“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” This quote from Jonathan Swift in 1738 has resonated through the centuries, largely because of its utter accuracy. Looking down with gusto into the cupped shell where the gob of living, wet mollusk lies, awaiting its trip down your gullet, is not for the faint of heart. There are plenty of other ways to consume oysters, however, if you need a few degrees of separation from their filtering little lives down on the Bay’s bottom. Stewed, steamed, fried, casseroled, creamed, sauced, frittered, and pickled- over the ages, we’ve developed a dish for every kind of oyster eater.
Feeling particularly bold?
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has even had an oyster ice cream on offer at one of our festivals, thanks to a local ice cream innovator, Victor at Scottish Highland Creamery. (The author has unfortunately not had the chance to sample it, but the fact that it has not been added to their list of permanent flavors says it all.) But oyster ice cream isn’t the final frontier of culinary exploration using the oyster as the main ingredient. Recently, thanks to a partnership with Fordham Brewery, there’s an even more adventurous way to savor the flavor of Chesapeake “merroir”: a newly launched oyster stout, named after the Maritime Museum’s iconic skipjack, Rosie Parks.
The Rosie Parks Oyster Stout sounds radical, but oysters stouts are actually a brewing tradition that can be traced back to 19th century England. The middle of the 1800’s were oyster boomtimes not just for the Chesapeake but also for the British, whose oyster economy exploded thanks to preservation (canning, refrigeration) and transportation (steam locomotives) innovations out of the Industrial Revolution. Oysters were so ubiquitous and so cheap as to be an everyman food. In the Pickwick Papers, Dickens described the 19th century English oyster culture in this scene:
“It’s a very remarkable circumstance, sir,” said Sam,“that poverty and oysters always seems to go together.”
“I don’t understand, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick.
“What I mean, sir,” said Sam, “is, that the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Look here, sir; here’s a oyster stall to every half dozen houses. The streets lined vith ‘em. Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in reg’lar desperation.”
Oysters today are considered a bourgeois food, but in that era, oyster harvests were so high that even the humblest of incomes might afford them. Oysters were often served as a breakfast food, and came with another staple of the working man’s diet: beer, stout to be precise. Stout (essentially bread in liquid form) and oysters were considered a hearty, healthy way to begin a long day, and it was this classic pairing that lead to the original oyster stouts: beers named after the food they were paired with, rather than including oysters as an ingredient. The earliest oyster stouts, therefore, were the beers that you drank with your oysters, rather than the oysters that you drank in your beer.
Guinness is the classic example of a stout paired with oysters.
Image courtesy Brookstonbeerbulletin.com
But the two went together so well it wasn’t long before the idea of adding oysters to the beer itself bubbled to a head. Initially, it was only the shells that were used as a fining agent to clarify beer without filtration, reducing the bitter taste and softening the texture of the brew. Eventually, oysters with insides and all were added to the batch, with the earliest documented example produced by a brewery in New Zealand in the 1920’s. The subtly salty, briny marine flavor of the oysters complimented the rich, smoky notes of the stout, and oysters became a periodical addition to small batches of oyster stout (rarely is an oyster stout available all year long, much like the oysters themselves).
A batch of the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout is written up on the Fordham chart as it ferments, in preparation for its October release.
Today, a handful of enterprising craft breweries like Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, and Rogue have embraced the oyster stout seasonal style, with some including shells in the brewing process, and others using the oyster meat as well. Locally, though, it’s taken a while for Chesapeake oyster stouts to catch on- ironic, given the Chesapeake’s storied past as one of the richest and most prolific sources of shoe-sole-sized oysters (and their ardent consumers) on the East Coast. With Fordham’s launch of the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout, it would seem that the perfect audience for an elixir combining the Bay’s finest filter feeders and the roasted notes of malt is waiting with pint glasses primed.
Members of the Parks family gather to honor the liquid legacy of the Rosie Parks
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding- or in this case, the beer. Laced with the taste of the Chesapeake’s best oysters, the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout was rolled out to thirsty and appreciative tipplers at Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern on October 4th. Just blocks away from a harbor that once teemed with the flaking white paint and salt-stained sails of skipjacks and bugeyes, laden with heavy cargo of the Chesapeake’s “white gold,” members of the family of famed shipwright Bronza Parks gathered to raise their oyster-flavored glass to the man that built the iconic skipjack the stout’s been named for. Oysters, stout, history and Chesapeake skipjacks- all happily married in a pint, with the proceeds going to support the restoration of one of the Bay’s last remaining workhorses. That’s one combination everyone wanted to raise (and drain) a glass to.
Want to taste some of the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout yourself? Come to Oysterfest on November 3rd at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, when it will first be served to the public! http://www.cbmm.org/oysterfest/index.htm
For more photos of the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout release party, click here: http://on.fb.me/URCcsA
Interested in some nitty gritty details about how Fordham makes the Rosie Parks Oyster Stout? Check out this video about how the beer was developed and recipe involved in making the stout below: