Seafood and beer. It’s a great pairing.
But some micro-breweries in Nova Scotia have decided to take those flavours a step further, developing recipes with ingredients more akin to a marine biology text book than a warm-weather libation.
“[Our friend] Art Drysdale passed away a few months ago and he hosted an oyster cloister party every year . . . so he would get oysters from all over Nova Scotia, from all different places [around the province]. He was a musician, too, so you’d have the music going all night and you just invited friends over and people would, you know, sample the oysters and have drinks,” Kenny says.
The brewery had been looking for a new product to introduce at the beginning of 2015 and had seen in a magazine a recipe that used oysters. Drysdale’s passing was the catalyst to create the brew by throwing oyster shells, relieved of their meat, into the pot while the other ingredients boiled.
Kenny, who comes from a family of fishermen, proudly sources his ingredients from as close a proximity to the brewery as possible. For this brew, the oysters were a Malagash variety from Purdy’s, and the hops – an integral part of beer-making – were from Malagash, as well. It was, as Kenny says, “good locally-sourced beer.”
Jeff Saunders, owner of Bad Apple Brewhouse in Somerset, Nova Scotia, says he tried capturing Atlantic Canada history in a glass when he created ’Sea Salt and Caramel.”
“[It was to showcase] the three industries that shaped Atlantic Canada – primarily the fishing, farming and forestry industries. I used dulse for the sea, and Maritime-grown grains for the farming, and Eastern-grown cedar to age on,” says Saunders.
Dulse, a type of seaweed, was sourced through a supplier in Digby, Nova Scotia. Saunders, who used a dried version, says he had to do considerable research to find the right combination of dulse and beer.
“I basically would eat some dulse and drink different kinds of beer – some brown ales, and stouts and IPAs. We found that the dulse itself went best with a brown ale,” he says.
The third element of his brew – the cedar – was integrated into the brew by throwing chunks of the wood into the tank holding the beer, thereby completing the process.
The name came from the taste, though it was originally to be called ‘East Coast Beer,’ as Saunders had been trying to work with Alex MacLean of East Coast Lifestyle.
The initial run of ‘Sea Salt and Caramel’ was small – a little over 300 litres – and went primarily to fill kegs and growlers. Another round of the unique brew is something Saunders is considering doing again.
The use of unorthodox ingredients, including seaweed or oyster shells is nothing new. In the past, brewers used dried flakes of ‘Irish Mist’ – another type of seaweed – to collect and remove unwanted proteins from beer. Likewise, shells were used to alter the water.
“It changes your water profile, first of all because of the minerals that are in the shells. You get that calcium and it kind of hardens the water a little bit,” said Kenny.
Playing with the water, and specifically the pH level, can influence much in the brewing process and ultimately the beer’s taste, according to Gordon McOuat, professor of Humanities at University of King’s College in Nova Scotia, who teaches a course entitled ‘Brewing Science.’ The course examines the history, culture and science of brewing.
“The slight different chemical composition has an effect on the growth of the yeast and also the way the ingredients metabolize” says McOuat.
London porter-style ales became the most famous beers in the world in the 19th century, McOuat says, using water from the Thames River, which wasn’t known then for being hygienic. But its particular pH balance gave the beers their distinct taste. “More acid is better for darker beers and [more] alkaline for paler beers,” he says.
If oysters and dulse in a beer are cause for pause, what about the whole chickens that used to be thrown in?
“Actually, before sanitation laws they’d put quite a bit in,” McOuat says. “Beef would be in the beer, chicken, things like that. Partly for taste, but also because it sets up the decay process, which is what fermentation is,” he says.
Kenny at Tatamagouche Brewing Company admits that ‘Oyster Cloister’ isn’t for everyone. In fact, he has identified two distinct groups: those who like craft beer and are open to trying new tastes such as ‘Oyster Cloister’, and those who don’t like craft beer. But for the few of that group who find their courage, they usually feel rewarded.
It’s them, according to Kenny, who say: “‘I don’t like a dark beer to begin with and now there’s oysters in it.’ [But] then you get them to try it and they’re like ‘Oh jeez, that’s a lot lighter than I thought it was going to be and you can’t really taste the oyster. That’s pretty good.’”
Want to taste it for yourself? Consider checking out the Oyster Bar Pop-up at Lion & Bright Cafe in Halifax, this Friday, January 23rd, from 6-11 p.m. Try oysters from around 10 local producers, and pair it with Tatamagouche’s ‘Oyster Cloister’. And a hat tip to Chris and Shawn from the Atlantic Canada Beer Blog for turning us on to the details in this story.