We begin this Four One Brew column with the shared understanding that oysters and beer are a time-tested and — depending on your affinity for seafood — tasty combination.
However — the idea of oysters actually in one’s beer seems … well, like an ocean best left unnavigated.
Such were my feelings when I heard that 11th Hour Brewing had teamed up with Merchant Oyster Co., both in Lawrenceville, on a collaboration beer in which they dumped 40 pounds of oyster shells and 15 pounds of whole oysters into a stout.
As we know, 11th Hour likes to experiment: Note their Burning Phoenix jalapeno beer.
But they also take a stand against certain beer atrocities: Note their menu, which has zero pumpkin beers.
So when Nick Foust, bar manager at Merchant Oyster Co., approached 11th Hour about teaming up to brew an oyster beer, brewery owner Matt McMahon was admittedly leery. McMahon had no experience with oyster beer, and as we’ve already established, the idea of oysters in beer is not an obvious winner.
Yet, there was something about this collaboration that appealed to McMahon.
“I like to challenge people’s perceptions of what beer can or should be,” he said Friday afternoon when I met him for a tasting at 11th Hour.
OK then, I said.
It’s all chemistry … (or so I think)
McMahon poured me a glass of “Things Remote” oyster stout, then assumed a decidedly scholarly persona.
“Part of the benefit of adding the oyster shells is so they can help to drop out some of the proteins,” he pontificated. “Based on positively and negatively charged ions, the shells attract the opposite charge and help to drop that out and give a bit of minerality to the beer — but nothing overwhelming.”
I blinked at him, pretending to understand but also wondering if now would be a good time to admit that I was an environmental science major in college … until I failed chemistry spectacularly.
“Soooo,” I said, changing the subject by lifting my glass. “What am I going to taste here?”
“What I taste is just a standard sweet stout,” McMahon said. “It doesn’t give off a roasty flavor. It’s more of a smooth maltiness; some deep chocolate but nothing overpowering. It tastes like a dark beer but you get a bit of sweetness and a bit of bitterness on the back end.”
I sipped. The sweetness was evident but subtle. The body was surprisingly light for a stout.
Most notably, there was no oyster flavor. I said as much to McMahon.
“No,” he agreed. “No oyster flavor.”
“So then, what do the oysters do to the beer?” I asked.
McMahon stared at me across the table like that chemistry professor did years ago gently but firmly steering me toward an English major.
“Well … it’s what I was just saying before,” he said. “The oysters collect some of the proteins and negatively charged ions and drop it out and help clear it out. … It’s a lot clearer than you’d think for being a stout. It has a lot less residual protein in there. To us, it feels like a nice clean sweet stout with a little hint of sea air when you smell it.
“I equate it to standing about a mile from the sea,” he said, suddenly morphing from professor to poet. “If you look for it, you can smell the sea air. But if you don’t, you wouldn’t know it was there.”
A silence settled over us.
“That’s deep,” I said.
“Yeah,” McMahon replied.
And then he stroked his beard (probably).
A nod to Melville
You know what else is deep?
The beer’s name.
“Things Remote” is an homage to Herman Melville (and as an English major I can honestly say that this part of the conversation I totally understood.)
In “Moby Dick” Melville wrote:
As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.
Foust reports that Things Remote is quickly becoming a favorite at Merchant Oyster Co. and at or, The Whale, a Downtown restaurant with a Moby Dick reference in its name, both of which are owned by acclaimed chef Dennis Marron.
“There’s a little bit (of oyster) on the nose, but it definitely doesn’t taste like oysters — which is good, I guess,” Foust said. “I love it. I’m not a huge stout fan, more IPAs. But I definitely enjoy this one.”
Cooking with oyster shells
For the collaboration, McMahon created a recipe that combined elements of his oatmeal stout and brown ale.
“So that it’s almost like a milk stout that would have a lower roasty character to it,” he said. “More sweetness to it and a little bit more body. That way, if any kind of salinity was picked up from the oysters, the sweetness would help balance that out. We felt a dry stout would have provided more of a platform for the oysters to jump at you.”
Foust collected the shells from the restaurants. He and 11th Hour’s assistant brewer, Justin Strzelczyk, painstakingly cleaned them.
“That means gloves on, scrubbing out the hot sauce and everything else that were on the shells from the restaurants,” McMahon said. “Then we put them in a big laundry bag and put that into our old brew system and boiled the shells so we could kill anything that might be on them, get rid of any sand or salt still on there. We boiled them, emptied the water and then did it again.”
During the Nov. 6 brew session, the shells and whole oysters went in for the final 20 minutes of a 75-minute boil. They removed the bags, cracked open the whole oysters, added hot sauce and ate them on the spot. After a 20-minute boil, they were a bit tough, McMahon said. But they’d served their purpose.
“Some people are turned off by the name ‘oyster stout,’” McMahon said. “But if they try it, they find a sweet stout and no oyster taste. I’m really happy with how it came out.”