For many a millennium, brewers have added myriad fruits, spices and assorted flavoring elements to their brews. It's a practice that dates back to King Tut's time, if not earlier, and has found us ingesting all sorts of curious, interesting and occasionally highly questionable ingredients.
The list of odd additions to the brewing basics of water, malted grain, yeast and, since about 800 A.D., hops, is long and diverse. Our forefathers who settled this great continent added spruce to their beers; some traditional Amazonian tribal brews are said to contain saliva, a byproduct of a peculiar method of malt mashing by mastication; and at last year's Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, the Olde Hickory Brewing Company unveiled its Watauga Tobacco Stout, flavored with, yes, good ol' southeastern tobacco.
One particularly strange brewing combination is the peculiar marriage of oysters and stout. This doesn't mean a plate of oysters on the half-shell beside an ebony pint of stout. Nope. Here we find oysters actually incorporated into the beer itself!
While the complementary relationship between stout and shellfish is well known among oyster cognoscenti, even some death-defying devourers of raw seafood balk at the idea of bivalve-flavored beer. Those who do risk partaking of the creamy, faintly briny brew that's a typical oyster stout are offered more than a sip of curiosity, they're given a taste of history. Because as much as it might sound like the latest gimmick in the beer wars, oyster stout's a style steeped in history.
Likely born some time in the early 19th century, when both oysters and stout were staples in the diet of London's dock workers, it's said that oyster stout developed out of the habit of using crushed oyster shells to filter the beer. Somewhere along the line, an adventurous (if undocumented) brewer decided to take the process to the next step -- adding the shucked shellfish to his ale. Thus, oyster stout was born.
Few true oyster stouts are found these days, and fewer still are brewed on anything even approaching a regular basis. This is most likely due to the expense of adding the costly critters to the brew. (The Durham Brewing Company, a southern Ontario outfit that makes an oyster stout in cooperation with a famed Toronto shellfish emporium, uses only the liquor left over from the oysters shucked for the restaurant's chowder, blending it into its regular stout after fermentation.) But that doesn't mean there aren't a whole lot of other equally interesting and unusual brews fermenting at brewpubs and breweries across the continent.
Back at the 1999 GABF, I seized the opportunity to sample a new beer from Craftsman Brewing Company, of Pasadena, California. This brewery had caught my attention the previous year with its highly tasty Orange Grove Ale, flavored with fresh oranges. This time out, setting tongues a-wagging, was the Craftsman Chicha Ale -- an attempt at concocting an authentic, traditional Inca corn beer. No doubt this seemed like a much better idea on the drawing board than it did in my glass.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, the eccentric James Walton of Storm Brewing pushes the envelope with his Gruit Ale, a "medicinal herbal beer" containing, in place of hops, bog myrtle, yarrow and marsh rosemary. Walton claims that the dry, light and certainly herbal-tasting brew was a staple at weddings a thousand years ago, and no doubt he hopes that it'll become one again -- at least in Vancouver. (Hey, stranger things...)
Then there's Minty, the peppermint-flavored beer from Brouwerij Huyghe of Belgium, which provides proof that some highly questionable beers actually do hail from "Het Bierland." And the aptly named Kitchen Brewery, of West Yorkshire, England, which offers, among other things, the self-explanatory Carrot Cruncher Ale and a beer made with all the goodness of turnip. Or perhaps you'd prefer some potassium with your beer, in the form of the bananas used in the brewing of Ban nov Pivo, from the Prague brewpub Pivovarsk Dum.
Placed in the context of oysters, carrots and peppermint, strawberry-, raspberry-, cherry- and other fruit-flavored beers appear positively normal. Which is a good thing. Because not only do many fruit beers rightly stand among the most interesting and tasty brews in the world, they also boast a pedigree that predates hopped beer by several thousand years.
Fine fruit beers brewed today include the Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus (raspberry with a bit of cherry), Mort Subite Cassis (black currant) and Boon Kriek (cherry), all from Belgium; Melbourne Bros. Strawberry and Apricot from the U.K.; or the domestically produced New Glarus, Wisconsin, Belgian Red (cherry), Pyramid Apricot Ale and black raspberry flavored Widmer Widberry.
Finally, no walk on the wilder side of brewing would be complete without a mention of beers brewed from alternative fermentables. Like the rye used in the Thurn und Taxis Roggen, a classic beer reportedly in danger of being discontinued by its parent brewery, Paulaner of Munich. Or the much spicier buckwheat in the Coup de Grisou, of Montreal's Cheval Blanc Brewery. There's even a wild rice beer -- the Island City Wild Rice Lager, from Minocqua Brewing of Wisconsin, and a spelt beer -- Blonde d'Epautre, from St. Paulin, Quebec's Les Bires de la Nouvelle-France -- all of which proves, perhaps, that no grain, spice, fruit -- or mollusk is safe when there's a brewer about.