There's a lot of history behind the featured dark beer being served at the Oyster Ode to Goat Lafayette event at Bowens Island today (March 3). Presented by Bowens Island Restaurant and the City Paper as part of the Charleston Wine+Food Festival, the event celebrates rustic family-owned institution and offers a cinematic glimpse into the life of Victor "Goat" Lafayette, a Charlestonian has picked oysters on the island for more then 50 years.
Local microbrewery COAST will have a fresh batch of dark, malty Bulls Bay Oyster Stout on hand to accent the celebration. "Oyster stout with local oysters out on Bowens sounds pretty good to me," says COAST co-owner and co-brewer Jaime Tenny.
Dark, roasty, malty ales always pair nicely with fresh seafood — especially a helping of steamed, salty shellfish. Most beer-minded foodies agree that stouts, porters, and brown ales go especially well with oysters, shrimp, mussels, or clams.
Serving beer and seafood together at the table is one thing, but combining them in the brewing process is quite another. While most fish have yet to make it into a commercial brewer's kettle, oysters have been a long-running specialty ingredient for makers of traditional dark ales. Although they're rarely used, the briny bivalves can impart a unique flavor and create a fuller mouthfeel in the beer.
Traditional stouts and porters have a long-running relationship with oysters that dates back to the Irish and British taverns of the late 1700s and early 1800s, before the rise in popularity of pale ales. Oysters and dark beers were everyday items in old London. By the early and mid 20th century, the use of oysters as an ingredient made a minor comeback.
Only handful of craft breweries in the U.S. attempt to make beer with oysters, including two Charleston microbreweries, COAST and Holy City. COAST brewers Tenny and head brewer David Merritt have been making flavorful ales and lagers with fresh ingredients for years.
Two years ago, they researched and developed a recipe for a traditional dry stout that featured local raw oysters, shells and all. Last January, with help from assistant brewer Michael Davis, they released the standard-strength (6.5 percent a.b.v) Bulls Bay Oyster Stout into the local market.
"The history of the beer style is really cool, but the thing that's more important to us is that we're right where you can get them really fresh," Tenny says. "David really loves oysters. They're one of his favorite things. So that's the key connection."
Tenny and Merritt had never brewed an oyster stout before, even as young homebrewers. There aren't many commercial examples of the style, and there's not a lot of specific information on recipes and procedures. "We'd heard it all sorts of ways," Tenny says. "When you put the oysters in is up for debate."
COAST acquired fresh clusters from Bull's Bay through Jeff Spahr, an Awendaw-based oysterman. Merritt and Tenny used the entire cluster in the brew — the shells, the meat, and the brine. They added one bushel of whole clusters and one bushel of shucked oysters to the boiling wort of a 14-barrel batch (just over 600 gallons).
"The clusters came in early in the morning, within just a few hours of being harvested," Tenny says. "We scrubbed the living tar out of them because we decided to use the shells as well. We wanted to have all of the aspects of the meat and the shells, and we wanted them to be completely debris-free. That's was the hardest part, scrubbing wet oyster shells in the driveway in cold weather for three hours."
The heat of simmering wort in the boiler cooked and opened the closed shells of the clusters. The meat broke down, blending with the malt extract and hops. The boil naturally extracted some of the calcium of the shells as well.
The final result looked as black and frothy as a regular stout, but the exotic aroma and a pleasantly earthy, gamey flavor caught the attention of many local beer fans. They brewed a second batch this fall.
"We wait for oysters to be at their prime," Tenny says. "I swear, there's a briny-ness that's unmistakable. Oysters are things we have that most breweries do not. We have to order barley malt and hops from other regions, but not many breweries can say they got their oysters from the beautiful waters just a few miles down the road."
COAST's supply of Bulls Bay Oyster Stout is very limited. Search for it at the finest local retailers and pubs.