Oysters, at least in the raw, are delicate creatures easily overwhelmed by strong drinks. That’s why our British pals pair them with Guinness Stout, which is really a much lighter-bodied brew than its color suggests. Of the 26 breweries signed up for the Hangout Oyster Cook-Off’s better half (the Craft Beer Festival, that is) only three or four plan to pour stouts, which intrigues me very much.
I’m even more intrigued by the abundance of heavily hopped IPAs that’ll be on tap (or in cans), which I’m struggling to wrap my mental taste buds around, oyster-wise. The idea of a bold, dry, citrusy beer pairing well with oysters — at least raw ones — does not compute. You need some hoppy zing to cut through fatty foods (and oysters can feel fatty on the palate), but I want a strong malt thread for flavor balance.
Our brewers may have cooked oysters in mind (it’s a “Cook-Off,” I get it) and I can envision heavy hop loads pairing well with deep-fried bivalves or creamy oyster stews. Whatever the case, those of us wandering from tent to tent should bring a spirit of discovery. I’ve never met a beer-and-food combo that I wouldn’t try at least once, so here are my thoughts on as many crafty beers as I can fit into one column, along with pairing propositions.
Back Forty Beer Company — helmed by a man who’s almost as passionate about Alabama Gulf Seafood as he is about beer — will pour its Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, Fence Post Session Ale and Freckle Belly IPA. I lap up Freckle Belly like a cat laps cream, but it’s one of those brews I can’t mentally match with oysters — so I’ll be trying it first. Fence Post, on the other hand, with its four malts and one aromatic hop variety, strikes me as potentially perfect.
New Belgium Brewing has been a popular addition to Mobile’s craft beer scene, and it’ll offer Fat Tire Amber Ale, Ranger IPA, 1554 Black Lager and Shift Pale Lager. My oyster-match here would be Fat Tire, with its sweet-malty aromas and dry-malty taste. This ale reminds me of a hearty German pilsner and it’s got the flavor I envision pairing best with oysters in the raw.
New Belgium surprisingly isn’t pouring its Tour de Fall Pale Ale (seasonal) — or at least not yet. It would’ve been my odds-on favorite oyster match, with its melded malt and hop aromas and waft of maple sweetness. I’d call the taste “bright malty” — a malt core illuminated by hoppy freshness. This freshness, plus a crisp finish, lets Tour de Fall stand up to solid flavors and fatty foods, so I’ve been anticipating oysters grilled with bacon to make a yummy match. If it’s not added to the lineup, I’ll find some take-home oysters and test my theory privately.
From north Alabama, Huntsville’s Brew Stooges will bring their Vanilla Knucklehead Porter, which ought to make a memorable match with richer oyster dishes. Its sweet component should complement salty foods, without making you think of dessert. The Brew Stooges generally favor malty over hoppy brews, so even their Wise Guy IPA may be a winner. Nearby Madison’s Blue Pants Brewery will pour Spare Pair Pale Ale and Amber Waders of Grain Lager — and I’m betting on Amber Waders as the best overall oyster match. Spare Pair tastes to me much like an IPA — bitter, hoppy and just a bit grassy, although very food friendly. I once called it “a great burger beer,” so we’ll see if grassiness highlights spinach-laden Oysters Rockefeller this time around.
Closer to home, Fairhope Brewing Company’s Fairhope 51 American Pale Ale is a pretty sure bet to showcase oysters’ fine, briny flavors while not fading into the background. It’s got a low grapefruit quotient despite its two hop components — because they’re aromatic, not bittering, hops. And it’s got what I call “snap,” otherwise known as a short, sharp finish that cleanses food from the palate and makes way for more briny bites.
Dale’s Pale Ale (Oskar Blues Brewing Company, Colorado) could be an oyster magnet, given its floral-hop flavors and strong malt stripe. There’s a lot going on in a glass of Dale’s — more than in many pale ales — as the malt slides down the middle of your tongue while the hops tickle around the edges. I could easily pair this brew with breaded, baked or broiled oysters, particularly if they’re doing the backstroke in butter. Oskar Blues is bringing four more beers, including some seasonals I haven’t tried yet, so I’ll be looking to see if they’re as complex and pair-able as Dale’s.
Birmingham’s Trim Tab Brewing Company may be the only brewer bringing a rye beer (Pillar to Post Rye Brown), which could disappear fast — if we can take any clues from the many oyster recipes calling for rye bread on the side. Simple but decadent preparations of oysters broiled with garlic-butter, in particular, recommend a side of rye. So if you try Pillar to Post, scout out a garlicky match.
NOLA Brewing (New Orleans) is one of the few breweries pouring a stout — its Irish Channel Stout (seasonal). Called an “American-style stout” and boasting sweet malt flavors of caramel and chocolate, offset by crisp bitterness from hops and roasted barley, I’ll be very interested to see how it plays with oysters. We’ll hope for balance, because too much chocolate could capsize the boat. Good People Brewing (Birmingham) will pour its Coffee Oatmeal Stout, a dark and sturdy brew. It may cool the heat of a wild Cajun gumbo, but you’ll want to consider the spice you’re consuming. Bitter (roasted malt) plus bitter (cayenne pepper) will drive your taste buds to a place where they won’t want to go.
Abita’s Jockamo and Straight to Ale’s Monkeynaut — both terrific citrus-dry-hoppy IPAs — will want flavor-dense imaginative pairings to make them shine (cornmeal oyster fritters top my list). The same goes for Terrapin’s Hopsecutioner, a great stand-alone beer which — as its name implies — sometimes plays the Grim Reaper with food. Readers who find ideal pairings for such hop-heavy brews should email me about them, please, and I’ll publish your reports. I’m always ready to learn something new. Beer-and-food pairings are, after all, a journey.
Craft Beer Festival Kickoff Party
The Hangout, 101 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores, Alabama 6 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Tickets are $25 and may be purchased in advance at www.hangoutcookoffcom or at The Hangout.