Eat Your Vegetables, and Drink Your Beer
Building off of their first year of success, the Portsmouth Brewery and Smuttynose Brewing Company have partnered again this year with the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) aquaculture program to create 15 kegs of what’s quickly becoming a staple of the seacoast: Selkie.
Selkie is a Scottish-style red ale brewed with sea vegetables (otherwise known as seaweed) that UNH is currently growing on a raft off the New Hampshire coast alongside mussels and steelhead trout as part of their aquaculture program. (See the “Fishing for Sustainability” story on page 11 to read more about UNH’s research and the program’s positive impacts on the community.)
This year’s Selkie batch boasts three different species of sea vegetables, incorporating sweet sugar kelp, a faster growing species called Alaria, and the impressively burgundy-colored Dulse. “The sea vegetables are pretty nutritious,” says Matt Gallagher, master brewer for Portsmouth Brewery on Market Street, “so by putting them into the kettle, there is a bit of an extraction of those nutrients,” he says.
Filled with vitamins and nutrients that it absorbs from the land and the fish, sea vegetables are quickly catching on in New England for their often overlooked superfood powers. Though he leaves the brewing up to Gallagher, Michael Chambers, research scientist for the UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Sea Grant, can speak to the immense health benefits of consuming sea vegetables, often referring to them as “the super kale of the sea.”
And with a 4.9% alcohol content, Selkie isn’t as strong as some of the other beers on the brewery’s menu, truly setting itself apart as a healthier beer. By using the seaweed as an adjunct (or addition to the other four necessary ingredients required to make beer: yeast, water, hops, and malt), “we’re capturing those salty, briny flavors and producing a more complex beer in the finished product,” says Gallagher.
Why isn’t Selkie available year-round?
Like anything that’s locally grown, Selkie has its season. In order to use UNH’s sea vegetables, the brewery has to wait until they are in optimal condition to be removed from the waters. As the year reaches mid-summer, temperatures get too warm and the quality of the sea vegetables goes down, making late July to early August the perfect time for picking.
“We put 120 pounds of sea vegetables in this year’s brew so it’s a little more labor intensive because you have to get that 120 pounds into the kettle,” says Gallagher, who picked the sea vegetables himself along with Chambers and other members of the brewery and UNH. Keeping the kettle at a rigorous boil presents another challenge, requiring that additions of the heavy sea vegetables be introduced to the brew slowly to avoid cooling it too much.
How did the sea vegetable beer get its name?
Joanne Francis, creative director and partner of Smuttynose Brewing Company and The Portsmouth Brewery, attributes the name to Scottish folklore. According to mythology, a selkie is a creature said to live as a seal in the sea, shedding his or her skin to become human on land. Male selkies are said to be handsome, using their seductive powers to win over human women, while female selkies make great wives. But these domesticated creatures’ true home is in the sea, which draws them back if they find their shedded skin.
The beer’s roots in Scottish legend didn’t happen by accident. Over a decade ago, while visiting Scotland, Francis got a taste of a seaweed beer called Kelpie, and fell in love. “At the time, the microbrewery scene in the United States was still exploring and the many styles and flavors that make up the landscape of what we see today was certainly not as expansive as it is now,” says Francis. As a lover of innovation and brewing potentials, being introduced to a seaweed beer “was just so cool,” she says. After talking about making the beer for years, Francis found out about UNH’s aquaculture program in 2016. “It seemed crazy not to utilize this great resource in our community.”
What happened to the sea vegetables after they were brewed into the beer?
They went onto Gallagher’s garden. Sea vegetables make an excellent compost. “My home garden is busting right now,” says the master brewer.
What does Selkie taste like?
Well, I recommend everyone define this for themselves, but if it’s adjectives you seek, here are a few: Light, sweet, balanced, crispy. Last year, the ocean-inspired brew lasted only two weeks. This year, with double the amount, the brewery hopes to put more glasses in the hands of those visiting the seacoast, adding a unique seasonal must-try to visitors’ bucket lists. Until it runs out, Portsmouth Brewery on Market Street is offering Selkie on tap and in bottles. You may also be able to catch it being served at Smuttynose Brewing Company’s Hayseed Restaurant in Hampton.