The famed Whitstable Oyster Festival is taking place at the moment, in the agreeable seaside town on the north Kent coast known throughout the country for it’s slippery bivalves. However, an outbreak of shellfish herpes virus has decimated the cultivated molluscs in the area, further punishing a beleaguered industry already suffering from reduced harvests. In a rather unfortunate piece of irony, the disease won’t directly affect the festival as most sold during the week-long celebration are imported from the Channel Islands – the oyster beds around the town just aren’t sustainable enough anymore. Recently the organisers were having to turn to the Pacific rock oyster beds sited on other parts of the Kent Coast – but these are the ones now dying from the virus. However the contingency plans to import them from further afield have been called into action to supply enough of the salty critters for people to slurp.
Running alongside the main bivalve-related spectacular are other festivals – including one dedicated to beer. A couple of weeks ago I found myself in the town (in 30ºC heat, no less) and managed to pick up a six-pack of Whitstable Brewery ales. Owned by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company the brewery is not actually based in the town, but 20-odd miles away near the small (but wonderfully named) village of Grafty Green. As the WOFC owns the hotel and bar on the seafront, they have a great outlet for their range of bottled and cask ales. I was particularly keen to try their 4.1% East India Pale Ale, but unfortunately neither the pub nor the restaurant had it on at the time, and I couldn’t get hold of the bottled version. But I did find a multipack of their other staples to take home…
Whitstable Pilsner (4.9%)
Pilsners seem to be a hot topic at the moment, and are prefect for the hot days of summer that seem to affect Kent far more than Scotland. Whitstable’s version of the style delivers very nicely, pouring a perfectly golden colour with mild carbonation and a brilliant clarity. There’s a slight aroma of hops but thankfully a much more interesting taste as the Saaz push their way to the fore. The bitterness is joined by a pleasing earthiness and a soft finish. As Bohemians go, it’s a pretty accomplished example.
Whitstable Wheat ( 5.2%)
The next style that came out of the box was their wheat beer, made in the Bavarian style. Right from the off it’s a classic, down the lines wheat beer – massively carbonated, with a furiously dispersing head. I counted down two inches of frothing to nothing in twenty seconds, which is quite something. A hazy orange, golden pale colour, the staple wheat beer aromas of banana, citrus and coriander are evident. The taste is bitter at first, with a sweet wheaty aftertaste and a touch of alcohol – almost spoiled by the burstingly fizzy mouthfeel, reminiscent of a sparkling wine. But it’s pretty good Weiss all considered.
Raspberry Wheat (5.2%)
Fruit comes next as the third beer in the box is Raspberry Wheat (there are one of each of the wheats, two each of the others). Pouring a deep cloudy red colour, it smells jam-like, with some sweetness. There are raspberry flavours but it’s pretty subtle stuff, the gentle fruit flavours never really come to the fore like you hope they will. After a slight burst at the beginning, they fade into a dry finish that peters out into little else.
Whitstable Oyster Stout (4.5%)
There’s no way any self-respecting brewery from Whitstable could get away with not putting out an oyster stout, considering the town’s (and drink’s) long association with the bivalves. Oysters have long been served as humble tavern food, and so were often paired with the original darker styles of beer in the UK. After WWII some brewers began adding the molluscs to the brewing process, when the craze for stouts as a health drink (‘Guinness is good for you’ etc) hit it’s peak. Whitstable’s version doesn’t contain the shellfish, they just recommend the pairing.
As you’d expect, it’s very black, totally opaque, and with the attractive tan-coloured head a stout should sport. There’s a dark roasty aroma which follows into the taste, which then moves through into an almost tangy aftertaste, which is very dry. There are hints of coffee, and something almost like salt – making me wonder if there are actually some of the little fellas in there. Without much sweetness to offset these dark, dry flavours it almost becomes a bit much after a while – but it’s worth persevering with, and would certainly complement a plate of oysters very well (if I ate them, that is – having previously studied commercial shellfish parasitology I lost my love for bivalves…)