Chilies, berries and pig heads, oh my! Don’t send back these gourmet brews.
By Joshua M. Bernstein / Photography By Jon Edwards
On a madcap New York afternoon, my stomach grumbling from lack of lunch, I board a train bound for Grand Central Terminal. This thrumming nerve center of transit and tourism may appear an unlikely pit stop for sustenance. But I slink underground, elbowing past picture-snapping out-of-towners, my appetite locked on the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
For a century, this elegant refuge tucked under a vaulted tile ceiling has fed seafood to scores of New Yorkers both temporary and permanent. I sit at the counter, a lengthy menu of bivalves hanging above my head, and order the oyster pan roast and Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, a beer actually made with oysters. I nip the longneck while a muttering man in a paper hat whips together butter, cream, chili sauce and oysters into a silky indulgence served over toast points. I sip the soup, relishing its briny complexity, which is echoed in the inky stout that underscores the oysters’ inherent sweetness. Sip. Slurp. Swallow. By both the bottle and bowl, drinking my meal has never been so divine.
In a simpler era, brewers mainly relied on hops, grain, water and yeast to create an endless range of ales and lagers. But for modern brewers, the power of four tends to bore. In search of new flavors, brewers dig into their pantries and refrigerators. Though you can add edibles to nearly any beer style (Ballast Point’s Habañero Sculpin IPA, Elysian’s Super Fuzz blood orange pale ale, Sam Adams’ beef-heart-fueled, Oktoberfest-inspired Burke in a Bottle), the most popular platforms are the stout and porter. Typically, brewers played up their roasty, cocoalike characteristics by incorporating coffee or chocolate. Now they’re turning to bacon, peanut butter, pretzels and even oysters to devise dark beers as curious as they are curiously delicious.
“Stouts and porters have such a wide range of strong flavors to work with,” says Troy Hansen, head brewer at Michigan’s un- conventional Short’s Brewing. “Whether it’s the sweetness of a milk stout or the dark-fruit flavor in a Baltic porter, it’s pretty easy to isolate a component to enhance or complement with experimental ingredients.”
Many of Short’s beers read like an episode of “Iron Chef.” The Cornholio porter contains red popcorn, beach plums and herbal horehound leaf, while Über Goober unites oatmeal stout with peanut purée; S’more Stout naturally contains graham crackers and marshmallows. Then there’s the PB&J Stout, a childhood-style adult pleasure inspired by eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and, well, drinking stout.
“The challenge of replicating the flavor of a dessert or food combination into liquid form is very inspiring,” Hansen says. Beyond the challenge, blending food into beers can make them more accessible. “My sister doesn’t like stouts, but when I make Turtle Stout by adding chocolate, caramel and pecans, she loves it,” Hansen says.
If you’re feeling peckish, start with Martin’s There Will Be Stout, made with 6 pounds of sourdough pretzels per barrel of beer, or a mouthful of Dark Horse’s Tres Blueberry Stout, brewed with loads of fresh blueberries, before finishing with Rapp Brewing’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout, made with plenty of cocoa and peanut powder, or Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée Stout, that gets its dessertlike flavor from ample helpings of lactose (that is, milk sugar) and vanilla beans. For an entrée, may we suggest a carnivorous brew? Michigan’s Right Brain Brewery uses cold-smoked Mangalitsa pig heads—brains removed—and bones to make its smoky Mangalitsa Pig Porter (sublime with a side of Blind Bat’s Long Island Potato Stout or Bell’s Sweet Potato Stout), while Funky Buddha’s Maple Bacon Coffee Porter is a hangover-banishing breakfast in a bottle. For the ballsy carnivore, Wynkoop Brewery’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, made with bull testicles, is fittingly sold by the pair.
Instead of a turf-based stout, many brewers are seeking out the surf. Classically, oysters have been an ideal pairing with dry stouts like Guinness, with their briny profile complementing the full-bodied, creamy brew. To underscore the pairing, brewers began tossing oysters into brew kettles, creating beguiling ales with one foot in the ocean and the other behind the bar.
“We found that oysters impart a slight minerality and brininess in the beer,” says Ben Clark, head brewer at Flying Dog (which has also made Green Tea Imperial Stout). When the Maryland brewery was devising the recipe, which incorporates locally harvested Rappahannock River Oysters, the brewers were unsure about the proper approach. Do you fling in shells? The liquor? The entire oyster?
“We threw the entire oyster in and added sea salt to increase the briny character,” Clark says. On your next trip to the raw bar, seek out Asheville, N.C.’s Oyster House Brewing Co., which concocts the oyster-infused Moonstone Stout, while Ireland’s Porterhouse Brewing and California’s HenHouse both make a dry, smooth oyster stout. If clams are your favored bivalve, try New Zealand-brewed Emerson’s Southern Clam Stout.
Though a culinary approach to beer is increasingly popular, it isn’t simple. Offbeat fermentables, such as bananas and nuts, are notoriously finicky. For Short’s, one notable misfire was the Nutcracker, which was brewed with the nuts typically found on a holiday platter.
“That one did not even finish fermenting before we made the call to dump it,” says Hansen. Furthermore, there’s a fine line between shtick and creating a complex and engaging brew you’ll want to drink twice.
“Anyone exploring culinary brewing needs to understand that the key to making your beer delicious is balance,” says Jared Rouben, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and former Goose Island brewmaster. During his nearly 3-year stint, Rouben honed his food-focused technique, crafting farmers market beers such as a baby carrot witbier, rhubarb saison and green strawberry IPA, and partnering on beers with boldface Chicago chefs like Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard.
Earlier this year, Rouben went solo with Chicago’s Moody Tongue (slated to open this winter) which might be America’s most culinary-focused brewery.
“We’re going to make culinary beers that work with food in general and can stand on their own,” says Rouben, who will rely on seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as spices, teas and chocolate during the fallow winter months. In the same manner a chef constructs a dish through carefully selected ingredients and cooking techniques, Rouben builds a beer through layers of flavor. No single ingredient should overwhelm. “I’m not putting something in there because it’s trendy,” he says. “It should make the overall beer better. Nothing frustrates me more than when people sprinkle garnish around a plate. If we incorporate it into the recipe, it’s there for a reason.”
Though Rouben is still finalizing his launch lineup, expect food-driven beers such as a brandied blackberry Belgian dubbel and gingerbread chocolate milk stout: “We’re pushing down the walls between culinary arts and brewing.” •
Waiter, My Stout Tastes Like Cookies! To exactly replicate the flavor of those addictive Girl Scout Thin Mints, Chris Michner, owner and brewmaster at Oddside Ales in Grand Haven, Mich., sources loose-leaf peppermint tea from The Seasoned Home spice shop in nearby Holland, and coffee beans specially roasted to impart dark chocolate notes from northern Michigan. His popular Java Chip Mint Stout, released occasionally throughout the year, begins its life as a traditional 6%-ABV American stout. During the beer’s secondary fermentation, Michner steeps the tea directly in the tank. Next, he cold-brews those coffee beans (a pound per barrel!), and blends the inky brew into the stout. The process infuses the dark, roasted beer with luscious coffee, sultry chocolate and cool peppermint. Out of the tap, it tastes just like the real thing, so Oddside patrons never have to wait until cookie season to get their fix.