The first time I encountered oysters in beer was on a trip to visit my family in Ireland back in 2004. I was there to meet aunts, uncles, and cousins—many for the first time in my life. My cousin Jenny—or J-Lo—thought it a clever idea to squire me up into the coastal headlands around Bray, south of Dublin on the Irish Sea, for some fresh air before the afternoon’s party.
After about an hour walking the beautiful Bray Head, she suggested (like good Irish folk) that we have a beer. Getting no argument from me, J-Lo took me to a pub in Bray that was operated by Dublin’s Porterhouse Brewing. And there, on the menu, was an oyster stout.
A what now?
The description promised “a superbly balanced brew, smooth and rounded without being bland. More sweetness derived from fresh oysters shucked into the conditioning tank. What a way to go!” Intrigued, I thought, “Why not? The Irish know their stouts, and we’re here on the Irish seaside. How terrible could it be?”
It was brilliant.
Pearls of Wisdom
Here’s the thing to remember when brewing with an additive such as fruit, spice, veggie—or in this case, seafood: Always remember, this is a beer first and foremost.
There is no need to clobber the palate with too much of a good thing. For example, I love summer beers that have a touch of lemon—crisp and refreshing with just the right amount of citrus. What I do not want is a glass of carbonated lemon furniture cleaner. Keep balance in mind. Do the hops complement the malt? Does the citrus zest complement the overall flavor? And, in this case, do the oysters or shells complement the stout?
This is not a mainstream beer, but oysters are like any other ingredient in this way: There is value in choosing the right oysters and in knowing how much to use to get the desired effect.
Oysters should be fresh and, ideally, local to your area. I’m lucky in that regard: I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I can get oysters fresh any time of the year. However, I’m more partial to stouts, porters, and darker ales in the fall and winter, and fortunately that’s when the oyster selection is best. You know the old saying, that you should only eat shellfish in months with the letter “r” in them? While it’s not a scientific fact, I’ve found it to be true. Oysters in the summer months are fertile, and they have a softer and creamier texture—often flabby and lacking, and not so pleasant to eat or even look at.
Canned and shucked oysters are options, but look for those packed in spring water and not oil. (Oysters are low in fat, so let’s keep it that way—fat is a foam-killer.) If you want to go the smoked route, read the label to see whether the oysters are cold-smoked or have artificial smoke flavoring—or, to be on the safe side, just add a bit of alderwood-smoked malt to your grist.
The other important question about this creature is which part of it are you going to use—the whole oyster, just the meat, or just the shells? Having brewed with all three, I’m partial to just the shells. For one, you get to enjoy some beautiful, fresh oysters before you brew—just save the shells. Also, the shells are enough to give you that nice, briny counterpoint to the roasted malts that makes oyster stout what it is. Shells are lower-risk and easier to keep balanced in the flavor. You can use oyster meat, but it may be more challenging to keep the savory aspects in check or avoid other off-flavors.
A word about oyster shells: They’re made of calcium carbonate, in the mineral form of calcite or aragonite. In the brewing world, it’s known as chalk, and brewers use it to raise the wort’s pH (i.e., reduce its acidity) when, for example, you’re brewing with a lot of dark roasted malts. See the logic there? Nice and neat. Another benefit is that they work as a fining downstream, helping to clarify the beer.
You get to choose whether to add the oysters to the mash, boil, during fermentation, or when conditioning. I add them to the boil, and I suggest trying that first. Adding post-boil, if you do a whirlpool step, is another option. If you’re adding to the fermentor or finishing vessel (possibly a keg), start with a small addition and taste frequently until the balance is where you want it—and it may be best to drink it fresh.
For my part, I kept some shells from an oyster feast at home. I rinsed the exteriors of the shells to remove any excess grit, put the shells in a bag, and stored them in the freezer for brew day. I had two dozen half-shells for a five-gallon (19-liter) batch, some with a few bits of oyster meat still clinging to the shell.
Recipe and Process
Stouts are well suited for partial-mash brewing with extract. The inspiration for my base beer is Rogue’s Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout, one of the best American oatmeal stouts out there. This is the perfect medium for the oyster addition—robust, just about 6 percent ABV, with a range of roast coffee and chocolate notes. The oatmeal adds a slight viscosity that can evoke slurping down mollusks from the shell. There is a touch of crystal for sweetness, while chocolate malt and roasted barley bring just the right amount of roast character and bitterness. This should be dark and full-bodied, with a creamy texture.
We’re not brewing an American-style stout here, and the hops should not dominate the profile. I go with Centennial—somewhat in keeping with the spirit of the base beer, which relies on Cascade—but the idea is to keep it in balance. Classic varieties such as East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Styrian Goldings, or other Old World varieties work great here. I go with two additions, for bittering and flavor.
The brewing is straightforward. Once my grains are steeped and the extract fully dissolved, I get to a rolling boil and carefully ladle in the oyster shells around the time of the first hop addition.
For fermentation, I go with Rogue’s Pacman—again, that Shakespearian inspiration—but any English or Irish ale strain will work fine. A relatively cool fermentation (mid-60s °F/17–19°C) over 10 days to two weeks should lead to a well attenuated stout with good clarity.
Naturally, a favorite way to enjoy this beer is with a platter full of freshly shucked oysters. I like to add a bit of Worcestershire sauce and a squeeze of fresh lemon and slurp them down before a hearty gulp of stout. The beer’s foam is smooth like creamed coffee, and its flavor has that classic roast character and dry finish. Sometimes, I’m not sure I can taste the oysters in the beer, but on other sips it’s less subtle—but either way, it takes me right back to that grand day I had walking the headlands, pre-funking with J-Lo.
I’ve considered brewing with other mollusks, but I have a tough time wrapping my head around a clam beer. Perhaps mussels would work with a Belgian style, such as saison—we know how creative the Belgians can be. But there’s just something about the oyster and how it works with a stout. Maybe it’s just one of those things where you have to taste it to believe it.