James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

Ms. Fermento pointed out a pretty cool deal at 49th State Brewing Company that sent me that way chasing the offer to buy a six pack, four pack or 22 ounce bomber bottle of their packaged beer at the brewery and get another one of equal or lesser value for .49 cents. What beer lover could pass up a deal like that?

Since I’m back to chasing the new beers in town I haven’t had before –predictably - I had a couple of options at 49th State. In the process of choosing, I stumbled across easily the best beer I’ve had this year, and maybe longer.

49th State’s Thundershuck Alaska Oyster Stout is incredible at the pure drinking level, but there’s a lot more behind the beer than meets the palate. I didn’t know this until I called the brewery to discuss the merits of the beer, and only then did I learn that this beer’s also a huge nod to Alaska’s aquafarming and aquaculture industry, and most certainly one more of 49th State’s “changing Alaska for the better, one beer at a time” brews.

I’d had oyster beer before and although it’s an interesting nod to what seemingly incongruent ingredients can do to a brew, like many other “lets toss something in just to be different and see what happens” entrants in the strange beer world, the style didn’t do much for me. No, it wasn’t turned off by it, but I didn’t get that excitement of discovery that the standouts bring me. 

Thundershuck is a noteworthy exception. First of all, stylistically, the base beer – a stout – is spot on for style. Even if I dismiss the oyster’s incredible addition to the beer, Thundershuck is one of the best stout’s I have had in years. Maybe my palate needed a change from the quotidian IPAs the market’s awash in these days, but even for a dark, opaque, heavy, full-mouthfeel beer Thunderstruck is a very refreshing beer, by design.

Describing this beer is challenging. First of all, get over the notion that because whole, fresh oysters are used in the beer, the result is some repugnant, fishy smelling and tasting beer that people might just challenge each other to try and grimace at the result. I don’t get any fish aroma or flavor at all. So what’s with the oysters?

“The contribution of the oysters in Thundershuck is the oceanic salinity that works symbiotically with the body of the beer, which is thicker and richer in this slightly higher alcohol by volume stout that’s still in range for the style,” says 49th State CEO/founder/owner David McCarthy. 

He’s right. There’s no fish flavor in the beer at all, but it’s the texture, mouthfeel, and, well, squeaky cleanliness of the beer that are the bold exclamation points in an already noteworthy stout. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enamored of a beer based on what it feels like as much as how it tastes. It’s still difficult to describe.

“The beer’s smooth, very silky and slightly oily. The oysters come out in the finish of the beer, but are represented in the oceanic salinity, which isn’t like table salt or a salty water essence. We didn’t want people to get confused with that in the flavor. Oceanic salinity is more of a mouth coating and is very fresh and clean,” describes McCarthy. 

This effect reminds me of being out on the ocean; an experience that’s tactile and that I can sense and feel. Few beers have had this effect on me. When’s the last time a beer reminded you of something and gave you a positive feeling?

It took me a while to figure out why I just couldn’t put my 16 ounce sample poured from the can down and then immediately picked up and poured another one, almost without thinking. That hasn’t happened in to me in a long time, either. 

Not just any oyster makes this beer the statement that it is. “We did a ton of research. I’ve wanted to brew an oyster stout since we started the brewery. I wanted to make sure whoever we partnered with believed in the beer and could supply the oysters moving forward,” says McCarthy.

The easy choice was Jakolof Bay Oyster Company oysters, easily the freshest and cleanest in the state and some of the most sought after globally. It wasn’t about reputation, it was about partnership and symbiosis for McCarthy and his team. 

“Most breweries that make oyster stouts just use the crushed oyster shells to make the beer. I wanted to use the whole oyster in the beer. It’s been done, of course, but our goal is to dissolve the meat away from the oysters which adds not only to that oceanic salinity, but it enhances the body of the beer,” explains McCarthy.

When Jakolof Bay Oyster Company worked through the concept with 49th State, more symbiosis happened. Two bushels of fresh oysters go into every 10 barrel batch of beer. 

“It’s not just buying the oysters that helps the oyster farmer,” says McCarthy. “Buyers that want oysters for dining want specifically sized oysters. You can’t train oysters what size to be when they grow in the ocean, and for our use, we can use the unpopular sizes. We refer to them as the uglies,” says McCarthy.  “Jakalof Bay supports us as a brewery, but we want to bring awareness forward and help aquaculture and aquafarming in Alaska. By mixing aquaculture with the brewing industry, our way of helping it grow is to get this beer in someone’s hand,” says McCarthy. 

49th State’s co-branding of the beer with the Jakolof logo in the beer’s label is huge testimony to the brewery’s commitment to the industry.

“It’s interesting, but one of the best ways to introduce people to oysters is to start with having them try this beer. It’s moving. We brought this beer to a tasting for one of our local distributors and the immediate result was ‘can we get a couple of pallets of this right now?” says McCarthy of the beer’s immediate appeal. 

Certainly, I would have discounted the whole relationship if I hadn’t been moved by that very experience. I’m not even an oyster fan. I bought the beer because it was new and passively interesting to me; I’m going back for more because it’s excellent and supports a deeper cause, not just making my beer tummy happy. 

McCarthy did that with his staff, first serving the addictive oyster stout, then following up with “now, are you ready to try a raw oyster?” Of course most were. 

I’m rushing out to get more Thundershuck. At first I was in near panic that this was a one-off beer, but found out that with a reliable supply of oysters from Jakolof – barring any foul weather preventing harvests – 49th State intends to continue regular, albeit limited production of this noteworthy beer. Spoiler alert: look for an imperial version of Thunderstruck to emerge in February right around Valentine’s day; the oysters should arrive in November for that brew. 

I just want more because it’s so good, but I also want to get enough to send to my beer loving friends outside. Thundershuck represents us. It helps define us. And certainly, it’s an example of how breweries and beer can be symbiotic with the economic development and sustainability of local ingredients in our state.

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