Tue Aug 14 2012 by Crafty Pint
Perhaps it’s commonplace in Sydney restaurants on Sunday nights. Or perhaps the young waiter was so taken aback by the fishy stench coming from our plastic bag that heâd already agreed to put it in the fridge before his mind had time to sound a warning. Either way, he dealt with our precious cargo with a minimum of fuss. That said, as soon as we gave the merest indication that weâd finished our meal, heâd retrieved it from the fridge and placed it back in our possession â and was he really hurrying us out because there were people waiting for a table?
If the young man at Spice I Am was politeness personified, one can only imagine that the cargo itself was royally peeved. Just eight hours earlier, the mussels â half a dozen blue, half a dozen green-lipped â had been minding their own business at Sydney Fish Market, probably imagining a spectacular send off: en masse with friends in a garlicky pot, washed down with a crisp white perhaps, or whipped into a hot chilli treat by a restaurant such as the one theyâd just visited. But no, their fate was to be quite different. Their fate was to take a journey no mussel had taken before…
Already that afternoon theyâd spent time on ice in the kitchen cool room at 4 Pines, followed by a few hours chilling out in the fridge a short walk away at Murrayâs At Manly. Still lying in wait was a night in a Redfern coolbox, three hours on the dawn train to Newcastle and, we hoped, a chance to unite them with some of their freshwater brethren. And only then would their journey really get underway.
At what point does a Crafty Pint-brewed Peated Imperial Seafood Stout become a bad idea?
Is it when you pluck up the courage to pitch the idea to one of Australiaâs premier brewers? Is it the day spent travelling around Sydneyâs bars and restaurants with a bag of stinking molluscs, asking staff to store it in their fridges as you go? Perhaps itâs when youâre contemplating diving into a river in the middle of winter to try and find a local breed of freshwater mussel that may or may not actually exist and, if it does, appears to be of the sort used to clean pollutants from decorative ponds rather than anything a sane human might actually like to eat? Perhaps itâs the moment you open an email from the aforementioned brewer that begins with:
âI turn my back for a few moments and you blokes get carried awayâ¦â swiftly followed by âMussels are anâ¦ interestingâ¦ idea but may not ultimately contribute what you are after.â
Or perhaps itâs all of the above and the more pertinent question is far simpler: why would anyone want to brew a Peated Imperial Seafood Stout?
For that, we need to go back a few months to an invitation from the organisers of Beervana 2012 in Wellington, for which members of the media were invited to collaborate with a brewer and create a one-off beer to be judged in a âMedia Brewâ competition. Itâs intended as a light-hearted competition to let the people who report on beer have a go at making one. But at The Crafty Pint, this translated into more than light-hearted competition.
How could it not? This was New Zealandâs largest beer festival â one at which we would be pitted against some of that countryâs best brewers working with the some of the nationâs most high-profile beery media types â and we were the sole Australian representative. With the Olympics foremost in peopleâs minds and the world brimming with pride in national achievement, this was more than just a beer and weâd need to put in a show-stopping performance. Whatâs more, last yearâs winner had gone into commercial production as Epicâs Epicurean Coffee and Fig Oatmeal Stout.
There was a fundamental problem, however, in that the nationality of those who steer the Crafty ship isnât especially Australian. It is, to put it in beer parlance, more of a Scotch Ale with a late addition of NZ hops. Nevertheless, we were determined to find a way that the three nations â Scotland, New Zealand and Australia â would have fair representation. We were determined to create, if you will, a mini-Commonwealth of beer.
There was a second, lesser, problem too. The invitation not only hinted at an eagerness to stir up âa bit of trans-tasman rivalry!â but added:
âThe rules are fairly loose.â
And, as fate would have it, so is The Crafty Pint.
With some reluctance, we struck off a number of potential ingredients (thistle, haggis, Irn Bru and battered Mars Bars among them) before finding a workable common thread. With all three nations having a natural affinity to the sea, it seemed right to get what we needed from Neptuneâs vast kingdom in order to brew a beer that had a truly global connection.
âMussels! Thatâs it: mussels! Weâll make a mussel stout with mussels native to each country!â
As âEureka!â moments, itâs possibly of less significance than Archimedes and his bath, probably more on a par with the moment Wayne Coyne decided to record an album on four CDs all of which had to be played simultaneously on four stereos (a feat that both requires and rewards dedication, traits we hoped for in our beer).
But a “Eureka!” moment it was nonetheless, one that gathered momentum when the name âTricep Stoutâ was mooted and became an unstoppable force once research revealed that the mussels native to Scotland (blue) were also farmed in The Crafty Pintâs HQ of Victoria, that those native to New Zealand (green-lipped) were readily available in Australia, and that there was a number of freshwater varieties in the waterways of Central NSW, home of the brewers who had invited The Crafty Pint to join them for a brew just days earlier. Just, not this particular brew…
Somewhat apologetically, we contacted Shawn Sherlock of Murrayâs, in Port Stephens, and put the idea to him:
âHi Shawn, this might seem a little unusual but we were wondering if we could come up to your brewery and make a beer with a whole bunch of seafood in it to enter into an overseas competition.â
Put yourself in his shoes, just for a moment. Your day job is brewing some of the best beer in the country. The Crafty Pint, on the other hand, has pretty much zero brewing credentials. What do you say?
Thankfully – more than a little remarkably – Shawn said: âYes.â OK, so it was âyesâ with the caveats outlined above, but it was a âyes… if you are seriously keenâ nonetheless. And with that The Crafty Pint headed north.
So where did the âPeatedâ appear from? Well, it seems that we forgot to ditch one of the early recipe ideas, that idea being to give a Scotch Ale a wee smoky touch in a nod to Islay.
And what about the âImperialâ? For that, Shawn must take credit – presumably driven in part by the fact that he and fellow brewer Ian Watson (pictured above) have been knocking out imperial stouts for fun recently and in all likelihood by the hope (or fervent prayer) that it might mask the lunacy we were planning to bring to the brew.
Did we mention that itâs Belgian too? No? Well, it is. But there are two excellent reasons for this. Firstly, The Crafty Pintâs pick of Murrayâs imperial stouts is the Heart of Darkness, brewed with a Belgian yeast. Secondly, if youâre going to call a beer Tricep, it may as well be a Bulginâ Tricep.
Decision made, it was time to gather ingredients. First stop was Grain & Grape for some British smoked malt.
âHow much do you need?â said the guy at the counter.
âErrr… I donât know. I havenât seen the recipe yet.â
âWhat are you brewing?â
âUmmm… A Belgian Peated Imperial Mussel Stout. Just 20 litres or so.â
It is possible that this man had been faced with a more clueless punter in his time. Possible, but unlikely. To his credit, he had the sense to spot a gift horse with its jaw dragging on the floor when confronted with one; two days later we were on board a flight to Sydney with three, mostly unnecessary, kilograms of smoked malt in our luggage…
It was a chilly Monday morning when we were greeted at the station in Newcastle by Shawn. For his trouble, he was greeted with the bombshell: âShawn, Google says there are freshwater mussels around here. Eight varieties, apparently. Theyâre described as ârough tuckerâ, but any chance you could stop at a river so we can forage for some?â
The idea was swiftly dismissed as folly, with Shawn mentioning that, as a born and bred Novocastrian, he had never heard of such a thing. What’s more: âIâve always thought mussels are the poor manâs oyster,â he said.
Our eyes lit up.
âIs the local fishmonger open this early?â
It was. And it had some delightfully plump looking Port Stephens oysters on ice.
The Auld Bulginâ Tricep had become the Auld Bulginâ Boysterous Bicep. And it wasnât even 9.30am.
At the brewery, we were presented with the recipe sheet for a beer with the working title âBeardy Weirdyâ. Nine malts. Belgian yeast. Some brown sugar. Two Kiwi hops in three additions. One addition of assorted seafood. And one moment of serendipity.
Mid-brew, a brewer from the Hunter Brewing Co in the Hunter Valley stopped in and mentioned that they make an Oyster Stout. Taking the opportunity to seek guidance, we wondered how many to put in.
âProbably a couple of dozen per 600 litres.â
âOh. Weâre going for a dozen mussels and half a dozen oysters per 25 litres…â we confessed. Because, while there had been some wavering as to how molluscy this beer should be on the part of the Crafty Crew, by this stage the Murrayâs brewers had let go of the handbrake.
âIf youâre going to go for it at all, go all in,â said Shawnâs co-conspirator Ian, a self-confessed oyster obsessive. He meant it too, catching us rinsing the mussel shells before dropping them into the kettle.
âAre you pulling the beards off?â he asked in the manner of a teacher whoâs caught a naughty pupil in flagrante.
âErrr… not any more.â
All of which meant there was nothing left to do but add the molluscs to the beer â decanted first into a French moules pot decorated with a miniature Tiki and the flags of Australia and Scotland, of course.
A short while later, the beer was safely contained in a cube ready to ferment away at Shawnâs house. The hop-coated mussels were eaten straight from the kettle, revealing themselves more bitter than a jilted ex-lover, while Ian gorged himself on a glassful of raw oysters.
Any moment now, a few bottles of the beer will arrive at Crafty Towers. In two days' time, theyâll be loaded onto a plane bound for Wellington. And finally, 24 hours after that, the Auld Bulginâ Boysterous Bicep will be unveiled to the world (well, those in attendance at the Media Brew competition at least).
What could possibly go wrong? The fact that the words âbrineâ and âjerkyâ shouldnât necessarily be found in the same sentence, especially when the word âbeerâ is also present? The fact that the kind souls at Murrayâs have had to work magic to get an imperial stout ready in four weeks? The fact that we didnât take on board any of Shawnâs eminently sensible suggestions?
Yet this was never about doing things by the book. It was about breaking new ground. It was about national pride. It was about inspiration and creativity. It was about 11pm on a Sunday night after half a bottle of pinot noir and a glass of a Belgian dubbel: that magical kind of time when a tri-musselled stout seems like the best thing in the world.
Most of all, it was about attitude. Rex Attitude, if you like. If The Crafty Pint was going to represent its country in the home of such a beer, it wasnât going to die wondering âWhat if?â even if thereâs a fair chance it will leave everyone else wondering âWHAT THE !@#$?â
A huge thanks to Shawn, Ian and everyone else at Murrayâs who agreed to every request we made along the way, even packaging up a couple of moules pots for us at their Manly venue for the sake of a mere photo opportunity.
And thanks to Andy Shaw for the label design. If you like what you see, get in touch with him here.