Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Niche Beer Styles: Oyster Stout

The craft brewing movement has really perfected the practice of finding niche beer styles, brewing them with passion, and starting a grass-roots movement that hoist these products up to the interest of ‘enlightened’ beer drinkers. Think Anchor Brewing Co. in the 1970’s when it revived to the Steam Beer / California Common niche by launching Anchor Steam Beer. Or the explosion of the Double IPA niche in the late 1990’s after Vinnie Cilurzo (then of Blind Pig Brewing Co.) accidentally created the style. As a gauge of breath of beer styles (niche and mainstream), take a look at this year’s Great American Beer Festival Competition. The event hosted over 70 different beer categories with 3,000+ beers entered amongst them. Only the sharpest of beer geeks could name at least half of the 78 categories, let alone all of them.

In contemplating this, it set off the gears in my head – every niche style out there has a story of how it came to be. The gears kept spinning. Those styles need to be explored. Hey, that would make a good blogging topic. And then, poof... this blog entry wrote itself.

I’ve had stouts on my mind ever since one of the guys from our
homebrew club did stout and ice cream floats at the last club meeting. My original thought was to would delve into American Stouts to find out how we Americans bastardized the European standard, but I kept coming back another stout over and over again: the enigmatic Oyster Stout. I’ve only personally run into the style once before (at the now defunct Baltimore Beer and Oyster Festival) and I remember thinking “Who the hell would think to put these meaty morsels into beer?” But you know what, it works. Something about the briny flavor of the oysters mixes with the earthy tones of a stout when its done in balance. Go figure.

While tracking down the style’s history, I came across an informative and relatively short article the beer writer Michael Jackson wrote on the
origin and revival of Oyster Stouts. Oysters, being easily farmed from the sea during the 1700’s, was considered common pub grub being “as commonplace as peanuts today”. Porters and stouts were the common drink at the time, which began the bond of dark beers and oysters. Guinness even ran advertisements stating “Makes oysters come out of their shells”. The association of oysters and beer, specifically dark beers, continued until the decline of dark beers at the end of the 19th centery at the hands of the emerging pale ales. At that point, the combination of bivalve and beer stayed with society as a niche style.

Outside being an accompaniment to beer, it is theorized that oyster shells were originally used as a natural fining agent to filter the beer (similar to making a consomme broth). The first use of oysters as a brewing ingredient was credited to an unnamed New Zealand brewery in 1929. Several English brewers followed suit post WWI, where the oysters were added to the beer with the thought that it would provide additional nourishment to the malnourished populace (similar to the origin of the cream or milk stout). The trend continued until the 1960’s when the popularity of Oyster Stout again tapered off.

The contemporary revival of the Oyster Stout beer, according to Mr. Jackson, came from
Bushy’s Pub on the Isle of Man in the mid 1980’s. Following the steps of earlier Isle of Man breweries from the 60's, Bushy’s Oyster Stout was developed and brewed using 5 or 6 whole oysters per barrel thrown into the brew kettle. The pattern continued with many other English breweries picked up the style and it slowly got some legs under it once more. Many so-called 'Oyster Stouts' emerged on the scene which contained no oyster in the beer at all. These brews were meant to be paired with oysters during a meal as opposed to using them as an ingredient. Marston's Oyster Stout became one of the stand out, sans-oyster Oyster Stouts in the English market.

On this side of the Atlantic, several small breweries and brewpubs carry the style as an on-and-off ‘specialty’ beer.
Dogfish Head marketed a real Oyster Stout with oysters added to the kettle at flameout, although the beer has since been retired. The 21st Amendment in San Francisco continues to brew its Oyster Point Oyster Stout with real oysters added to the kettle. Rogue Ales, as part of their JLS limited series, brewed the Oyster Cloister Stout using Oregon harvested oysters, although getting your hands on any remaining bottles may be near impossible. Even Sam Adams has been rumored to have brewed an Oyster Stout for draft accounts sometime in 2009.

For those in the home brewing community, getting a good oyster stout will take you only as long as it takes to find a good recipe and brew it. While there are several recipes floating around the web, my choice would be to stick with one that comes from a reputable source. Otherwise, the endevor might be doomed from the start. A wise place to start might be the oyster stout recipe printed BYO Magazine's Mar/Apr 2005 issue (listed below for convenience).

Black Pearl Oyster Stout
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain with bivalve mollusks)

OG = 1.052 FG = 1.013 IBU = 37 SRM = 60 ABV = 5.0%

9.0 lbs. (4.1 kg) 2-row pale malt
0.5 lb. (0.22 kg) flaked oats
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) roasted barley
0.5 lb. (0.22 kg) chocolate malt
0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) black patent malt
10 oz. can raw oysters (and brine)
1 tsp. Irish moss
8.6 AAU Fuggles hops (60 mins)
(1.5 oz./43 g of 5.7% alpha acids)
4.3 AAU Fuggles hops (20 mins)
(0.75 oz./21 g of 5.7% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1084 (Irish Ale) or White Labs
WLP004 (Irish Ale) yeast
0.75 cups corn sugar (for priming)

Mash grains for 45 minutes at 152 °F (67 °C). Boil wort for 120 minutes. Add hops at times indicated. Add oysters and Irish moss with 15 minutes left. Cool wort. Transfer to fermenter, leaving oyster bits behind. (Don’t eat the oysters - they taste terrible.) Aerate, pitch yeast and ferment at 68 °F (20 °C).

Extract with grains Option
Replace 2-row pale malt with 14 oz. (0.40 kg) Briess Light dried malt extract, 3 lbs. 14 oz. (1.8 kg) Muntons Light liquid malt extract and 2.0 lbs. (0.91 kg) 2-row pale malt. In a 3 gallon (11 L) or larger stock pot, heat 1.6 gallons (6 L) of water to 163 °F (73 °C). Placed crushed grains and flaked oats in a large steeping bag and submerge bag in this hot water. Maintain temperature at 148–153 °F (64–67 °C) for 45 minutes. While grains mash, heat one gallon (3.8 L) of water to 170 °F (77 °C). Remove grain bag from steeping pot and place in colander over stock pot. Rinse grains with 0.75 gallons (2.8 L) of water from brewpot. Combine “grain tea” and dried malt extract with remaining hot water in brewpot and heat to a boil. Boil 60 minutes, adding hops at times remaining indicated in recipe. With 15 minutes left in the boil, add liquid malt extract, oysters and Irish moss. Stir thoroughly to dissolve extract. (Keep the clock running even though it will take a few minutes for the wort to resume boiling.) Cool wort and transfer to fermenter, leaving oyster bits behind. Add water to make 5 gallons (19 L). Aerate, pitch yeast and ferment at 68 °F (20 °C).

If you’ve had a decent oyster stout (either homebrew or commercial), let us know about your experience. What did you like or dislike? How would you change it?



“Light beer is the invention of the Prince of Darkness”
-Inspector Morse (BBC)


  1. Harpoon Brewery recently annouced that Session 30 of their 100 Barrel Series will be the "Island Creek Oyster Stout". The beer will be distributed in Feb 2010.


  2. There's a lot of oyster stouts being brewed here in oregon lately. Upright brewing did one,and so did Fort George brewing in astoria(which is quite a drive even for such an elusive beer). I just brewed one recently myself, but it's still in primary. I've yet to taste one, but the release party for upright's is feb 26.


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