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Ask a Cicerone: The Best Beers to Pair With Oysters
Editor's Note: Ask a what? A Certified Cicerone®. That is, a beer expert who has passed a particular certification exam administered by the Craft Beer Institute. You can think of them as beer sommeliers.
Your beachside oyster shack may just have lager to offer, but if you're bringing your own beer to the oyster table, you might discover some really amazing combinations when oysters and beer get together. We asked our crew of beer experts about their favorite beer pairings for oysters, both the just-shucked raw kind and grilled and fried options.
Here's what they had to say.
Tips for Pairing Beer and Raw Oysters
"You certainly don't want to overwhelm the elegant and subtle nature of the oyster's flavors with a beer pairing that's just too intense. I want a beer pairing that complements and enhances the oyster's "taste of the sea" nature. My personal preference is gueuze. Belgium sits on the North Sea which plays a heavy influence in Belgian cuisine. One of their national dishes is mussels and fries. They often cook the mussels in gueuze, so why shouldn't the pairing extend to another shellfish? The acidity of the gueuze will contrast nicely with the saltiness and light richness of raw oysters to really highlight the oyster's character. At the same time, the gueuze won't overpower the oyster or put it in the backseat. The sweet delicate meat also contrasts nicely with the sourness of the beer making each item pop. For this pairing, I personally don't want a Gueuze that's too acidic. I suggest you reach for one of the more balanced gueuzes such as: Boon, Lindeman's Cuvee Rene, Girardin, or Oud Beersel. While Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen are outstanding, they may be a bit too acidic and bold for this pairing."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer)
"I love the 'salt and pepper' combination of raw oysters and saisons. With Loveland Aleworks Saison, the brininess of the oyster liquor is complemented perfectly by the musky peppery notes, while the touch of sweet biscuit flavors from the malts enhance the natural sweetness of the oyster meat. The high carbonation and dry finish is perfect to help scrub the palate clean after every slurp from the shell."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)
"The best beer around these parts [California] to enjoy with a raw oyster is 'Solidarity,' the flagship Black Mild Ale from Eagle Rock Brewery in Southern, CA. The beer drinks like 85% cacao mineral water. It is bone-dry to the point of prickling the palate. The rigidity in the mouthfeel of this beer serves as a wonderful counterpart to a slimy sea creature. The real key to the pairing though lies in the fact that no two flavors on the planet are as wonderfully flattering to one another as chocolate and salt. The aromas and flavors of dark chocolate and char that Solidarity offers up leave me craving the abundant sea-water brine of a raw oyster. The history of oysters being consumed with beers like this in the British Isles is well-documented but often misunderstood in contemporary American gastropubs and raw bars. I will often see raw oysters sold alongside robust dark beers with rich body and caramelized flavors. Worse still, you will see oysters served with nitrogenated beers—this is a trainwreck—think oysters and whipped cream.—Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)
"I was very recently at a restaurant where I had already placed my beer order when the group decided to get two dozen Blue Point oysters from the raw bar for the table. I like topping my oysters with cocktail sauce featuring a robust dose of horseradish along with a splash of fresh squeezed lemon. A classic beer style pairing for oysters is a stout, but that wasn't what I had ordered; it was the popular Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, an East coast-style IPA with spicy hop goodness on a solid, balancing malt backbone. This turned out to be a fantastic pairing, as the spiciness from the cocktail sauce and citrus from the lemon were complemented by the spicy, citrusy hop character, while the malt sweetness meshed with the briney oyster meat as a stout would, and the active carbonation of the IPA helped to clear the palate for the next bite. This unplanned foray into oysters and beer proved to me that, at least for the way I typically eat raw oysters, IPAs—including more hop-forward, citrusy IPAs—are a great complementary choice."—Rob Hill (Total Wine & More)
"I think the all time go-to beer pairing with raw oysters has to be a nice dry gueuze (pronounced 'ger-zuh'). Gueuze is a blend of aged and young lambic—a really cool style of beer that is made around Brussels with wild airborne yeast, and which you may possibly have seen at restaurants or bottle shops with images of fruit or fruity names on the label. What you're looking for when pairing with raw oysters isn't these fruit-macerated variations—although here and there these can pair nicely too depending on what style of oyster you're enjoying—but this blended, fruit-free version which may remind you of a more tart version of Champagne, with tight carbonation and some mineral and bread-like notes. I would recommend Gueuze Tilquin if you can find it. I would even serve gueuze in a flute if it fits the setting properly (oh this beer gets fancy!)"—Chris Elford (Canon)
"The quick and easy answer to pairing beer with raw oysters is a dry stout. The maltiness and bitterness are a great contrast to the flavors of the oysters. However, if you want to go out on a limb you could pair the raw oysters with something that would truly accentuate the briny seafood aspect. Stillwater's Stateside Saison would be a bold choice that would take the natural flavor of the oysters and really magnify them due to the fruitiness of the beer. The slight peppery and spicy flavor would also take the place of the hot sauce that is so commonly put on oysters on the half shell, making this a daring, but extraordinary pairing."—Brian Hoppe (Hy-Vee)
"The first thing that stands out to me when I think of oysters is texture. There's something so gentle and smooth about raw oysters and I love to eat them with a beer that offers a similar texture. For that, stouts poured on a nitrogen line are always my first choice. When a beer is poured on nitro (the way Guinness is), it's much silkier and creamier than a typical draught beer and a stout has lovely roasty and sweet notes that are delicious with the briny, and mineral flavors of an oyster. Porterhouse from Dublin offers a few options—their 'plain porter' and 'wrasslers stout,' are great and they even make an 'oyster stout' that's brewed with actual oysters, which is a terrific combination."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)
What About Fried and Grilled Oysters?
"When it comes to the same food served in a different way (fried), I look to similar beers but with a little more carbonation. The bubbles in a traditionally carbonated beer (non-nitro) act as little scrubbers on your tongue, perfect as an accompaniment to something fried. For this, Del Borgo in Italy makes a really great oyster stout called Perle a Porci that's rich enough to stand up to a fried oyster without overpowering it. My mouth is watering just writing this."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)
"With fried oysters I like pick a high-acid, highly carbonated brew like Fritz Briem's '1809.' '1809's' signature combination of lactic and carbonic acid offer the same sort of flavor interactions with an oyster as a squeeze of lemon. Additionally the beer's Champagne-like dryness allows its acids to clean up after the oily fat that drenches our palates when we bite into a fried oyster."—Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)
"A nice, sharp gueuze would be an ideal pairing for an Oyster Po' Boy sandwich. The acidity of the beer will slice right through the oiliness of the frying while still being delicate enough to not overwhelm the oysters. Add in a little hot sauce or a spicy slaw and the Geuze will make the whole thing shine and pop like a New Orleans brass band."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer)
"A German rauchbier would pair nicely with grilled oysters. Rauchbier (rauch meaning 'smoke' in German) gets its smoky characteristics from the old world practice of smoking the malt in order to dry it in preparation for use in beer. The smoky, meaty character of rauchbier pairs well with grilled meats, and grilled oysters are no exception. Live Oak Helles Rauchlager would be an excellent rauchbier for grilled oysters."—Tre Miner (Craft Pride)
"Fried oysters are very different and tend to be a little easier to pair with than raw. Not only do you have the delicate seafood notes, but you also have the richness of the breading and fat to make this a dish more versatile. For anything fried, I think of hops to cut through the richness, and to work with the slightly delicate nature of the oysters, I think pilsner. Not just any pilsner will do though, I'm thinking Regal Double Pilsner from Breckenridge. This is a very hop forward beer that will cut through the fried portion of the dish, and the fresh, clean finish of this brew will complement the oysters wonderfully."—Brian Hoppe (Hy-Vee)
"Once we get into fried oysters and grilled oysters, some of the minerality is lost and we start finding more big rich umami flavors. It's also important to remember these types are often dressed or served with a dipping sauce, so I think it is best to stay dry but maybe do something with a little bit more backbone like a Belgian Tripel—these will be light in color, but have a biscuity malt element that isn't quite as delicate as a gueuze would be. And if you are getting real down-home, like eating oysters Rockefeller at Acme Oyster House down in NoLa, I always recommend you go for the experience and drink something simple and local—at Acme I always do Abita Amber!"—Chris Elford (Canon)
It's oyster day on SE: Drinks! Here are a few fun wine pairings for oysters, beyond the obvious classics »