of Oyster Stouts on the market, they’re becoming more common. Here are some I suggest trying:
21st Amendment Marooned On Hog Island: This canned Oyster Stout is new to our area from San Francisco. Using Hog Island oyster shells, Marooned has a smooth malty body and just an extra touch of that salinity I’ve always wanted in an Oyster Stout.
Port City Revival: This one is draft only, so either find a bar or restaurant with it on tap or go visit the brewery in Alexandria for a pint or growler—or if you’re like me, both. Revival is just slightly on the maltier side of traditional, and plays well with food though it tends to go pretty quickly on its own in my house. If enough of us bug them, maybe they’ll do a bottle run someday. Please?
Flying Dog Pearl Necklace: Yes, that’s what they call it. At 5.5% Pearl Necklace is a classic Oyster Stout, with a mild feel and an almost smoky roasted malt character. Flying Dog’s Oyster Stout has a sharpness to it that makes it a classic food pairing for anything salty or briny.
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