The cold winds of November have blown winter upon us, the Jack O’Lantern we keep forgetting to throw away is falling in on itself from decay and frost, and in some places the first snowflakes of the season are already a bygone memory. It’s winter now, and among other things, that means a marked shift in beer style towards richer, warmer tastes that drive off the omnipresent chill of the season and satisfy the body’s craving for richer, heartier foods.
Let’s look at a few:
Porters are the next step beyond brown ales, and their sharp, complex flavors can vary from chocolate to coffee. Originating in the UK in the 1700’s, porters use a high quantity of black malt in the brewing process to get a very dark brown or even black colored drink with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 6-10%. Porters are a diverse style with some brewers seeking to accentuate coffee flavors, while others look for chocolate, vanilla, or even hints of cherry in their brews. The line between porters and stouts is incredibly grey, but porters tend to be just a bit lighter in color and flavor. Porters, like many dark beers, taste best when they’re a little warmer, in the 45-50 degree Fahrenheit range.
Expert Pick: Founder’s Porter, Founders Brewing Company; 95/100 BeerAdvocate score
Stouts are the older brothers of porters, incorporating many of the same brewing techniques, but including more roasted malts to give stouts an incredibly strong, dry flavor and a deep, almost cloudy black color. There are many subcategories of stouts, each having a different typical ABV and flavor. Most Irish Dry Stouts have a relatively wimpy 3-5% ABV, while their Russian Imperial Stout cousins can reach 15% or higher. Milk Stouts have a sweet flavor due to the addition of lactose (the sugar in milk) during their brewing, while Oatmeal stouts have hearty, dry flavor from the addition of oatmeal. American brewers are constantly pushing the envelope on stouts, adding hops, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, chai tea, fruit, liquor and numerous spices to their brews to enhance the flavor and body of their beer. Stouts are best enjoyed at a warm 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit while staring contemplatively into a fire.
Expert Pick: Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, North Coast Brewing; 96/100 BA score
Scottish Ale is a different sort of beer altogether. Before fermentation, Scotch Ale is boiled much longer than most beers with much less hops, giving the beer a sort of burnt, smoky, caramel taste and color. Even the lightest Scottish Ales have a hazy gold/amber color, while the Wee Heavies (the stronger end of the spectrum) have a molasses hue. Depending on the the brewer and the style of the Scottish Ale, the ABV can range anywhere from 5-10% and they taste best around 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Expert Pick: Innis & Gunn Original, Innis & Gunn Brewing, Scotland UK; 84/100 BA Score
Rye Pale Ales
Unlike the rest of the beers on our winter list, RyePA’s have that strong, crisp, hop flavor that makes for a refreshing summer beer. What sets them apart from other IPAs and Pale Ales is the addition of rye malt to the grain bill. Rye is much spicier and flavorful than barley, and it’s addition to the beer makes it a great year-round choice for drinking. A good RyePA is going to be a clear dark brown color, and the complexity of the rye really complements the hop character of the beer. ABVs vary from 4-9% and these beers are better served chilled to 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Expert Pick: LowRYEder, Sweetwater Brewing Company; 85/100 BA Score.
Another English style, the Winter Warmer is basically a brown ale spiced up with tastes of clove, cinnamon and/or nutmeg among other holiday flavors, and less prominent hops. Winter Warmers get their name from their higher alcohol content (5-8% ABV) and their pleasant wintry-sweet malt flavor. The ultimate fireside beer, Winter Warmers are best served at 45-50 degrees F.
Expert Pick: Nutcracker Ale, Boulevard Brewing Company; 84/100 BA Score.
As the name suggests, Barleywines are extremely strong and malty beers that have been aged for months or even years. Barleywines tend to be a clear amber color, with some reaching towards a clear molasses hue. Barleywine flavors are entirely dependent on the malts, hops and other ingredients used to create them. English versions tend to be sweeter and more fruity, while Amercian Barleywines tend to have a much more pronounced hop character. Barleywines typically don’t get lower than 9% ABV, and the sky is really the limit, with some bigger bodied brews getting into the 20% range. Enjoy these massive brews at 50 degrees F, but be careful; some Barleywines mask their high alcohol content with their intense flavor and more than one or two glasses of this stuff will knock you out.
Expert Pick: Bigfoot Barleywine, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company; 93/100 BA Score
We’ve explored plenty of English styles, but we would be remiss if we didn’t let the Belgians have their say. From the medieval monasteries of Belgium comes the Trappist Quadrupel style. Quads have a deep red or brown color and their flavors tend to be rich, fruity, and yeasty; and of course, American brewed Quads tend to beef up the hop character. Each individual Quad is going to have a much different flavor profile due to their regional recipes, but all of them have a characteristically high alcohol content, usually no lower than 9% ABV. Sip these big beers at a warm 50 degrees and they’ll keep you warm and happy on a cold winter night.
Expert Pick: St. Bernardus Abt. 12, Brouwerij St. Bernardus NV, Belgium; BA score 99/100.
So as the snow piles up and the cold winds lash the winter landscape, be sure to double check your local craft beer aisles and select these big bodied beers to chase the chill out of your bones. For the answers to any questions about anything related to beer, check out beeradvocate.com and drink on!
David Burruss is a long time craft beer enthusiast with a deep passion for drinking the very best beer at all times.