London's connection with oysters goes back as far as the city itself. The eating of oysters in London began in Roman times, when the British product was shipped as far as Rome.
They continued to be popular in medieval times, when the church imposed lots of “fish days”, during which seafood had to be eaten in place of meat. The tradition continued well into the nineteenth century, when oysters were a popular food. In the Pickwick Papers, one character says: “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together”.
Well, times change, clearly. But this does explain why we drink stout with oysters. Until the building of the railways from the midlands allowed bitter beer to be transported to London, porter stout – the name was later shortened to just “stout” – was the city’s drink. Poverty and porter also went hand in hand. The tradition of pairing porter and oysters is a reminder of the city’s past.
The question is, should we continue this tradition? We are slap bang in the middle of the oyster season, and so now is the time to ask. Of course, some say that you should drink wine with your oysters – either champagne or Chablis are the usual choices. But if you want to go for beer, is porter best? I headed to Bentley’s, the venerable oyster restaurant owned by Richard Corrigan, to find out. With me was Rupert Ponsonby, co-founder of the Beer Academy, who arrived with a bag bulging with bottles.
We divided the beers into styles: traditional British ales, white beers and black beers. As representatives of the first style, we took two of the beers made by Brakspear, from Oxfordshire. First were the trusty classic Brakspear Bitter (3.4 per cent, widely available), a complex ale that punches above its weight, and Oxford Gold, a zesty and delicate bitter with Target and Goldings hops. Rupert thought the Bitter might fit well because of its salty edge, and he was right. It was an earthy sort of experience, and the sort of thing I could imagine some blokes from a Whitby trawler guzzling down.
The Oxford Gold was a similar match, albeit a little more refined. The goldings hops ought to make it similar to Chablis, but I thought that the citrus was marmaladey rather than lemony. “An exhilaratingly macho match,” Rupert thought, and he was right. If subtlety isn’t for you, this will keep you happy.
Next up were the classics, the black beers. Interestingly, few of them actually worked. We tried Sneck Lifter, from the waterlogged Jennings brewery in Cockermouth in Cumbria (too aniseedy), and Anchor porter from California (too much coffee flavour). We also tried Porterhouse oyster stout, which they have on draught at Bentley’s the 4.5 per cent draught version of Guinness.
Now, I am not a huge Guinness fan. I often feel that I am drinking a glass of liquidised oats, and it seems claggy and too bitter. Medicinal, perhaps. As expected, it was a decent match, but while it was harmonious, the beer added little. Perhaps the 8 per cent export version, a more powerful and less creamy beer, would have been better. The oyster stout – brewed with fresh oysters – was a beauty. It is very creamy, but with a burned toast flavour and the saltiness of the oyster was not drowned. “Magic,” said Rupert, echoing my own thoughts. In terms of oyster stouts, he also recommends Martson’s.
Following that was the evening’s revelation, the white beers. First was Vedett Extra White, from the Belgian Moortgat brewery. With orange and coriander, this was a beautiful match, although unusual. “Legitimate but odd, like kissing someone else’s girlfriend,” Rupert reckoned. (It was starting to get late.) After that we had Blue Moon, a Belgian-style wheat beer from America. This was a stellar match. The beer has a fattier taste than the Vedett, which complemented the salty oyster to perfection. With lemon and green tabasco, it was even better. Finally we tried Grolsch Weizen, a floral, fruity German-style wheat beer. For me, this was just too much, but Rupert loved it, describing the match as “like sticking your head in the Harrods perfume hall on a warm night”.
A special mention should also go to the classic Belgian Duvel. Oddly, for a beer that ostensibly resembles a lager, it was absolutely magic. Perhaps it’s because it is cask-conditioned, or perhaps because it is 8.5 per cent, it was just fabulous, “heroic”, said Rupert. If you are up for an adventure, then try the Duvel. Whatever you do, just say no to champagne.
Porterhouse Oyster Stout
If you are going to drink stout with oysters, then you need to avoid some of the modern ones with their complex coffee and chocolate flavours. Instead, a clean, simple stout is best. Oyster stout is not always brewed with oysters – although the Marston’s version is, with a few chucked in the barrel. Instead, the name is sometimes used to show that it is the sort of stout that will work with oysters.
4.5 per cent, available in Bentley’s, or Porterhouse in Covent Garden.
Not a traditional oyster match, but the citrus flavours of the Belgian-style wheat beers partner oysters beautifully. Blue Moon, from Colorado, is brewed with orange peel and coriander. It has a waxier, less astringent taste than some Belgian wheat beers – perhaps because it is unfiltered – which helps the texture of the oyster. Lemon on the oyster made it even better.
5.4 per cent, widely available at £1.49 a bottle.
A classic Belgian beer – the name means devil – which kicked off the trend for strong golden beers. At 8.5 per cent it is not for the faint of heart, (or weak of head). Surprisingly, for something which looks like a lager, it is a revelation with oysters. There are flavours of clove and green banana, but the key to its success is the powerful hoppiness. It is cask-conditioned too, meaning that in some ways it resembles a strong British real ale. 8.5 per cent, widely available, around £2 a bottle.
The stuff that you get on tap is nice enough, of course (as long as you avoid the pointless and tasteless Extra Cold), but stout lovers will tell you that if you want the real thing, you have to go for the bottles. For a real shot of the black stuff you really need to look to the Special Export, which comes in at a gutsy 8 per cent. Malt, oats, burned toast and a little warmth from the alcohol make this a winner, while the liquorice and orange loiter around in the background. Good with oysters, and also tough enough to complement a chocolate dessert afterwards. 8 per cent, widely available, at about £2.50 a bottle.