The nifty thing about the swirl of marketing that accompanies our religious holidays is how it promises something for everyone. Last month, as children in my neighbourhood were celebrating the arrival of chocolate bunnies, I was getting worked up about the Guinness billboard announcing the arrival of St. Patrick’s “weekend,” a holiday that once was just a day.
“Paint the town black,” the ad implored, in my case preaching to the converted. Back in grade school, Guinness was the first beer I ever sampled. In my teens I liked Carling O’Keefe’s Champlain Porter, in the stubby bottle with “union-made” stamped on the cap. A subsequent Murphy’s phase long since succumbed to a taste for the more interesting efforts of Canadian microbrewers—and in particular, for their oyster stouts.
My first encounter with the same was about a decade back, at Toronto’s Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill, owned by the Guinness-record-holding speed-shucker Patrick McMurray. When I spotted him siphoning off oyster liquor from his shucking board into a container he kept in his fridge I was obliged to ask what he did with it—and if I could have some. Expecting a nice bowl of chowder, I was instead delivered a robust stout, its rich finish accented with the salty, sweet taste of the sea—of fresh oysters.
Since then McMurray has improved the formula. Actually, his brewer did. Barley Days, of Picton, Ont., is now making oyster stout with whole oysters—roughly 1,500 of them in each 200-litre batch, tossing them into the vat, shells and all, during the stout’s secondary boil. “Technically it’s ‘single-bed’ oyster liquor,” McMurray elaborated. Because the oysters they use are exclusively Green Gables—from New London Bay in P.E.I.
It seems an extravagant means to an end traditionally achieved by merely simmering worthless oyster shells in the vat of nearly finished stout. For this style of beer is as working class a beverage as you’ll find. Its 18th-century progenitor, porter, took its name from the porters and other labourers for whom it was brewed. And brewed mild—with around four per cent alcohol. “You could drink this at lunch and go back to work and not fall down,” Jason Fisher, owner of the excellent Toronto brew pub the Indie Alehouse, told me.
“Stout porter” was a variation, a more robust brew with a little extra alcohol. In time the term was abbreviated and stouts and porters are now all but interchangeable. Roasted flavours generally put a beer in the stout category, while more pronounced sweetness or dryness will land it in the porter class. (Then there is wildly alcoholic Russian imperial stout.)
It was the variations on porter that had brought me to the Indie Alehouse. I wanted to see what their brewmaster, Jeff Broeders, was mixing up for St. Patrick’s Day, and got to observe him starting a batch of their fine, fruity “breakfast porter.” As with all porters, its dark colour is attributable to the small proportion of barley roasted in high temperature included in the mix. The proportion of that defining allotment is shockingly small—10 kg of the 300-kg grain load required for the batch we were about to brew.
That’s just the start. “Stout is a blank canvas,” Fisher explained. “You can add things like oats—that will make it smoother and maltier. You can add rye grain, which will give it a sharp dryness. You can make it really strong by adding lots of sugar—which gives you an imperial stout. You can do crazy things—add not just oysters, but cherries, or strawberries, or bananas.”
For their recent stout night, local brewers Sawdust City contributed a Red Rocket stout spiced with cinnamon and cayenne pepper, and Great Lakes Brewery a blond stout loaded with eggnog. The local interest reflects what is happening across the country. Lighthouse Brewery, in Victoria, is producing a well-received oyster stout. And McAuslan brewery of Montreal makes St-Ambroise oatmeal stout—perhaps the finest one I know (if it is draft). Should you happen by the Indie Alehouse or a similar brew pub, do watch out for those imperial stouts, whose alcohol can run to 13 per cent. And try not to gorge as kids do with their Easter chocolate, or St. Patrick’s weekend could become a St. Patrick’s moment.