Oyster Stout- Right Here, Right Now
by Neil Miller
Outside, the seasons are changing. Nights are getting colder, Bluff oysters are flying off the shelves and Magnum PI makes a welcome return to early morning television. To celebrate these auspicious events, Three Boys Brewery has released the 2010 vintage of their much-anticipated Oyster Stout. As the name suggests, it is a stout brewed with the addition of real oysters.
It seemed appropriate to have a chat with the ever urbane and affable brewer, Dr Ralph Bungard, to get his thoughts on what is certainly his most famous beer. The research for this article also turned up an excellent 1995 article from late beer authority Michael Jackson entitled “Heaven sent - downing oysters by the pint.”
The obvious first question for Ralph was “what prompted you make such an unusual beer?” He replied,
“To be honest, a little bit of blind inspiration! I had been drinking some Marston’s Oyster Stout but then found out there were no real oysters at all in it. That is not how it should be done traditionally. Oyster season was coming up down here and we have such good oysters that why not make a genuine oyster stout? I thought about in the middle of summer 2007 but couldn’t tell anyone about it because others might get on the bandwagon. I kept it under wraps for quite some time. The final product is something seasonal and proper.”
Jackson shared Ralph’s displeasure with the Marston’s offering saying “it contains no oysters, which seems a bit of a swizz, and is intended merely to accompany oysters, which it does very well.”
In terms of oysters, Ralph confirms that they use Bluff oysters, mostly fresh, sometimes frozen, always in season. Ralph likes what he calls “seasonality of things.” “There is a little bit of excitement which goes along with seasonal products. Look at the halo of excitement around oysters. Seasonality is increasingly missing in all our food. Recently we were approached to use farmed oysters. The supplier said they were bigger, fatter, tastier and available all year round. We turned them down because I like the whole seasonal aspect of Bluff oysters and my stout. If something is always there, you lose the love,” he explained.
The irony is that Ralph does not actually like raw oysters at the best of times. “I guess there is no risk of me slugging the odd one down while brewing,” he laughs. “We throw them in the boil for an hour. We are not treating them subtlety. They just sink to the bottom. What makes a difference for us is the brine we also put. We are pretty careful to get oysters preserved in their own brine. That is how you get the sea-side-iness * which makes it pretty nice. The brine probably has as much to do with it as the oyster. I also suspect the brine contributes to the amazing vigorous fermentation – it just seems to go crazy!”
Asked how he describes the beer to potential drinkers, Ralph notes that some people turn their nose up at the idea. “They are expecting a slimy little oyster in the bottle. It’s nothing like that but a fair whack of salt actually gets in there. That provides the brininess, the sea-side-iness ** – which gets the taste buds working and makes it work so well with food.” Indeed, Jackson had earlier argued that “the earthy intensity of stout is a perfect foil for the gamey brininess of oysters.”
In terms of food, Ralph nominated traditional matches such as carpet bag steak and salty cheeses (particularly blues) as well as more modern dishes such as lamb or venison casserole. Obviously, oysters would be a perfect pairing, with Jackson writing that “in the early Victorian period, porters and stouts were everyday beers, and oysters a bar snack as commonplace as peanuts today.”
Oyster Stout will cellar nicely too. I had a 2008 Oyster Stout last week and it was so velvety and smooth. Ralph believes even a year will help round the beer out though his biggest difficulty is keeping the beer in the cellar. “I try to keep a couple of dozen aside but people are always coming into the brewery really wanting it,” he says.
The good news is that he intends to keep making the Oyster Stout annually. “It’s such a good one,” Ralph says. “We will keep it going as a seasonal. We do get nagged to have it available all year round but that would defeat the purpose of the whole thing really. It’s a real winter beer.” Volumes are also up from just 1,800 litres in 2007 to 8,000 litres already in 2010. The brewery is expecting to brew another batch a week right through to July.
Three Boys Oyster Stout is unusual and fascinating, delicious and decadent, innovative yet traditional. It is not, however, the first New Zealand beer to use oysters, at least according to Michael Jackson. He does tend to know about these things. Writing in 1988 before he had even tried an oyster stout, he recorded that a Stewart Island brewery (which he does not specifically name) added oyster concentrate to their stout in 1929 because it was “said to improve head retention without a trace of fishiness."
Three Boys produces certainly the first modern New Zealand oyster stout and the use of whole oysters appears more far more appetising than a jug of concentrate. Get it while you can.
Finally, the title of this blog was added just to annoy the wreckers and haters who don’t appreciate the simple genius of The Feelers cover of that Jesus Jones classic “Right Here, Right Now”. The now-famous feijoa might have obtained more fans on Facebook than The Feelers, but half the country will have this song stuck in their heads until 23 October 2011.
* He really did use this word.
Real Beer New Zealand
‘Beer and Brewer’ Magazine
[NB: Neil’s column is excerpted by permission from his regular Malthouse Blog]