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 he'd 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 we''d finished our meal, he'd retrieved it from the fridge and placed it back in our possession – 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 – half a dozen blue, half a dozen green-lipped – 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 they'd 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 they'd 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 Murray's 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 Australia's premier brewers? Is it the day spent travelling around Sydney's bars and restaurants with a bag of stinking molluscs, asking staff to store it in their fridges as you go? Perhaps it's when you're 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 it's the moment you open an email from the aforementioned brewer that begins with:
"I turn my back for a few moments and you blokes get carried away, swiftly followed by: "Mussels are an 'interesting' idea but may not ultimately contribute what you are after."
Or perhaps it's 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 Media Brew competition. It's 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 Zealand's largest beer festival – one at which we would be pitted against some of that country's best brewers working with the some of the nation's most high-profile beery media types – and we were the sole Australian representative. With the Olympics foremost in people's minds and the world brimming with pride in national achievement, this was more than just a beer and we'd need to put in a show-stopping performance. What's more, last year's winner had gone into commercial production as Epic's Epicurean Coffee and Fig Oatmeal Stout.
There was a fundamental problem, however, in that the nationality of those who steer the Crafty ship isn't 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 – Scotland, New Zealand and Australia – 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 "a bit of trans-tasman rivalry!" but added: "The rules are fairly loose."
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 Neptune's vast kingdom in order to brew a beer that had a truly global connection.
"Mussels! That's it: mussels! We'll make a mussel stout with mussels native to each country!"
As "Eureka!" moments, it's 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 Tricep Stout was mooted and became an unstoppable force once research revealed that the mussels native to Scotland (blue) were also farmed in The Crafty Pint's 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 Murray's, in Port Stephens, and put the idea to him:
"Hi 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."
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: "Yes." OK, so it was "yes" with the caveats outlined above, but it was a "Yes… if you are seriously keen" nonetheless. And with that The Crafty Pint headed north.
So where did the "Peated" 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 "Imperial"? For that, Shawn must take credit – presumably driven in part by the fact that he and fellow brewer Ian Watson (pictured at top) 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 it's Belgian too? No? Well, it is. But there are two excellent reasons for this. Firstly, The Crafty Pint's pick of Murray's imperial stouts is the Heart of Darkness, brewed with a Belgian yeast. Secondly, if you're going to call a beer Tricep, it may as well be a Bulgin' Tricep.
Decision made, it was time to gather ingredients. First stop was Grain & Grape for some British smoked malt.
"How much do you need?" said the guy at the counter.
"Errr… I don't know. I haven't seen the recipe yet."
"What are you brewing?"
"Ummm… A Belgian peated omperial mussel stout. Just 20 litres or so."
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: "Shawn, Google says there are freshwater mussels around here. Eight varieties, apparently. They're described as 'rough tucker', but any chance you could stop at a river so we can forage for some?"
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: "I've always thought mussels are the poor man's oyster," he said.
Our eyes lit up.
"Is the local fishmonger open this early?"
It was. And it had some delightfully plump-looking Port Stephens oysters on ice.
The Auld Bulgin' Tricep had become the Auld Bulgin' Boysterous Bicep. And it wasn't even 9.30am.
At the brewery, we were presented with the recipe sheet for a beer with the working title Beardy Weirdy. 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.
"Probably a couple of dozen per 600 litres."
"Oh. We're going for a dozen mussels and half a dozen oysters per 25 litres…" 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 Murray's brewers had let go of the handbrake.
"If you're going to go for it at all, go all in," said Shawn's co-conspirator Ian, a self-confessed oyster obsessive. He meant it too, catching us rinsing the mussel shells before dropping them into the kettle.
"Are you pulling the beards off?" he asked in the manner of a teacher who's caught a naughty pupil in flagrante.
"Errr… not any more."
All of which meant there was nothing left to do but add the molluscs to the beer – 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 Shawn's 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, they'll be loaded onto a plane bound for Wellington. And finally, 24 hours after that, the Auld Bulgin' 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 "brine" and "jerky" shouldn't necessarily be found in the same sentence, especially when the word "beer" is also present? The fact that the kind souls at Murray's have had to work magic to get an imperial stout ready in four weeks? The fact that we didn't take on board any of Shawn's 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 wasn't going to die wondering "What if?" even if there's a fair chance it will leave everyone else wondering "WHAT THE !@#$?"
A huge thanks to Shawn, Ian and everyone else at Murray's 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.
Postscript: The beer came first in the Media Brew, achieving a perfect score of 45/45 – the first perfect score awarded in an Media Brew competition. It has since been brewed commercially twice and is, at time of writing, rated 18th on Ratebeer in the all-time best Australian beers.