Drink like a fish

Is there a market for seaweed beer?

I’m calling it: Sometime soon, a brewery in California will make a seaweed beer—if one hasn’t already.

And if they don’t, they should. We have seen beers brewed with additions of kale, mint, basil, hot peppers, avocados, kabocha squash, kimchi and bull testicles. For a coastal area like California, where foodies gush about sourcing foods locally and where seaweed is naturally abundant, it amazes me that no commercial brewery, to the best of my knowledge, has yet made a seaweed beer.

Seaweeds have been staples of coastal diets for a long time—probably since even before humans were quite human. Today, nations around the world incorporate seaweed into their cuisine. The seaweed soups, salads and sushi rolls of Japanese cuisine need no introduction. Less familiar to the average American are things like cairgein pudding, a Scottish cream-based dessert made with a local seaweed, and the breads, broths and potato dishes historically made with dulse, a group of seaweeds that have been eaten for ages.

Now, I think it’s time we see them incorporated into more beer. Some brewers feel the same way—though not any near us, as far as I know. In Maine, Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. has made Sea Belt, a strong Scotch-style ale using sugar kelp. In New Hampshire, Portsmouth Brewery makes Selkie, a similar beer using the same kind of marine algae. Last September, Alexander Haro, a writer for The Inertia, wrote about this latter beer. From the start of the story, Haro made it clear he didn’t like the very idea of seaweed beer. “[S]ea kelp tastes like shit,” he wrote in the first paragraph, in which he also described engaging in a foolish drinking game as a younger man that involved using a cut of bull kelp as a beer bong. I don’t generally trust the opinions of people who relish decades-old memories of drinking in college, and I’ll disregard his graceless opinion of seaweeds.

After all, seaweeds taste phenomenal. I mean, who doesn’t like nori? Dried and toasted, nori and other seaweeds like bladder chain, sea lettuce, wakame and kombu offer a salty, toasty, umami flavor that is almost totally unique in the culinary realm. Some might think that this section of the flavor spectrum doesn’t belong in beer. I would counter by saying that beers come in just about every size, color and shape. We all know beers that are sweet, bitter, sour and even a bit salty. Some beers are overpoweringly smoky flavored. I think the evocative but gentle flavors of seaweed fall well within the spectrum of what is reasonable in a beer.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any seaweed beers on the West Coast. Google searching revealed only those of New England. Brewer Christian Kazakoff at Iron Springs Pub in Fairfax doesn’t know of any brewers who have used seaweed as a flavoring agent, though he noted that many breweries use Irish moss, an Atlantic marine algae, as a clarifying agent.

I reckon this will change. Long days of summer sun are upon us, and coastal seaweeds are growing rapidly. So is the state’s population of craft breweries, now at well over 900 with each of them striving to do something original.

If I had a brewery, I know what I’d be adding to the pot.