In 1988, Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter, pondered the question of whether oyster stout ever existed as a special style. While some argue that it doesn’t and (shouldn’t) constitute its own sub-style within the stout family, Jackson was enthusiastic about oyster stout–a name that has applied both to stouts made using the bivalves and to those that merely pair well with them.
The conversation surrounding the beer arises yet again with the arrival of Harpoon Brewery’s limited-edition Island Creek Oyster Stout. Oyster stouts are more commonly found in the U.K., but this isn’t the first time a U.S. brewery has made a beer with oysters. Dogfish Head and Rogue are two major breweries that have given it a try.
Craft beer consultant Matt Simpson, the Beer Sommelier, says he considers oyster stout “sort of a made-up style,” calling it a “gimmick.”
“It’s a marketing creation, but it’s also a regional creation,” he says. “The folks who lived near fishing towns would often drink stouts with their oyster meals…but adding [oysters] to the actual boil of the brew is a relatively new phenomenon, and I think it was just sort of perpetuated by ultra-creative brewers.”
Katie Tame of Harpoon Brewery is one of those creative brewers. The idea for the beer came naturally to her because of Harpoon’s relationship with Island Creek, a local oyster farming and distribution company in Duxbury, Mass. “We have Island Creek come to the brewery a lot and do pairings with their oysters,” she said. “And every time we would taste-test one of our beers against the oysters, we always said, ‘We should have a stout, ’cause that’s the classic pairing.'” Since Harpoon hardly ever makes stouts, Tame decided to pitch a unique stout for the 30th batch of the brewery’s 100 Barrels Series.
In her research, Tame discovered a few different ways to use oysters. One is to use the shells as a salt substitute in the mash, to adjust the pH. Another way is to crush the shells and use them as finings to clarify the beer. The last method–the one she chose–is to use the oyster bodies themselves. In the boil, oysters poach and disintegrate. Tame’s goal wasn’t to impact the flavor but rather the texture of the beer. “The oysters’ proteins disperse into the beer, driving the proteins up, so it increases the body, the head retention, and the mouth feel,” she explains.
Beer expert Simpson says there’s room for debate as to whether oysters actually have the ability to create that smooth texture. “A lot of the proteins are actually boiled out during the boil, and those that aren’t often drop out during the fermentation…I just don’t know if there’s enough enzymatic activity [to make a difference].”
Both Tame and Simpson agree, though, that the impact of oysters on flavor is minimal. But, Tame says, that doesn’t stop people from picking up on tastes that might not be there. “There’s a lot of suggestion in the name,” she says, “so some people say, ‘I can smell that! It’s such a fragrant oyster smell!'”
Harpoon’s Oyster Stout is just beginning to hit New York bars. Several of the bars that distributor SKI Beer says will carry the beer aren’t even aware of its existence yet. (Bartenders at the notorious beer bars Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man, for instance, say they have no knowledge of the oyster stout coming in.)
But at least one shop has already run out of its keg. Last week, Bierkraft offered the stout during a tasting with Harpoon Brewery. The draught beer was wiped out in less than a week. (Bierkraft expects to receive an additional case of bottles next week.)
“Everybody in the shop really liked it, and we did sell that keg pretty fast, so it was pretty well-received,” says cellar manager Matt Barclay. “It has sort of a briney quality rather than fishy or anything like that…. It’s a deep, full-bodied, roasty stout.”
When Harpoon’s latest limited brew does become available in the 33 bars set to have it on tap (including Bronx Ale House in the Bronx, Gleason’s in Queens, Draft Barn in Brooklyn, Docks Oyster Bar in Manhattan, and the Wild Goose in Staten Island), beer lovers are sure to be intrigued, says Simpson.
“Beer geeks and beer aficionados across the board have a penchant for variety and love to challenge and experiment with their pallets. In short, they’re A.D.D. when it comes to beer.”