Downing oysters by the pint
Being a stickler for ritual, I have been looking for a beer with which to greet the return of an "r" to the month. After some thought, the answer is obvious: an oyster stout. It might be thought that such a powerful beer would drown the shellfish, but it is a marriage made in heaven. I believe such a brew should actually contain oysters. This is true of the oyster stout just introduced on the Isle of Man, a traditional home of such brews.

The earthy intensity of stout is a perfect foil for the gamey brineyness of oysters. Disraeli once wrote of an election celebration: "I dined at the Carlton, on oysters, Guinness and boiled bone..." In the early Victorian period, porters and stouts were everyday beers, and oysters a bar snack as commonplace as peanuts today. Porter dates from the early to mid-1700s, and is characterised by the use of highly kilned malts. Its name is said to have derived from its popularity as a restorative among porters in the markets of London, though I am not so sure. Until the industrial revolution, a brewery typically served a single pub. With the canal era, breweries began to deliver their beers farther afield. Perhaps "porter" had something to do with its being carried. In the early to mid-1800s, some of the bigger- bodied porters gained the epithet "stout".

The black beers gradually lost popularity to pale ales in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and oysters were over-dredged, but the marriage never ended. Around the turn of the century, the Colchester Brewing Company made a special stout to mark the oyster harvest. Guinness once used the slogan, "makes the oysters come out of their shells". Between the wars, the company rendered a pastiche of Carroll and Tenniel, with an illustration of an oyster conducting a lobster at the piano. Stout seems happy with all shellfish and crustaceans. I once downed pints of Guinness with a bucket of boiled softshell crabs, as sandy as they were peppery, piled high on brown paper, in a pub called Brady's in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1929, a New Zealand brewery added oysters to their stout. In 1938, the London brewery Hammerton followed suit (the brewery later closed, but not as a result of its oyster stout). At least three British breweries tried the same idea in the undernourished post-War period when "nutritious" beers were in vogue. On the Isle of Man, the Castletown Brewery made an oyster stout until the Sixties.

In the mid-Eighties, Martin Brunnschweiler, who is of Swiss origin but grew up in the northwest of England, left his job with Whitbread to start a new brewery on the Isle of Man, initially in a pub decorated with stuffed foxes - hence the name of his new enterprise, Bushy's. In exploring the brewing history of the island, Brunnschweiler came across old labels showing that Manx oyster stout had been exported to the United States and even the Middle East.

"I felt such a beer must surely be worth reviving, but I first had to establish my brewery with something more conventional," he says. As the revival of interest in traditional beers has spread, oyster stout's time has come, and Bushy's have just launched their own.

Brunnschweiler uses oysters imported from England by a fishmonger on the island. He adds them whole, at the rate of a mere five or six per barrel, to the kettle in which the barley-malt and hops are brewed. The oysters melt away during the boiling stage, leaving just a touch of their gamey flavours to enhance the brew.

Bushy's Oyster Stout, at just over four per cent alcohol, is on the light side in body and intensity for this style of beer, with just the subtlest hint of the magical bi-valves. Unfortunately, the only way to taste this wonderful combination of flavours is - for the moment, at least - to visit the Isle of Man. The beer is available only on draught, at about pounds 1.45 a pint, at seven or eight pubs on the island, though there is talk of its being served in the northwest of England, perhaps in the Matthew Brown pubs.

Those of us who live elsewhere may have to be content with Marston's Oyster Stout, made to a strength of 4.5 per cent, in the less maritime setting of Burton-on-Trent and available by the 500ml bottle at about pounds I.40, from national chains such as Oddbins. This beer was introduced a year or so ago, as part of a series of traditional specialities from Marston's. It contains no oysters, which seems a bit of a swizz, and is intended merely to accompany oysters, which it does very well. It is a very creamy brew with just the right balance of toasted grain flavours and acidic hoppiness.

A stout must lean to the dry side if it is to accompany oysters. Despite its fullness of body, Guinness's Dublin-brewed, strong (7.5 per cent) and quaintly named Foreign Extra Stout does the trick, especially if it is lightly chilled. The regular bottled or canned stuff is arguably too sweet and the jury is out on the draught version.

Murphy's and Beamish are barely dry enough, but there is a case for the peppery, spicy Cain's Superior Stout, from Liverpool. I have long loved the toasty, faintly anise-like porter from Harvey's of Lewes, East Sussex. A more recent example of that variation is a smoky, bottle-conditioned Old Porter from King and Barnes of Horsham, in the west of that county.

Back on the Isle of Man and fired by the success of his stout, Martin Brunnschweiler is wondering whether the island's oyster beds might be revived. He'll have us flying there yet.

An oyster festival sponsored by Murphy's Brewery takes place this weekend at Clarenbridge, Galway. A similar festival backed by Guinness is held in Galway town on 21-24 September. Details 00-353-91-22066

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