Seaweed is everywhere but in beer; why?

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By Alastair Bland, Marin Independent Journal
Iím calling it: Sometime soon, a brewery in California will make a seaweed beer.

And if they donít, they should. We have seen beers in various places 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 great long time ó 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 Atlantic seaweeds that have been eaten for ages.

Now, I think itís time we see them incorporated into more beer. Some brewers feel the same way ó though not near us, as far as I know. In Maine, Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. has made a strong Scotch-style ale using sugar kelp. In New Hampshire, Portsmouth Brewery makes a similar beer using the same kind of marine alga. (Itís on tap now, in fact, in case you soon visit the area.) 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 didnít like the very idea of seaweed beer. ď[S]ea kelp tastes like sh-t,Ē 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 donít generally trust the opinions of people who relish decades-old memories of drinking in college, and Iíll disregard his graceless opinion of seaweeds.

After all, seaweeds taste phenomenal. I mean, who doesnít like nori? Dried and toasted, nori and other seaweeds like bladderchain, 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 doesnít 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 donít seem to be any seaweed beers on the West Coast. Google searching revealed only those of New England. Brewer Christian Kazakoff at Iron Springs doesnít know of any brewers who have used seaweed as a flavoring agent, though he noted that most breweries use Irish moss, an Atlantic marine alga, as a clarifying agent. Even in the wildly creative world of homebrewing, where just about anything flies, seaweed beers donít. Damien Perry, the president of the Marin Society of Homebrewers, hasnít heard of anyone using the stuff in a beer.

I reckon this will change. Long days of summer sun are upon us, and coastal seaweeds are growing rapidly. So is the stateís 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 Iíd be adding to the pot.

Alastair Blandís Through the Hopvine runs every week in Zest. Contact him at allybland79@gmail.com.