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What to drink when you’re eating oysters

by Melinda Joe

Shucking an oyster is harder than it sounds. A fair amount of dexterity is required to pry open the mollusk’s tight-lipped shell and liberate the flesh. The one time I tried to open an oyster with a shucking knife, I ended up smashing it with a hammer instead.

Pairing raw oysters with drinks, however, is considerably easier. I usually recommend junmai-style sake, Champagne or Chablis. But a recent encounter with an aromatic oyster stout called Kakinohoshi, brewed by Kiuchi Brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture, has shown me that beer can also be a surprisingly good match.

The tradition of drinking beer — in particular, dark stouts — with oysters dates back to Victorian times, when the bivalves were a common snack at British pubs. But the oyster-stout style, made by adding oyster meat to the wort, has remained rare until recently. Part of a project to support the oyster industry in northeastern Japan, Kakinohoshi beer uses oysters from Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture. The flavor is complex and toasty but not too heavy on the palate.

I stumbled upon this happy discovery at the Tokyo leg of The Oyster Festival, a national oyster-opening contest that took place in June. Now in its fourth year, the event pits contestants from eastern Japan against their counterparts from the west as they vie for the chance to compete at September’s Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Ireland.

Naturally, I had to check it out. In addition to the prospect of feasting on fresh oysters, there’s something inherently hilarious about the idea of an oyster-shucking contest — beyond the potential for ribald puns. As demonstrated by the popularity of hot-dog-eating competitions and rubber-ducky races, humans have both a proclivity toward and an appetite for turning everything into a sport. Apparently, the Galway festival is one of the biggest bacchanals in Ireland, attracting over 20,000 guests from 25 countries annually.

The Oyster Festival, which was held at the Tokyo American Club, was a much smaller affair. After rounds to determine the top three contestants from eastern Japan, the winners faced off with the three champions from the west side. Despite my initial skepticism, I found myself absorbed in the spectacle, sipping my oyster stout and cheering along with the crowd. The contestants were judged on speed as well as the condition and cleanliness of their work. When Hyuma Tojo, chef of the Gumbo and Oyster Bar in Osaka, was declared the national champion, I was impressed. Tojo had opened 30 pristine oysters in four minutes and 19 seconds.

Although the guests were treated to small plates of cooked oyster dishes, the raw oysters used in the competition could not be served, due to regulations regarding hygiene. My heart sank when I heard the news. Disappointed but undaunted, I managed to pilfer a plate of unopened Irish oysters and then persuaded someone with a shucking knife to open them. The oysters had a clean and savory flavor that married beautifully with the mild bitterness and herbaceous notes in the Kakinohoshi beer. Surely, this was the taste of victory.

www.kakinohoshi.com Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.

  • VeryOldB

    Well written, evocative, seasonal…and probably the last read of my behind-the-paywall articles on JTO for July. I’ll look in again in August for Ms. Joe’s next experiences with summer dining.