PORTLAND — Slurp down a half dozen oysters on the half shell, and chances are you’ll be washing them down with beer.
But how many people have tried oysters in their beer?
You’ll soon get your chance, because Arlin Smith of Eventide Oyster Co. and Chresten Sorensen of Bunker Brewing Co. have been collaborating on an oyster stout using Maine Winter Point oysters.
They’ll share the results of their labor at a release party at Eventide next Tuesday that will include a Bunker tap takeover. The fun begins at 5 p.m.
The name of the new brew has been a point of considerable debate, but it looks like the winner will be “Dirty Pearl.”
Smith and Sorensen consider their partnership over the oyster stout a true collaboration between the restaurant and the brewer, a giant step forward from simply hosting a beer dinner or cooking with a brewer’s beer. The owners of Eventide got involved in the process, actually smoking the 11 pounds of barley malt used to make the brew over apple wood, in their hot smoker.
Daniel Kleban, president of the Maine Brewers Guild, said he was not aware of any other collaborations this close between a restaurant and craft brewer in Maine.
How did it happen?
“Last summer, when we started carrying (Sorensen’s) beer, he was probably one of our biggest supporters, coming in all the time,” said Smith, who is a former craft brewer himself. “We were chatting about how he brews, and I have a brewing background, so I’m always intrigued about his set-up.”
Sorensen used to work in restaurant kitchens, so “I still want to have that connection to food,” he said.
Sorensen suggested to Smith that they try making an oyster stout together.
Oyster stout, a brew produced using the shells and/or meat of oysters, is nothing new. Its roots reach all the way back to the 18th century, some sources say, when a pint of stout and a bowl of oysters was the everyman’s meal in local taverns.
At some point, brewers actually started using oyster shells to the beer-making process, adding them during the boil to draw out the minerals in the shells. Eventually, they started using the oyster meats as well.
Oyster stouts pretty much disappeared during the second half of the 20th century, but as the craze for craft brewing began to rise, they started reappearing. They are still not common, but there are at least several on the market here in the United States. Some of them are oyster stouts in name only, however – called oyster stouts because they pair well with oysters, not because they were made with oysters.
“Stouts in general go well with shellfish because they’re dry,” Smith said. “They have a really nice mouthfeel with a little bit of sweetness, which if you think about an oyster, it’s a similar profile. That’s why they go so well together.”
Dirty Pearl is an imperial stout made with Winter Points harvested by John Hennessey that are perfectly fine and delicious as far as their meat and liquor are concerned, but they wouldn’t look good on the half shell because of their size or shape.
Smith and Sorensen added 35 large oysters and about three quarts of oyster liquor (saved and filtered from the oysters they use at the restaurant) to a 60-gallon kettle.
The oysters are tossed into the wort at the end of the boil, just before adding the yeast. The oysters stay in the kettle for about 20 minutes, and the heat opens up the shells and releases more oyster liquor.
When they come out, they’re tossed away because spending that long in boiling wort gives them a weird texture.
“You really want to eat them,” Smith said. “You really think that they’re going to be good, but they’re not good.”
Last week, Smith and Sorensen got the first taste of their creation, just before they started putting it in kegs. It was a thick brew with plenty of body, and while it didn’t taste at all like the oysters you eat in an oyster bar, it had a certain minerality and a slight brininess on the finish. I was more impressed with the Dirty Pearl after tasting Redhook’s Black Lobstah Lager (see sidebar), a new beer fashioned after an old-world oyster stout but made with lobsters instead of oysters. The lobster brew was briny but didn’t have nearly the flavor of the Dirty Pearl.
Smith said he hopes more smokiness will come forward in the oyster stout during carbonation.
The majority of Dirty Pearl will be sold at Eventide, but some of it will also go to Sonny’s and Local 188, two restaurants owned by Bunker investor Jay Villani.
Smith said that eating oysters with stout is “one of those amazing experiences,” and that actually adding oysters to the beer as an ingredient – a process called bridging – will bring that experience to the next level.
“If you like oysters and then have them with a stout, it’s one of those moments,” Smith said. “It’s like when you have perfectly seared foie gras with a sauterne. It’s that moment of ‘Oh, these are meant to be together.’ ”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]