In my hometown of Petaluma, Calif., less than 20 miles from the Sonoma Coast, freshly shucked oysters are about as easy to come by as bread and milk. We eat them every way we can: raw on the half shell, barbecued, baked and deep fried.
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As an added selling point, he told me it was made by HenHouse Brewing Co. in Petaluma, an operation so small it doesn’t even qualify as a micro-brewery.
How could I not try it? I took a sip of the richly colored stout and found it to be smooth and creamy, with a subtle chocolate flavor and a refreshingly light body. If I hadn’t been told it was made with oysters, I never would have guessed. And did I mention that it was absolutely delicious?
Oysters and beer have a shared history
I’ve since learned that oyster stout is not exclusive to HenHouse or to Northern California. About a dozen U.S. breweries currently make oyster stout, including Upright Brewing and the Fort George Brewery in Oregon, the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, Flying Fish Brewing Co. in New Jersey and Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Each has its own spin on making oyster stout, with some using only the shells or the meat, and others using both.
The concept may sound novel, but oyster stout’s history can be traced as far back as Victorian England.
“It used to be that oysters were an everyman’s food, and stout was the everyman’s drink,” explained Collin McDonnell of HenHouse Brewing Co. “So you’d go to the bar and get a pint of stout and a bowl of oysters.” Eventually, someone came up with the idea of adding oysters to the beer during the brewing process.
To find out how oyster stout is made in modern times, I visited the tiny HenHouse brewing operation, housed in a leased corner of a co-manufacturing facility that makes soap and cosmetic products. The brewery was founded just over a year ago by McDonnell, Shane Goepel and Scott Goyne.
HenHouse brews its stout with the shells, meat and liquor of oysters from nearby Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, and Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. in Inverness. Using local oysters, McDonnell said, gives the beer its unique personality.
“Northern California is really one of the meccas for oysters,” he said. “That, to us was a real opportunity to put terroir in our beer. You’re not going to get Northern California oyster flavor from Chesapeake Bay oysters or from English oysters. Those oysters will all have their own distinct flavors and characteristics based on the ecosystems that they grow in. So the idea that we could, by putting oysters in our beer, really give it a place in the world was really exciting.”
Balance, local flavors set North Coast oyster beer apart
Even using local oysters, there are batch-to-batch variations. “The oysters don’t always taste the same,” McDonnell said. “Some are a little bit salty, some are sweeter.”
HenHouse uses about 3 pounds of whole oysters and 3 pounds of shells per 31-gallon barrel. The shells go into the vat first, where they’re left to boil for about 30 minutes. The idea, McDonnell said, is to beat up the shells and get the mineral character out of them. “The shells are very high in calcium carbonate, and that gives the beer a really refreshing minerality and adds to the texture,” he said.
The whole oysters are bagged and boiled for a shorter period of time, so as not to impart too much oyster flavor. “You get some of the sea breeze and oyster character from the whole oysters,” McDonnell said. “But you’re not trying to make fish beer. You’re trying to make beer that hints at oysters.” Wild-crafted sea salt adds a touch of salinity that helps the stout pair well with food.
“The nice thing about the oyster stout, to me, is that it’s so food friendly,” McDonnell noted. “We wanted to make culinary beers, beers that you have with food.”
That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s culinary mecca in the Napa Valley. Along with a prix fixe menu priced at $270 per person, the Michelin three-star restaurant features the HenHouse oyster stout on its beer list.
That’s quite a step up for a beer that started out as Victorian England’s version of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But even so, oyster stout is still a beer for the everyman.
“One of the things we said from the get-go was, we want to make beer our friends can afford to drink,” McDonnell said. “We’re not into expensive beer, we’re into affordable, local beer. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make an oyster stout — that ‘everyman’s’ story really appealed to all of us.”
Top photo: HenHouse Brewing Company’s oyster stout. Credit: Tina Caputo