what beer goes best with oysters?

what beer goes best with oysters?

I’ve never had oysters with beer before but I’ve read a few recommendations on the best beer to serve them with. Sources range from notes by Michael Jackson, Martyn Cornell and Garrett Oliver. We also visited to the Forge in Whitstable – a seafood and beer cabin on the sea front. At the time, I stuck to my favourite: beer battered skate.

I’ve put together a sextet of the kind of drinks that keep coming up in relation to oysters which includes two non-beers of a similar alcoholic strength: a cider and my own wildcard based on nothing but intuition – a hopped mead! The oysters are from Kent and were bought for 79 pence each from Waitrose (a posh British supermarket). I don’t possess an oyster shucker so had to rely mainly on innovative violence. Also, be prepared for what might visit you in the night.

Bornem Blond – Van Steenberge Brewery (bottle 6%)

dscf4913This Belgian blonde is a good example of the style I was going for: spicy with a bouquet of hay/wet straw and a touch of candy – something I get with many session strength Belgian beers. The effect when you swallow the oyster is to get savours on a few levels: the herbal, the sweet and the salty. This beer glows with a sweet warmth afterwards like it’s trying to cook the oyster internally. It brought some colour to the cheeks. It’s more than a match for the oyster’s abrasiveness. Bornem is also very carbonated and this helps to absorb the mollusc’s potency too.

Gosnell’s Hopped Mead (bottle 5.5%)

dscf4916My stab in the dark: it’s intoxicatingly sweet on the nose before you even sip it. Obviously, it honks of honey and has quite a sweaty dimension too not unlike malty bitter (though there is no malt in the mead). The honey sticks to the lips, palate and gullet. I can’t really detect any hops in there. When I devour the oyster, there are no shared attributes. The cloying sweetness and the incoming salty tide complement each other like a boat crash. The counterintuitive tang you get with things like salted caramel does not work here. Also, the mead has absolutely no dryness or bitterness to temper the coarse bivalve. I should make very clear that Gosnell’s has never claimed or implied that its products complement oysters. The miscalculation was all mine.

Oude Geuze – Boon Brewery (bottle conditioned 7%)

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This beer has a huge charge of carbonation like a wave surging up a Sussex chalk cleft so this could be a good sign. It’s dessicatingly dry on the nose – the archetypal horse blanket. It’s so dry, your sinuses stick together when you inhale it. It’s this very aridity that carries the oyster in a similar way that Champagne might. The salt is ingested almost unnoticed. The Geuze is so chewy it makes up for the lack of mastication on the shelled protagonist. Drinking the Geuze is almost like eating meat; the seasoned protein lent by the oyster became just part of a larger platter.

Gwynt Y Ddraig Medium (bottle 4.9%)

dscf4924As a child of Gwynedd in North Wales I can tell you this means dragon’s breath (actually – wind of the dragon but I’m sure they’re referring to a blast from the upper body). Oddly, I can’t really smell any apple flesh on it. It smells a little bit like gas (about this “wind”…). The palate, however, is very different. There’s much less sourness or acidity than I’d anticipated for a medium cider. To me, this is as sweet as a perry. It verges on butterscotch. On the eye, it has a gorgeous glow like liquid amber. Into this whirlpool the oyster vanishes. The cider strips away the salt. It works. The oyster’s aggressive character has been disarmed. Possibly, it would’ve worked even better with a bitter edge to the cider. It remains too sweet for my palate.

Burning Sky Saison A La Provision (bottle conditioned 6.7%)

dscf4934Unfortunately I couldn’t get my preferred choice and benchmark – Saison Dupont. Burning Sky’s equally crafted Saison has dried grass on the aroma. It’s musty and sticky like an Altbier with tangy decaying apples and a very dry finish. The oyster slips down and mirrors the dryness in its salt. Another sip and this is a viable marriage – a midway tide of savoury washes in. They’re like sensory echoes of each other. It’s a milder experience of the Oude Geuze.

Fuller’s London Porter (bottle 5.4%)

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The porter doesn’t leap up to be drunk like a lot of the other candidates. The carbonation doesn’t surge because it’s a porter: it’s rich and creamy with chocolate powder on the nose. It’s smooth-bodied and just holds back from being sweet. Introducing the oyster is a shock to the system and stands for everything the porter isn’t. For a moment I fear a mismatch but it works very well. It’s a bit like the balance of extremes between a rich creamy salty cheese and a bitter hoppy IPA. In this case, the sharp edges come from the oyster and the porter simply engulfs them in its warm mammalian arms. The whole chocolate roasted dimension kicks in afterwards too giving this pairing added layers.

With oysters, the Champagne, Muscadet and white wine are gradually rolling over to be replaced by beer to the point that they might soon top the pairing lists in restaurants. As ever, beer has the ability to be more versatile. This is proven after popping the six bottles and battling with the six shells, my own bias is for the Oude Geuze and the London Porter. The former is an overpowering brute while the latter neutralises the threat with a cuddle.

the tilting sea

the tilting sea

There was a darker side to my beer and oyster pairing. Firstly I discovered that I don’t actually like oysters. Then I found that the oysters didn’t suffer me gladly either. I’ve seldom had them in my life – maybe as little as twice – so didn’t realise this. On the few occasions I had them they were part of a more varied meal which largely absorbed them. But when I paired them with beer, they were naked and uncompromising and in the middle of the night they sent me on a journey I wasn’t prepared for.

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I thought of these molluscs as simple sources of protein to complement beer like Salami, Wurst or beer sticks but those are sides that have been cooked and processed – they’re basically benign. These creatures are raw and elemental and may as well come from the cold of deep space they’re so alien.

They put up a fight too. Cracking them open unleashes the Djinn. The reek clings to your hands, to the sink, to the table, the floor, the screwdriver. It lingers in the fridge from where they spent some time on a plate. Likewise, the bin is now haunted. Even the bottles of beer, cider and mead stank of the maritime as I bundled them into the recycling bin outside which in turn stinks like downwind of Whitstable docks.

img_0890Our Labrador doesn’t like oysters either. It’s not the taste nor the smell but the fact I had to push a couple of the armoured molluscs against the inside of the sink and bash them with a hefty screwdriver. Bits of shrapnel rained down on me and the kitchen floor. Milo (the poor canine) trotted away to sanctuary underneath the living room table.

I had to pace myself with each oyster and take a breath before devouring. Towards the end I actually chanted a countdown. Six was the absolute maximum. As the last went down, a bead of sweat emerged.

I retired for the night not just with the oysters dissolving in my gut – a species that evolved within the acid bath of the ocean and then got ingested by a distant land-bound relation with a body temperature the like of which they’ve never experienced. We are furnaces to them. Also within me was most of six bottles of booze or whatever I’d managed to finish before pouring the remainder down the sink.

As I laid back, a foretaste of the sea came with my stomach rolling up towards my chin and flopping back towards my groin heavy with the evening’s bounty. It uttered “splewongel” and aped the tide going in and out. I then regressed into a shallow sleep for a few hours.

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Around dusk I suddenly fell at the sea’s edge. The wet sand was abrasive to the skin. The fug of the churning waters, the seaweed and the barnacles clinging to green-cloaked rocks gasped through me. A wave thumped at the coast, the vibration from the impact pulsed up my spine.

In the dark, I checked my breath, the palms of my hands and the bedclothes but I hadn’t inhaled this aroma via the nose. Rather, it was inside me already. It had returned, torn from my memory without me calling it back. There’s a direct link with the olfactory bulb and recollection. It was like a warning.

dsc_0065I found myself at the mouth of a cove with the stench of kelp turning me a limpet pale. Vapour poured off my breath and the elemental stood before me in the gloom. It spoke – its lips the scraping of shells, its tongue a living bivalve rasping wet visceral sounds as it flexed to form vowels. I didn’t make eye contact with the deep blue eyes. I just nodded with humility. Things couldn’t be made clearer.

Directly above my head where I sleep is a small luminous cluster of stars and galaxies. This isn’t an hallucination but a decoration put up by the previous owners of my house for their little girl. I’ve never removed them. They’re of the glow-in-the-dark variety and took on a malign dimension – seemingly in cahoots with the tilting sea. They’re invisible in the light – only shining in the dark. For a moment, they quivered together as if on the surface of a body of water disturbed by the ripples of me treading water. They then coursed to the left on a riptide.

I blinked and had to sit bolt upright in bed and focus on the strips of light coming under the door and tracing the curtains’ edges. I needed a fixed point – a mast or railing to cling to. And then it passed.

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This is not a computer graphic – this is actually the plastic glow-in-the-dark constellation on the bedroom ceiling taken on the night setting of our SLR. Try looking at it with a couple of litres of booze, six oysters and a whispering fever in the small hours. But don’t stare at it for too long…..

It made me think of all the spiritual attributes given to game and food in folklore. To have had a neurologist and biologist taking readings during this night interlude would’ve been interesting. Fly Agaric mushrooms, burning hydrangeas, Peyote, the fine patina of lysergic moulds on barley during the hungry gap in Saxon times. The visions, the experiences, the journeys and the stories that tried to make sense and structure of them. Well, I went back there for a while. It was definitely brought about by an overdose of a food I’m not accustomed to mixed with a load of beer (of which I am). I can also report an absolute zero on the aphrodisiac front. I’m fine now thanks for asking.

The message kids is treat oysters with respect. I’m quite certain those six were my last.