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Oyster Stout Virginia Style

Oyster Stout Virginia Style

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” wrote Jonathan Swift, the Irish poet and author of Gulliver’s Travels. But what about the brewer who first put oysters into a boiling brew?

Well, it turns out, he in fact was influenced by over 100 years of people naturally pairing beer with oysters—a marriage that dates back to Victorian England when “…porters and stouts were everyday beers,” wrote renowned beer writer Michael Jackson in The Independent in 1995. “And oysters [were] a bar snack as commonplace as peanuts today.”

To complement the briny, juicy, fleshy quality of the oyster meat, these pub-goers often chose stout beers for their bittersweet notes of roasted malt and toasted bread. The pairing became such a classic that Guinness launched an advertising campaign in the 1920s with the tagline, “Guinness Goes With Oysters.”

Toward the end of the 19th century, brewers discovered that the calcium carbonate-rich oyster shells served as a natural clarifying agent. “Lots of breweries and taverns used shells as filters,” says Washington D.C.-based beer historian Mike Stein, who gives talks on the science and history of brewing at the Smithsonian Museum. “They balanced the beer, made it brighter and fresher.”

In the 1930s, an unknown (and quite brilliant) brewer in New Zealand took the final leap by adding the oyster meat itself into the brewing process, an idea likely fueled by an urge to add subsistence and a certain quality of mouthfeel to the product, the way that lactose adds to a milk stout.

“Oyster stout” as we know it today remained a rare offering throughout the 20th century until now as adventurous craft brewers recognize the style as a unique way to experiment with stout beers. For breweries like the O’Connor Brewing Company in Norfolk, Virginia, who embrace their coastal roots as an integral part of their identity, it’s also a compelling way to carry on tradition. Seeking the highest quality ingredients for their Bold Man Oyster Stout, with emphasis on a commitment to sustainability and supporting local businesses, they partnered with the Ballard Fish & Oyster Company, a fifth generation family company who has been sustainably raising and harvesting oysters in Virginia coastal waters since 1895.

The O’Connor Bold Man Oyster Stout showcases Ballard’s finest oyster— the Misty Point - a tasty, plump cultured oyster grown on premium seaside grounds located at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the Atlantic Ocean side, that have been producing great tasting shellfish for centuries. A top-notch oyster, Misty Points can be found on the plates of some of the finest restaurants in the world. Averaging three inches in size and they are characterized by a high salinity up front that fades into bright, sweet hints of celery and grass. To attain these qualities, Misty Points go through an intense grow-out process. They are grown in an area of heavy tidal flow and are tumbled regularly. This results in their deep cups and thick shells. They begin the grow-out process in a rack and bag system in which they are placed in mesh bags on top of rebar racks. The racks elevate them off of the bottom and the bags keep them safe from predators while allowing ample water flow. After 6-8 months the oysters are transferred to cages where they finish the grow-out process.

After they arrive at O’Connor Brewing Company, roughly 100 Misty Point oysters are cleaned and added to the boiling brew whole, shells and all, per each barrel of Bold Man Oyster Stout. The result is a rich, smooth and subtly briny brew that pairs well with oysters, although doesn’t taste exactly like them. The brewing goal is not to overwhelm the elegant culinary pairing of raw, grilled or fried oysters with an intense oyster-y beer, rather it is to touch on the perfect tasting marriage that pub-goers enjoyed so many years ago.

Great with oysters, a creamy chowder, a spicy paella,gumbo, or bowl of steamed mussels, however you choose to enjoy it, you can certainly do so with the knowledge each sip of Bold Man was created in mindful tradition of Tidewater Virginia’s rich history of aquaculture.

Written by Hannah Serrano, O’Connor Brewing Co?., Norfolk, Virginia

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“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”

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