With just eight days left in April, the old adage "only eat oysters in months with an 'r'" has been rattling around my head with increased frequency over the last week or so. After all, no less an authority than Dan Bugge, former fish flinger at the Pike Place Market and owner of nearby Matt's In the Market, recently told me he only serves oysters at his restaurant from September to May. And so, despite improved refrigeration and commercial oyster farming, which technically, makes it safe to eat oysters year-round, I know deep down that we're moving away from the peak season to eat these briny little buddies. (What are old adages for otherwise?)
I also know that raw oysters scream out for the perfect beer to accompany them—especially if it's the last time I'm going to taste them for four months. That's why after talking to Bugge, I called Garrett Oliver, the acclaimed brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery and the author of the seminal book The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food.
Oliver's rule for oysters and beer is simple: "I've found beer with too much residual sugar—any sort of sweetness or big caramel flavor—doesn't tend to work well with oysters." Instead, he suggests "bone-dry beer," the dryness of which will cut right through the bitterness of the oysters to cleanse the palate.
It seemed to me that the classic farmhouse ales native to Belgium's southern region, Wallonia, would more than suffice on this count—especially because Walloons cracked these ales, which they called saisons (French for Season), when winter turned to spring. (Or you know, pretty much exactly the time of year we find ourselves in). Saisons have a brightness to their flavor, offering some complex flavor without a heavy body. All of which was by design. As Oliver writes in The Brewmaster's Table, the ales had to be robust enough to survive storage during Wallonia's warm summer months, but "light enough to quench the thirst of farmhands."
To me, yet another sign—i.e., the end of oyster season converges perfectly with the beginning of saison months. Better still, both Bugge (Hilliard's Saison) and Oliver (His own Sorachi Ace) have favorite saisons they drink with oysters.
Using Bugge's oyster advice (detailed below) I procured a sack of Kumamotos, shucked away and served them with lemon wedges, mignonette and Oliver's Sorachi Ace. The lemon and slight dill character of the beer's hop (for which it is named) shined. In fact, I practically didn't have to squeeze any lemon atop my oysters because the beer provided the citrus lift they craved. And the crisp effervescence of the saison cut through the brine in much the way its lemony flavor did. Bugge and Oliver had not steered me wrong. So with some days left this month, there's a good chance you'll see me doing this again next weekend.
Dan Bugge's Oyster Handling Tips
TIP #1: When you buy oysters, they should be closed tightly. If you see bubbles coming from the edge of the shell, they're about to turn and you should move on.
TIP #2: Eat oysters within 48 hours of buying them.
TIP #3: Serve them on ice; don't store them on ice. When the ice melts, the oysters will sit in the water and die. Instead, store them in a bowl with a damp cloth.
TIP #4: To make sure your oyster is still alive, knock two of them together. If you hear a hollow sound, one of them is dead. If you hear a clunk, they're alive and well, so shuck away.
Beer Pairing is a bi-weekly guide to the best of food and brews. Jeremy Repanich is an Associate Editor at Playboy. His writing has appeared in Men's Journal, Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated and SI Kids, as well as on Wired.com, Vice.com, Deadspin and Outside Online. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize.
Photo illustration by Jeremy Repanich, bottle picture via Brooklyn Brewery