The Oyster Catcher

So after writing a previous blog, “What’s Wrong with SA craft beer?” where I highlighted a lack of experimentation, innovation and creativity, I decided that instead of just having an opinion I should actually contribute. No-one likes a finger-pointer.  So I went and brewed a beer with seafood.  I threw oysters into a sweet stout and hoped for the best. This was the beginning of my Beer Whisperer Co-labs.

I got hold of a friend who is a well establish local micro-brewer.  Brendan Watcham of Copperlake Brewing who had been asking me to brew with him at his ‘brew pub’ for a while. I had not been very forthcoming as I have homebrewed only a handful of times with largely disappointing outcomes. However, Brendan was very persistent with me. He just loves brewing beer. He has a great set up in Broadacres, Johannesburg with a 100l brew house inside his ‘brew pub’.  He built the brew house himself and he seems to have many talents, including forging and bending stainless steel to his will. The custom-built Brewhouse is perfect for small batch experimental brews.  Sure it’s easy to take risks on a 100l system as opposed to a 9000 litre brew house. I saw this as my chance to start my beer collaborations with brewers around the country who are not too shy to push the brewing envelope.  Brendan was just the man.

I have known him for some time and have always enjoyed his company at the many beer fests at which we have meet.  Brendan is a relentless entrepreneur who with his wife Tracey has quickly built a brand that encompasses dedication, quality, resourcefulness and innovation.  If you have played their ‘shocking’ game at a beer festival, you will understand what I am talking about. The Watcham’s pub is a busy centre for beerlovers and Brendan is continually experimenting with beer styles.  It’s this very restless nature that allows him to keep pushing forward.  He was one of the second wave brewers in the South African beer Revolution and has become a fulcrum of the Gauteng beer scene. He was exactly the comrade I was looking for when creating new revolutionary propaganda.

So where did this idea to throw seafood into a beer come from? Pretty outrageous really.  Back in my London mixed drinks, bowler hat and bow tie wearing days, I used to formulate drink recipes based on a concept and then work back into the flavour profile. A great example is my Henry Martini Rifle created at Powder Keg Diplomacy in 2011 and still served there today.  The concept:  a gin cocktail that had ingredients from British colonies.  Queue Whitely Neil Gin with botanicals of baobab and Cape gooseberry, eucalyptus bitters, maple syrup and Ceylon gunpowder tea.  I digress into my gin infatuation.  She is but another mistress.  A sultry one at that.

Fast forward 5 years and I am back in the Western Cape walking along a west coast beach enjoying the wildness of particularly beautiful part of the world. Along this kelp-hugged and ragged black rock coast are birds that have always fascinated me. They have not always been around.  In fact only a couple of years ago they were a very rare sighting.  Now they are back in force due to protection of their habitat and particularly to the banning of vehicles on beaches in 2001. The Oyster Catchers are intriguing creatures that are jet black with thin needle red beaks perfect for prying limpets and mussels from rocks.  Contrary to their name they actual very seldom, if at all, eat oysters, but we won’t let that get in the way of a good story.  Their pin-like legs are good for navigating the South Atlantic battered jagged rocks. These birds have always been a favourite of mine, darting in and out of rocks with waves crashing above them, they live life on the edge. I want to brew beers that are on the edge. Then it hit me out of the Atlantic blue, I needed to make a beer to honour these crazy little birds.  So we have indulged in some ornithology, now we just needed a bit of history.

An Oyster Stout is a historical style from days when dark ales and oysters were the staple tipple of the working class and particularly the dock workers of London. The origins are not always clear however I found this ‘ All about Beer’ 

article on its shrouded history.  I had heard of this beer before but never thought they actually brewed with the meat of the mollusc.  I just assumed they used the shells for finings or something. That’s just crazy putting seafood in a beer. After researching more, I found a great recipe that actually made it easier for me to understand what exactly was the point of an oyster in a beer. I got very excited.  Why?  If you have ever had a Gose  beer with its subtle salty umami flavour then you will understand. A sweet stout of chocolate and coffee with a full body due to the introduction of oats then finishes silky smooth with subtle saltiness.  Wow, that’s right up my alley!

I enlisted friend and colleague, Roy MacAskill, who as a chef, was someone I needed to turn to when dealing with seafood. Roy, being a true Scotsman, loves booze and has fallen in love with beer during his time as executive chef at Beerhouse. He has also become an expert at pairing food and beer. He was happy that there was a food and beer cross over and assisted me and Brendan on brew day and sourced us the oysters. He also allayed any fears of mass poisoning as the oysters were added to the boil.  Phew!

Brew day went smoothly with Brendan talking us through the brewing process and how making beer is all about harnessing nature’s enzymatic processes of converting starch to fermentable sugars and how domesticated microscopic fungus then consumes these sugars and gives us ethanol and C02 amongst others. Brendan is not just an up-graded home brewer; he is a qualified brewer and has completed the Institute of Brewing & Distilling examinations.  He knows his craft and articulates it well to laymen and to scientists.

A beautiful grain bill with strong roasted malt aromas was mashed in, lautered and boiled with the addition of Fuggles hops for bitterness, flavour and aroma. Right at the end of the boil the moment came to add the oysters which drew a crowd of concerned onlookers. At that time, I think Brendan was worried. The beer was cooled and yeast was pitched then transported to off-site fermenters. We would have to wait and see how this seafood beer would turn out. Only time would tell.

Two days later I got a message from Brendan saying that fermentation was well underway and that it actually had chilled out the saltiness which he had believed to be terminal after first tasting it. Good sign! Let’s hope it has dropped to the subtle levels required.

Tasting day came a month later. Brendan had let me know that he had tapped the beer the previous weekend to good reviews so I was confident that the beer would at least not be nasty. The nose is what struck me first.  It had the aroma of the Atlantic sea breeze. YES! It had the flavour of a sweet stout with chocolate and coffee and then a silky smooth body that just said, ‘Repeat!’ It worked and turned out to be great session dark beer.

My intention had had its effect. Brendan thanked me for forcing him to brew something this crazy. I think I have opened his crazy flood gates. Watch this space. Perhaps a Crayfish Irish Red next, hey Brendan?

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