More than a decade ago, Joanne Francis was in Edinburgh primarily to sample Scotch whisky when she stumbled on another beverage that changed her worldview.
The drink was “Kelpie,” a local beer brewed with seaweed that didn’t taste as aggressively like the ocean as she first feared.
“It was just such a beautiful profile, and not at all what you think it would taste like,” Francis says now.
Francis, who is cofounder of the Portsmouth Brewery, has been running that brew through her mind ever since, and three years ago she took action, commissioning a seaweed beer to be brewed right in New Hampshire.
“Selkie” is the product of her memory and the efforts of head brewer Matt Gallagher and researchers at the University of New Hampshire, who have been growing sugar kelp as part of their aquaculture program. The kelp grows on a floating farm, along with mussels and pens full of steelhead trout. The idea is that the species act to diminish the biological impact of one another, therefore acting as sustainable food sources.
The seaweed-averse might be surprised to know that most of the kelp humans harvest ends up as food.
“I like to eat it when it’s about 6 feet long,” says Michael Chambers, an aquaculturist at UNH. “The smaller stuff is more tender. . . . It’s got an ocean taste. Some people crumble it up and use it as a salt alternative.”
To make the beer, Gallagher and the brewery crew took a boat out to the floating farm to harvest about 60 pounds of kelp.
“When we were out harvesting we were picking and eating it right away,” says Gallagher. “It kind of has this amazing mouthfeel where it’s crunchy and slimy at the same time.”
Back at the brewery, Gallagher crafted a beer to balance out the salinity, brewing a malt-forward red ale that has a kind of salty-sweet thing going on.
“What I didn’t want was to make this beer and have it taste like low tide smelled,” says Gallagher. “It really just tastes like a super balanced, sweet ale. And when you finish your pint and you lick your lips there’s a little salinity. Maybe you even burp an hour later and go, ‘Ooo, that tastes like the ocean.’ ”
The Portsmouth Brewery plans to keep making “Selkie” every year, after the kelp harvest in early June. Gallagher says he’s even fiddling with making something with green crabs, which are a local pest.
“Selkie” is available at the brewery (56 Market St, Portsmouth, N.H.) for a limited time, on draft and in bottles until it’s gone.
Gary Dzen can be reached at email@example.com.