When times are lean, both people and products have to work twice as hard. Anyone whose parents or grandparents survived the Great Depression has heard examples of this protean creed: cardboard shirt inserts that were turned into shoe soles, scraps of tinfoil re-used for a decade.
Downtown at The Lobster Trap, dining-room manager Billy Klingel is now pulling double duty as the upscale seafood restaurant’s head brewer. What’s more, he’s using one of the Trap’s main attractions—Rhode Island Moonstone oysters, usually served raw or steamed on the half-shell—as the key ingredient in his fledgling beer operation.
But for Klingel, making Moonstone Oyster Stout is more than a clever way to multitask in a recession—he’s been at it for a long time now. In fact, it’s been almost a year since he began the laborious, bureaucracy-filled journey of adding an in-house brewery to the eatery. At press time, he was awaiting approval for beer-bottle labels and hoping to be able to publicly serve the stout and his Patton Avenue Pale Ale sometime this month.
“We’ve been brewing up a storm since the second week in December, when we finally got the official go-ahead,” says Klingel. His process began long before that, though. He first sowed his own suds “many long moons ago, in college.” Last spring, armed with a wild idea and rudimentary equipment, he began experimenting again at home.
Lobster Trap’s executive chef Tres Hundertmark had heard about oyster stout at an oyster-shucking contest in Boston and was intrigued. “I turned on the old computer and started Googling it,” says Klingel. “The [late, London-based] brewing legend Michael Jackson wrote extensively about the history of oyster stout. It was popular over a century ago in coastal areas of England, when every little town had a public house and they used their local resources and local water to try to differentiate their ale from what people were drinking in the next town over.”
The briny custom has precedence in the States—according to Klingel, such well-known microbreweries as Oregon’s Rogue Ales and Catawba Valley Brewing in nearby Morganton have offered limited-edition oyster stouts. But, like those long-ago British brewers, he hopes his own beer will become nothing less than an iconic staple of the Lobster Trap, where fresh seafood is flown in several times weekly.
Klingel’s early bathtub-and-turkey-fryer concoction had to be good enough to please the “big boss, Amy [Beard],” a Maine native who opened the unique-to-Asheville restaurant four years ago. It was. And so today he’s working with what he calls “a super high-class homebrew system” installed behind the restaurant’s boat-shaped bar. “We spent some money and bought great equipment—what the big boys use, [but] on a smaller scale,” he explains.
Before he serves up that first pint, though, he’d have patrons know a thing or two about drinking “real” stout. The American idea of stout is a dark, heavy beer, claims Klingel. His stuff is fashioned after classic Irish stout, a lighter, relatively low-alcohol drink. And as far as his signature ingredient goes, “I take good care that I’m only using the best oysters, and I give ‘em a good scrub-down before I throw ‘em in.” His choice specimens enter whole into the boiling brew, and though the shells are eventually removed, they do as much as the meat to customize the mash, sloughing their valuable mineral deposits into the finished product.
So it’s nutritious—a sweet bonus. But how does it actually taste? True to Klingel’s word, the oak-colored stout is crisp and surprisingly light. It’s best paired, naturally, with a dish of oysters, the brewer assured us on a recent visit to the restaurant. However, the few sips I had went down just fine with a lobster roll.
Several years ago, I developed what one local allergist poetically called an “exquisite sensitivity” to alcohol, meaning I can’t have more than one glass of anything and expect to get out of bed the next day. Unlike most stouts, the oyster brew didn’t worry me with that super-rich assault you get from a lot of dark-colored beers. My dining companion that night was my husband Scott, who suffers no such frailties. He paired his appetizers with several pints of the stout, declaring the flavor “bright and sort of chocolatey, with no bitterness.”
And no, it doesn’t taste like fish. At all. The drink has a bracing saltiness to it, a tinge of the sea, but Klingel says he doesn’t include enough oysters to overset the brew’s delicate balance. There’s a zealousness about this beer-maker, a passion for his product that also suggests a disdain for waste, for anything unnecessary in the mix. Seventy years ago, Klingel would have been saving tinfoil. Today, he doesn’t lose sleep worrying about those who’d balk at the idea of such an exotic beer.
“I’m just sorry they’re going to miss out,” he says. “Because it’s delicious.”
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]