Oysters and stout are considered a classic pairing. For most, ourselves included, the first ever mention of the match sounds a little suspect. And then there is oyster stout – beer crafted with the addition of actual oyster shells into the boil or even the entire oyster. Even more suspect.
While we absolutely love oysters, stout has never been a contender in our pairing beverage selection. I typically go with an oaky chardonnay or a brut sparkling wine. Chris seems to prefer an IPA with our favorite mollusks. Exactly how could the typical flavor profile of oysters be complemented by a beer style known for coffee, chocolate and dark fruit aromas and tastes?
This week, we discovered that 1) certain stouts can pair quite well with oysters and 2) oysters and stout are not as straight forward of a pairing as seems to be commonly believed. It depends on the oyster and it depends on the stout.
It has been very cold recently, with average highs of 20°F, dark by five in the afternoon. Just right to warm up and relax with a stout in the evening. For a few days we had been talking about oyster stouts as a style and how neither one of us has sampled one. Clearly, something to rectify.
I was charged with picking up an oyster stout for us to try. Since none of the local breweries make one, I headed for our go-to, well stocked neighborhood craft beer store. No luck – for a long time they hadn’t seen any breweries offer an oyster stout for retail. Next, I called a cellar downtown that specializes in craft beer selections from all over the world. They have entire shelved walls dedicated to beer styles, packed with all kinds of choices from just about anywhere you can think of. (In my dreams I often see us having the exact same walls, similarly decorated in our basement). The cellar people were super helpful and promised to get back to me with detail on what they can order in for us. Four hours later, they informed me that none of their vendors could supply this style.
I realized that I might need to drive to Denver – bigger city, craft beer aficionados, more choices. Alas, none of the places I called carried oyster stout and my car never got on the icy I-25. Online shopping disappointed as well. As it turns out, only a handful of breweries in the US make an oyster stout and it is usually sold on site and locally. Some regional stores that carry these rare brews are willing to ship, but… Who wants to pay $40 to have a 4-pack shipped (beer charged separately at $4.25 a can)? Ahem, I almost did, but Chris got home before I could check out. We made alternative plans for tasting the elusive style – more to come.
We decided to sample the oysters without flavoring them with sauces or mignonettes, thinking this will better reveal how each stout paired with them on their own.
A quick note – Blue Points are from the East Coast, found along the Long Island Sound. They are rich in brininess and the meat has a mild flavor, a firm texture, and is also quite silky. They are excellent. The after taste is definitely more saline than sweet. Also minerally. The ones we had were about three and half inches large and when shucking them Chris made sure that a good amount of the brine remained in the half shell.
We started with The Commodore, which is a dry, American stout and a year-round selection of Ballast Point in San Diego (ABV is 6.5%). It made more sense to transition to the more potent 10th Mountain after that. 10th Mountain is an imperial version of a classic English oatmeal stout, brewed seasonally by Aspen Brewing Company (ABV is 9.3%).
The Commodore + Blue Point
This beer formed a thick, tannish head and had a strong carbonation, which I loved. Chris shared sensing a hint of copper on the nose, while I thought it was more of a mild citrusy aroma. We both agreed that it was a dry, balanced brew. Definitely the presence of roasted malt, but somewhat subdued.
The dryness felt noticeably enhanced after tasting the satiny oyster meat first. Even better, coupled with the fine carbonation it provided a great contrast to the oysters’ mouthfeel.
Overall, the oysters’ brininess and The Commodore’s faint malty sweetness worked well together, sort of like the flavors in salted caramel do. The slightly bitter finish the beer has on its own was softened by the oysters’ mildness.
10th Mountain + Blue Point
This was definitely a satisfying dance of flavors on the palette! We both thought this pairing offered a more intense play of contrasts and was therefore the better of the two.
The 10th Mountain Oatmeal Stout was very clean on the nose, in fact I barely sensed anything at all. This allowed the briny, minerally aftertaste of the Blue Points to linger unobstructed for an extra moment before the beer flavors entered the mouth. Pitch black in color with a creamy tan head it felt thicker and slower. We each tasted different flavors – Chris thought that licorice and raisin dominated, while the hops were fully disguised. I tasted hints of burnt toast and a noticeable hoppy aftertaste (the beer does have an IBU 87). We agreed that 10th Mountain was both creamier than a regular stout (thanks to the oats) and boozier in a contained, almost disciplined way.
The pairing was superior in large part because the salty & sweet distinction was more pronounced. Perhaps due to the blend of flavors comprising the stout’s sweetness and the fact that it was sweeter overall. The smoothness of the 10th Mountain extended the creamy aftertaste of the Blue Points. Finally, the mineral flavors of the oysters stood up to the booziness of the stout – a dimension that was entirely absent from the pairing with the drier Commodore.
Oysters and Stout In Hindsight
We should have poured the 10th Mountain into a snifter. It probably would have captured some aromas and helped with the lack of nose. Oh, well, it’s not like we cannot do it again next week and use the right glass.
Knowing what we know now, if we had to pair oysters and stout like The Commodore again, we would go with a West Coast variety like Kusshi, because of their sweeter taste. Or Kumamotos.
We should have selected a variety of oysters and more than just two stouts. While we can now endorse the claim that oysters and stout can pair well, it remains as an ongoing challenge to identify specific combinations that we can really stand behind. We are up for it.