Consider the Lobster Beer: The Story Behind Oxbow's Shellfish Saison

September 07, 2018

By Matt Osgood, September 07, 2018

As a lifelong New Englander, I believe that summer doesn’t officially begin until we crack open the season’s first lobster. In my family, summer also ends with a Labor Day lobster bake. So it doesn’t entirely surprise me that a brewer from Maine would find a way to include the crustacean in beer. Saison Dell’Aragosta didn’t begin as a gimmicky recipe aimed at tourists, but as a collaboration between Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Company and Parma, Italy’s Birrificio Del Ducato.

Oxbow founder Tim Adams and Del Ducato brewmaster Giovanni Campari struck up a friendship at a beer fest in Italy in 2013, so Adams invited Campari to the Pine Tree State to join forces on a salty beer. Campari holds the title of “maestro salatore” in his home city of Parma. The highly-revered position is given to the person who salts the proscuitto, and his Baciami Lipsia is a highly regarded gose.

“I wanted to do a gose-inspired saison and figured a great way to do it was with the maker of one of the best mixed-fermentation, gose-style, salted beer that I ever got my hands on,” says Adams. “He kills it. Not too much, not too little, just right in the zone.”

Campari came to Maine in 2014 with the sole intention of brewing a salted, mixed-fermentation saison. The night before the brew, though, Adams and Campari were at the Portland stalwart Eventide restaurant eating lobster rolls, and Campari looked at the group and said, “Guys, we must put lobster in this beer.”

“I was immediately taken way back,” says Adams. “We’ve definitely always been exploratory and adventurous with fermentation techniques and barrel-aging, with blending, with fruiting, but never with non-conventional adjuncts or even spices. Salt felt, already to us, like a big step. The notion of putting lobster in it was way outside of our comfort zone. But [Campari] had traveled all the way from Italy to collaborate, and collabs are supposed to be fun.”

The next morning—the day of the brew—Adams hit the lobster pound for a dozen lobsters and headed over to the brewhouse in Newcastle, Maine, where the process netted not only a beer, but a feast.

“We threw the lobsters in a mesh bag, and cooked them up until they’re ready to eat, about 12 minutes,” said Adams. “They’re not just cooked, but they’re cooked in sweet wort.”

The team then shucks out all the meat and saves it for lobster rolls. Next, they take all the shells, put them back in the mesh bag. In the second batch (the beer is brewed in two batches), that bag is placed in the mash tun. During the recirculation process, the shells are being rinsed with the wort itself, and then the shells are showered in the sparging process, and they get totally cleaned. Once that bag is totally clean, they suspend the bag in the kettle and boil the shells for the entire second boil (about an hour and a half). What results lives up to Oxbow’s standards.

“It’s got an Old World saison profile. We also used Maine sea salt and then there’s some salt that comes from the lobster as well,” Adams says. “So there’s maybe a little sweetness from the lobster. Some saltwater, oceanic, maritime je ne sais quoi.”

It’s an excuse to eat the damn lobster.”

The beer itself is then fermented in stainless steel with Oxbow’s mixed culture yeast. Oxbow’s particular cocktail has Brettanomyces and wild yeast that creates fruitiness, funkiness and rustic notes. It’s also part saison yeast, which is super-aggressive and eats all the sugars, so Oxbow’s mixed fermentation beers—the Saison Dell’Aragosta included—end up being dry as well as acidic.

“[Saison Dell’Aragosta is] tart, light, and refreshing and a little salty, and maybe there’s a little something else going on that reminds me of the seaside,” Adams said. “It’s a subtle lobster character. It’s definitely there, but it’s minimal. Some people can’t taste it at all, but it’s definitely there. We’re OK with that. We’d rather have people not taste it at all, or just a little bit than say there’s too much lobster.”

According to Adams, tourists and chefs are the beer’s biggest fans. Visitors to Maine will seemingly buy anything with a lobster on the label, and the Adams believes the chefs appreciate not only the production method, but also the beer’s ability to pair with seemingly everything, from salads to seafood dishes. “It’s killer with oysters,” Adams says. And it’s acidic enough to cut through the fattiness of fried food.

Perhaps the most important question, however, is how the lobster tastes after it’s imparted its flavor to the beer.

“It’s the best lobster I’ve ever eaten,” Adam says. “That’s why we are so psyched to brew it every year. It’s an excuse to eat the damn lobster.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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