BEER CLINIC :: An Unusual Beer From The Sea – Cooper’s Low Tide Oyster Stout

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on January 18, 2015

oysterWe stopped for a late meal at a local restaurant, Cooper’s, in Pittston, PA, a favorite spot for fresh seafood and, when in season, oysters. Readers familiar with the long-running TV show, The Office, may be familiar with its sister restaurant in Scranton, PA, which is the bar where the office crowd frequently met after work. So it was no surprise that Cooper’s has made an all-out-effort to become a beer destination, offering high quality craft beers on an ever-changing list. Seafood and beer just naturally pair, and I was looking forward to selecting something from the list to go with my oysters, preferably a porter or stout.

I was pleased to find a new draft, Cooper’s Low Tide, which was an honest-to-goodness oyster stout brewed with oysters! I couldn’t wait to try this rare brew. We all know that stouts and oysters go naturally together, with Guinness being the traditional favorite, but most so-called “oyster stouts” are brewed to drink with oysters; it is unusual to find one that is made with oysters! Yet the 3 Guys and a Beer’d Brewery, in Carbondale, PA, brewed this beer in collaboration with Cooper’s using fresh Virginia Salts.

If you are an oyster lover, as I am, you may know that Virginia Salts (also called Olde Salts and Chincoteague Salts) are a species of the native American oyster, Crassostrea viriginica, which are traditionally harvested from the ocean side of Chincoteague Island. Because of this, they are saltier, and some would say plumper and cleaner, than oysters that are harvested from the warmer and less saline waters of river estuaries. I have had many of these tasty creatures, which are often used in oyster shooters, in which a fresh oyster is added to a fresh pint. But brewed into a beer? That was new for me. I had to try one.

Flying-Dog-Pearl-Necklace-Oyster-Stout-570x280Oyster stout is not a common beer style, and if you can succeed in finding one, the chances are it is not brewed with oysters. A few are brewed with oyster shell added to the mash. But beers which have whole oysters or oyster meat added to the mash are harder to find — in addition to Cooper’s Low Tide, the only one I have been able to find with regional distribution is Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, brewed in Maryland with whole oysters from the Rappahannock River (a percentage of sales goes to support the Oyster Recovery Project). But do not get the idea that brewing with live oysters is just another crazy idea thought up by craft brewers just to be different–though I’ll admit that 3Guys and a Beer’d is a crazy bunch of brewers. Brewing with oysters is a bona fide tradition with a long and rich history.

oyster & beer festSo let’s taste this wonderful brew. It was delightful. In addition to the oysters, it was made using a combo of roasted barley, black patent malt, chocolate malt and 2 row along, with a mild hop back bone of Warrior and Willamette. The IBU was low at around 18, and the Alcohol 5.5% Not only was it a good oatmeal stout, with a nice tan head and mahogany color, but it was possibly the sweetest dark beer I have ever tasted, with absolutely no bitter or burnt taste. A very sweet finish, I would call it butter-toffee. 3Guys attributes it to the oatmeal; I would offer that it is a result of the alkalinity due to the addition of the shells to the brew, since they add whole oysters to the mash.

I wanted to learn more about oyster stouts, and did some searching. The late Michael Jackson (not the pop star), one of the most prolific writers about beer, wine and spirits, wrote a comprehensive article in his Beerhunter blog in 2001, which details the history of this storied beer in England, its home. Mr. Jackson admits that he hadn’t ever tasted an oyster stout at the time, but he did his research. He points out that oysters and stouts (or porter) were a natural pair in England since they were both plentiful and inexpensive in the days of Dickens and Thackery and consumed daily by many individuals. As he writes,

“Despite the intensity of stout and porter, and the delicacy of oysters, their marriage turned out to have been made in heaven.”

The earliest Oyster stout, he believes, was Oyster Feast Stout, made in Colchester, England, around 1900 by the Colchester Brewing company to celebrate the annual oyster harvest on the river Colne. It probably did not have oysters added. The brewery changed hands a few times, but they continued to make a stout under this name until at least 1940.

abita-oystersSome brewers used oyster shells as finings, and as an adjunct to alkalinize and sweeten the beer, since they are a natural antacid. Some oyster stouts are still made this way, using only shells without oysters. Jackson refers to a colleague who tracked down a retired brewer, Mr. Harold Read, who worked as a brewer at Hammerton of Stockwell, London. Read remembered trials with an oyster stout in 1938, in which they used oyster concentrate from New Zealand, adding it to their Oatmeal Stout. It was believed to have a “nourishing” quality. The trial went well, but apparently they had one batch with contained a faulty can of oysters, and the smell was “so appalling that we cancelled everything and dropped the idea,” he was quoted. Later JJ Young Brewery of Portsmouth, England, used the same concentrate and brewed an oyster stout, which they continued to market until the war.

I thought that Oyster stouts were the only beer which uses animal matter in the brewing process. Of course bacon beers are made with bacon, though it is not added to the mash, it is used as a “dry hop” or flavor adjunct after brewing is complete. There is, however, Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Colorado, which is brewed with steer parts–the less said the better.

I contacted Johnny “The Beard” Waering, from 3Guys and a Beer’d, about the beer. He told me this is the second year they are producing it, and this year’s offering is much better. He said, “last year we added a lot more oysters and it ended up a little briny, so this year we cut back a bit and it came out great!”

He said they will probably make Low Tide an annual offering, but have no plans to bottle it. I inquired about the brewing process, and he elaborated,

pyster & Beer“Shells and all go right into the mash tun! Not even shucked, the heat of the mash opens them up throughout the process. Then we eat the oysters after! Quite delicious! ”

I predict that we are going to see more of this beer style from craft breweries throughout the country, especially those near the coasts, where fresh oysters are available. An oyster stout seems to be as much fun to brew as it is to drink. This should be incentive for any brewery to give it a go.

Epilogue:

Last night I had the opportunity to try another stout brewed with Oysters.  Flying Fish’s Exit 1 Bayshore Oyster Stout.
This was a very nice, and again a very sweet stout.  This one is not an oatmeal stout, but brewed with English chocolate and roasted malts. Irish ale yeast adds a bit of fruitiness and a dry crispness.   ABV 7.5%

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