Considering the Oyster and Beer
Every year since 1978, the members of the San Andreas Malts, a San Francisco homebrew club, have been throwing themselves a party. What began in club founder Terry Brandborg’s back yard has evolved into the club’s biggest event of the year. And while many homebrew clubs have get togethers, this is the only one we know of that celebrates with both beer and barbecued oysters.
The picnic is now held in a state park in Pacifica, a quaint coastal town along Highway One a few miles south of San Francisco. The lush green space is ideal, with picnic tables and a bank of grills. In late April, when the event is held, everywhere you look is green, from the wide-open grassy plain to the surrounding hills, thick with trees.
The club supplies all the oysters and members and their families each bring a potluck dish to share. And most importantly, there are more than a dozen kegs of varying sizes. Some are filled with homebrewed beer while others are commercial beers donated by Emeritus members such as Alec Moss of Half Bay Brewing and Grant Johnston of Black Diamond Brewing.
The first step, naturally, is to shuck all the oysters — over two thousand of them this year — and volunteers take turns pitching in.
Some are grilled plain, but the majority are grilled with one of two sauces developed specifically for the event. The first, a traditional red sauce created by Mark Kornmann, is created on the fly without measuring any of the ingredients. He mixes up ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, and dried cayenne peppers to taste. He then fills an empty ketchup bottle with his sauce and as the oysters are grilling, gives each a squirt. Mark, pictured here, tells me “the one negative off this park is it would be better if the grills were covered. That way the oysters would have a more intense smoked flavor.”
The other sauce is a bit more unusual. It’s a pesto-based sauce created by Chuck Cihak. Chuck has refined his recipe over many years and is justly proud of it.
He starts with generous handfuls of walnuts and pine nuts, to which he adds a half stick of butter, 3 cloves of garlic, 5 peppercorns, a tablespoon of coarse salt, a tablespoon of lemon juice, 3 cups of packed basil leaves, 4 oz. of grated Romano cheese and 4 oz. of grated Parmesan cheese. Then he runs it through a Cuisinart, slowly pouring in 1 1/2 cups of olive oil. Chuck then, shown here with some of his oysters, hand ladles his pesto sauce into each oyster before grilling.
Oysters and beer, of course, have had a long and illustrious relationship. The sharp, briny, gritty flavors of the oyster have long been known to pair beautifully with stouts and porters. It most likely began when the porter style was very popular and oysters were quite plentiful, which made them cheap, as well. Later, stouts like Guinness were often paired with oysters and some were even named oyster stouts like Martsen’s Oyster Stout. But it wasn’t until modern times that actual oysters were put into the beer itself. Several now include oysters themselves in the brewing process such as Ventnor Brewery and Bushy’s, both in England. Here in the U.S., several craft brewers have made oyster stouts, including Dogfish Head Brewing, Rogue Ales, Southampton Publick House and 21st Amendment.
Other beers that pair nicely with oysters are helles, gueuze, IPAs, pilsners, and strong Belgian ales, like dubbels and triples.
“For many years this has been the most popular event that the club hosts,” says San Andreas Malts president Dave Suurballe, pictured here with his wife Honoria. “Usually at monthly meetings we’ll have maybe a dozen people. But hundreds will attend the Oyster BBQ.”
In fact the picnic grounds were full most of the day, with homebrewers and their families enjoying the warm sunshine with beer, food and oysters. The myth that oysters should only be eaten in months with “r’s” in them is a holdover from the days before refrigeration. Today, oysters can be enjoyed year round.
As these picnic-goers already know, oysters are not only delicious but are also very nutritious with generous amounts of protein, carbohydrates and lipids. Oysters are ideal additions to a low-cholesterol diet, according to the National Heart and Lung Institute. They also include numerous vitamins such as A, B, C and D plus calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc.