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Beer and the Sea

March 3, 2011

I may be going out on a limb here, but in all of my exploration into craft beer I’ve noticed an interesting subgenre of beers that are associated with the sea. Either through a subtle brininess in the flavor, or through the use of ingredients like oysters or seaweed, they prove that craft beers can be just as peculiar as they are admirable.

A few months back, we held a tasting for some of the Williams Bros. Scottish beers, one of which was their Kelpie Seaweed Ale. A throwback to the days when Scottish alehouses used seaweed as fertilizer to grow barley (which gave it a distinctive flavor), this beer is unlike anything else I’ve tried, but in a good way. Fresh seaweed is mixed in with the malted and roasted barley to create a mild, malty ale with a unique flavor (think a little brine with a kind of dry grassiness). It has a consistency similar to a dry stout, and with it’s low alcohol content and mild yet distinctive flavor, it has since become one of my favorite session beers. If you can get over the weirdness of drinking something called a “seaweed ale,” you’ll find that it actually works surprisingly well.

Dogfish Head’s Squall IPA just recently popped onto my radar. I decided to try it because the label was cool, but I found out that it tastes excellent as well. An Imperial IPA at 9% abv, it has piney hops and notes of grapefruit and some tropical fruit, all mixed in with some light caramel malts. There is a dryness in the finish, which combined with the slightly bitter, resinous hops creates a sort of unique briny character. It’s a great, distinctive IPA that is very accessible, but seeing as it’s from Dogfish Head that kind of goes without saying.

Oyster Stouts seem to be gaining ground as a respectable style, and Harpoon released a really good one a while back as part of their “100 Barrel Series” (it’s gone now, unfortunately). The Porterhouse Brewing Company has a solid Oyster Stout, which as far as I know is one of the few that is available year-round. Porterhouse is based in Dublin, Ireland, and the label assures you that it’s “100% Irish,” and that Porterhouse is “Ireland’s Largest Genuine Irish Brewery.” Their Oyster Stout (which is from Ireland, in case you didn’t catch that) is a dry stout at 5.2% abv, with a mild roasted malt character, and a distinctive briny minerality at the end from the fresh oysters that are added during the brewing process. It’s rich and flavorful without being heavy, and unique yet fairly mild, making it a great pair for food (particularly seafood).

These beers (along with one of my favorite pale ales) don’t really constitute a style as much as a general theme, but I think they deserve some recognition for pushing the boundaries of craft beer into new and exciting places. After all, some of our most revered beer styles (like IPAs and Imperial Stouts) were born of long sea voyages, so it seems only natural that modern craft brewers would look to the sea for inspiration.

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