Festivus may have come and gone, but I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!
Well, not all of you. Just those who have bastardized my once craft beer sanctuary that I lovingly refer to as Winter Beer Season. So as we sit here exactly halfway through winter, it’s time to reflect on what is taking place.
See, when the weather gets colder, my craft beer heart starts to go pitter-patter. That’s because not only are we leaving the scorching heat of summer behind, but I know the sweet taste of malty adult beverages is in the near future.
Beers served during the cooler months – think Marzens, Oktoberfests, Pumpkin Ales, Dunkels, Winter and Christmas Ales – all have a slightly sweeter character than the warm weather beers because of extra malt. And what’s even better is that these beers are often lower in alcohol, allowing you to enjoy an extra one here and there.
What makes these particular styles feel more malty, as opposed to their hoppy cousins like the Pale Ale and the ubiquitous IPA?
Mostly because the grains are roasted longer, leading to their darker coloring. But this also makes it harder for the yeast to turn the malt (e.g. roasted barley) into alcohol. So the unfermented material stays in the beer, giving it a thick, rich feel in your mouth as you imbibe. And because the yeast can’t process as much, you end up with lower alcohol content.
About 15-20 years ago, things changed. I believe it started with Sierra Nevada and its 65-IBU offering Celebration Ale. According to the brewery, it is an American-style IPA and “one of the few hop-forward holiday beers.” Well, it used to be.
New Belgium followed suit with its 2 Below Ale that has, they say, a deliberate “hoppy palate.” Soon other breweries were soon copying these big brothers of microbreweries.
For some reason – actually, I think I know the reason – brewers of craft beer have started infusing their Winter and Christmas beers with more and more hops. Rather than the thicker mouthfeel of malty sweetness, the Winter Beer Season is inundated with an unwelcomed hoppy takeover.
Now it seems there are more uber-hopped beers at Wintertime than malty concoctions. They’re everywhere. Here are just a few examples:
- Elysian Brewing Co.’s Bitfrost Winter Ale is really just a Pale Ale
- Hopworks Urban Brewery makes the Abominable Winter Ale that checks in at 70 IBUs
- Widmer Brothers Brewing makes a seasonal amber ale called the Brrr Hoppy Red
- New Belgium offers a second hoppy Winter beer, with its Snow Day Winter Ale a “backbone of hoppy bitterness”
- Big Sky Brewing Co. offers up the Powder Hound Winter Ale with its “generous dose of hops”
Then, I saw the one that made my once pitter-pattering heart lock up faster than my wife’s transmission when she fails to change the oil after nine years. This “style” of the beer is enough to ring the bell of death for the hope that Winter will ever be malty again. I give you … the Winter IPA.
Is that even possible?
Yes, because that’s what Highlander did when it produced the Frozen Hill Winter IPA with, according to its website, has “loads of piney North West hops.” The brewers go on to proclaim that the “hoppy nature of this beer will make it a holiday favorite.” Well, at least they didn’t call it a “traditional” favorite, because there’s nothing traditional about an IPA in the Winter.
Where are the Winter Warmers, the Christmas Ales, the Jubelales, and the Hanukkah Porters? Oh sure, you can still find a few here and there. But the majority of beers this Winter season are hopped up more than a pro wrestler on steroids.
Given that the IPA craze has taken over, it’s doubtful that Winter will ever be the malty world of joy that I once loved. If it does, it might take a Festivus miracle.
Winter Beer Season.
— Eric Van Steenburg
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
When stouts are a-flowing,
And porters keep going,
‘Cause malty is here.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
There’s much to celebrate during the winter months. First, there are the holidays. Second, the holiday parties. Third, there are outdoor activities like skiing, snowmobile riding, and freezing your ass off, that can only take place during the winter.
But the most wonderful part of the winter months is the increased availability of dark, malty, winter-style beers.
Every year, Santa spreads his beer magic, leading not just to an uptick in the number of stouts and porters, but the proliferation of Christmas Ales, Winter Warmers, and a never-ending variety of holiday-spiced brews. Happy days!
To celebrate this wonderful time of the beer, a half-dozen or so of us took on the quest of visiting every brewery in the Bozeman area to evaluate who makes the best beers at this magical moment in time. Patterned after the Bozeman IPA Challenge fashioned last summer, Beer-and-Burgers.com presents the results of the first Bozeman Winter Beer Challenge.
The procedure is simple. We hit each brewery — there are seven within a 10-minute drive from, well, anywhere in town — and enjoyed a four-ounce sample of every dark, malty, or seasonal beer on tap. Each participant was furnished a scorecard that allowed him or her to rate the beers on a 1-5 scale, as well as write a few comments. Oh, and everyone was also given a pen that worked. Hey, at Beer-and-Burgers.com, we spare no expense.
The seven breweries visited, in the following order, were: 1) Outlaw Brewing, 2) Madison River Brewing Co., 3) Map Brewing Co., 4) 406 Brewing Co., 5) Bozeman Brewing Co., 6) White Dog Brewing, and 7) Bridger Brewing. The official winter beer tasters knew the name of the brewery, but not what specific beers they were being served, preserving the blind-tasting illusion.
A total of 12 different beers were sampled. And the winners are …
Gold Medal — Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout (406 Brewing). The complexity of the combination of malty thickness, cacao bitterness, and vanilla sweetness made this practically a run-away winner with an average score from the judges of 4.3 on the 5-point scale.This limited release beer packs a wallop at 11.1% ABV, and both the alcohol and aromatic strength of the beer were noticeable as more than one judge wondered if it were aged in bourbon barrels. (The answer is “no.”)
Here are some comments from the expert panel of judges on the Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout:
“Nice sweet/bitter combination.”
“Coffee or dark chocolate at the start, sweet finish.”
“Really strong, complex, well-balanced.”
“Warms the cockles and brought on the saliva.”
Silver Medal — Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe (Bridger Brewing) — This dark brew with hints of amber at the edges had a bite that hit the judges late, both in terms of the individual taste and in terms of the entire day. Sometimes that makes scores slightly inflated, but our judges were professionals … not professional beer drinkers, mind you, but professionals none-the-less. Another beer on tap for a limited time, this concoction from Bridger Brewing does include a chili pepper spice at the finish. That, plus the smooth drinkability of the beer, impressed the judges enough to give it an average score of 3.94. Comments from the panel of experts on the CGEoYLB (it’s too long to type again) brew:
“Mellow, yet complex.”
“Slightly sweet with a bit of spice bite.”
“Sweet malts, real pepper.”
“I don’t know … tastes great.”
Bronze Medal — tie between Dry Irish Stout (White Dog Brewing) and Ghost Town Coffee Stout (Bridger Brewing) — Both beers were in the traditional stout mold, but stood out slightly from the others available that day. The only difference between the two was the stout from White Dog was drier while Bridger’s stout had slightly more sweetness with the added coffee flavor. But the judges rated the two equally, with an average score of 3.88 out of 5. And the good news is that both of these beers are staples at each of the breweries, which means you should be able to enjoy them year-round.
Comments from the experts on the Dry Irish Stout:
“Slightly dry, somewhat smooth. Quality stout.”
“Roasty, good taste.”
“Balanced, dry, not sweet but still pleasant.”
“First time here … and I am drunk.”
Comments from the experts on the Coffee Stout:
“Floral but not sweet. Wow.”
“Espresso baby. Very strong.”
“More than just coffee notes.”
“I like it! Coffee! Definitely!”
Honorable Mentions — While these beers didn’t finish in the top three, their average scores ranged from 3.3 to 3.7 and were a notch above the rest. The honorable mention beers this year included: Black Ghost Oatmeal Stout (nitro) from Madison River; Big Relief Stout from Map Brewing; and the Russian Bill Imperial Nitro Stout from Outlaw Brewing.
Add these six beers to the reasons I prefer cooler weather to the warm stuff. I’ll place them between reason #17 (that I don’t sweat like a pig every time I walk outside) and what is now reason #23 (that I don’t get sunburned ever time I walk outside).
Now if we could just convince the beer-making world to feature these hyper-malt beverages other times of the year. I know, let’s serenade them in song. Ready?
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
There are porters for toasting,
And stouts for their roasting,
The dark ales are here.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
it’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
— Eric Van Steenburg
There was no doubt this was all about the stout. All the breweries with any clout had followed this route so they could go all-out about their stout. And anyone in a stout drought did not need to pout because it was time to shout for they were about to have a stout below their snout.
OK, I’m just about out of words that rhyme with stout, so let me tell you about the Know Good Beer Festival that took place last weekend in Charlottesville. It was called the Siberian Express since its focus was winter beers. Finally, a beer festival made for me.
See, usually when my IPA-slurping friend and I attend a beer tasting, beer festival, beer anything, I spend the first 30 minutes walking around searching for any offerings that tilt toward the malty side of the beer spectrum. Typically I’ll find a couple of stouts, a brown ale, and zero porters. This time, the malt was on the other foot (or something like that).
There were 11 different malty falcons that I was able to sample. Meanwhile, the IPA-chugger was limited to just a couple of options. Aha! … So there! … How’s that feel? … Apparently not too bad because she made numerous trips to Get Bent from Parkway Brewing Co. Hmm. Is that something I should be concerned about?
Anyway, back to the stouts … and the other deliciously malty concoctions available to me at the chilly (it was outdoors in 30-something degree temps) winter beer festival. First, kudos to all the people — attendees, brewers, volunteers, photographers (check out Ron Rammelkamp’s handiwork), and musical performers — who realized the importance that the opportunity for good beer trumps the chance of being cold.
Here’s my take on what I tasted, and ranked, in reverse order, of the best of the best available beers:
11. Raspberry Stout – Hardywood Park Craft Brewery – Actually, it was delicious. I love raspberries. And I love stouts. This is almost like my personal Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (which I don’t particularly care for, by the way). But it didn’t have the malty kick that I was looking for. A great beer, but not today, standing outside in the cold. Though at 9.3% ABV, it could easily warm you up. SCORE: On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it four stout shout-outs.
10. Anniversary Ale – Wild Wolf Brewing Co. – A brown ale in the Belgian style. I didn’t taste the chocolate that it’s supposed to have, and the malt flavor was rather mild. At 5.6% ABV, this would be a great starter beer to kick off a day of winter beer tasting. Oh hey, that’s exactly what I did. SCORE: Four stout shout-outs.
9. Virginia Black Bear – Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery – A tasty Russian imperial stout that checks in at 9.3% ABV. I could taste the Russian, but not the imperial. This brewer-farmer also has a vanilla version of this beer, which I can’t wait to try. SCORE: Four stout shout-outs.
8. Cavalier Milk Stout – C’Ville-Ian Brewing Co. – A new brewery in Charlottesville (aka C’Ville) that made a solid milk stout on it first trip around the stout yard. Dry in the mouth, but full at the same time. And it was cool the next day to walk down Main Street and discover where the brewery is located. Brewery owner Stephen Gibbs gets an “atta boy” for this one. Nice job rookie! SCORE: Five stout shout-outs.
7. Little Red RooStarr Coffee Cream Stout – Starr Hill – I remember that I tried it, but I don’t remember what it tasted like. Must have been late in the day. Good thing I could grab this milk stout at my local pub back in the ‘Burg. Just as its name indicates, it was creamy, but went down easily. And at 5.8% ABV, a couple or three of these might make for a nice evening on a cold winter day. SCORE: Six stout shout-outs.
6. Dopplbock – Three Notch’d Brewing Co. – So this dark German lager isn’t really in the stout category. But neither was the Anniversary Ale, and we let it crash the party. And because it’s from Three Notch’d, you have a pretty good chance that it’s gonna be darn good. The bocky beer had a wonderfully creamy finish that had lots of toasted caramel flavor. ABV = 7.3%. Just missed out on making the top five. SCORE: Six stout shout-outs.
5. Black Me Stout – Champion Brewing Co. – A solid, traditional stout. About as traditional as they come. In a blind taste test, one almost might think this is a Guinness. Almost. It was dry and light, exactly how lead brewer Levi Duncan said he wanted it to be. Nice job. SCORE: Seven stout shout-outs.
4. French Toast Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout – Terrapin Beer Co. – It’s got a long name, but I can sum up how it tasted in one word – yum-diddy-yum-yum. That counts as one word because I hyphenated it. But back to the stout. The coffee and oatmeal were extremely well balanced in that neither overpowered the other. Very easy to drink, but at 9.4% ABV be careful about downing too many because the alcohol will kick the coffee’s ass every time. SCORE: Eight stout shout-outs.
3. Dark Hallow Imperial Stout – Blue Mountain Brewery – I didn’t get a chance to taste it, but that was somewhat intentional. See, I can get the Dark Hallow at my local pub just about anytime. So I decided to save this one for last. But last it did not. In other words, they kicked the keg well before the four-hour drink-a-thon ended. Oh well, I had one last night at the pub and it was as wonderful as I knew it would be. Rich, malty, powerful. This imperial stout is a smooth drinker. Watch out, though, because it will knock you out. SCORE: Nine stout shout-outs.
2. Biggie S’mores Imperial Stout – Three Notch’d Brewing Co. – Just as the name indicates, this sweet stout tasted like s’mores in a glass. And who doesn’t want that? Particularly when the s’mores come with an ABV of 8.0%. I was told this beer is made with pounds and pounds of Honey Maid Graham Crackers. Why didn’t anyone else think of this brilliant idea before? I will definitely partake in this one again … if I can ever find it again. SCORE: Nine stout shout-outs.
1. Morning Bear Coffee Imperial Stout – Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co. – Now this is one coffee that will have you saying “Good Morning!” within seconds after your first taste. Easily the best drinking beer at the festival, and that’s saying a great deal since all the beers were tasty. But this cask-conditioned stout was clearly on a slightly different level that the others. Too bad the cask was the smallest one I’d ever seen. My strategy was to not wander too far from this one. SCORE: Ten stout shout-outs.
I think that’s about all I can tout in regard to the stouts. But as your faithful beer scout, I’ll be on the look-out should a stout tasting suddenly sprout. Until then, when in doubt, drink a stout.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Here we sit smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. For example, Festivus was a week ago, and Groundhog Day isn’t until February. Why? What holidays were you thinking of?
The best part of the holidays for me is that we’re in the middle of the greatest season of beer tasting. That’s right, it’s winter beer time.
I love the build up to winter beer tasting season. It starts in late August when the beer carrier cartons start to change colors, from the yellows and greens of the IPAs and Pilsners, to the oranges and browns of the Oktoberfests and Bocks. It is always exhilarating to me when I walk into a grocery store around Labor Day and have my first sighting of the Sam Adams Oktoberfest beer. I know that cooler temperatures, and much cooler beers, are just around the corner … and down the hall and through the door on the left.
Of course, as most drinkers of quality beer know, the Oktoberfests typically disappear around October. At least the good ones do. And even though I was informed by a beer guru that pumpkins really don’t add anything to a fall brew, and that it’s really the spices added by the brewer that make the beer taste the way it does, I still enjoy the Pumpkin Ales that roll off the shelf … and down the street before getting smashed by a truck and then turned into pumpkin pie … as Halloween approaches.
But the most wonderful time of the year is when the nights start getting longer, and the air starts getting colder, and all the syrupy beers with their holiday spices that my IPA-chugging friend can’t stand start to make their way onto store shelves and pub pulls. Yes, baby, it’s cold outside. But these beers warm my heart.
And in case you’re in need of some winter warming, I’ll share with you a list, in alphabetical order, of fall and holiday seasonal ales that I’ve tasted thus far. Nothing naughty or nice here, just sweet, malty goodness that makes my mouth wish the winter would last forever.
- Alta Gracia Coffee Porter – Wolaver’s – An outstanding ale made with organic barley, organic chocolate malts, organic vanilla beans, and coffee from a Dominican Republican farm community in Alta Gracia. Yes, its certified organic by the USDA. One of the best coffee porters I’ve ever had … and I don’t even like coffee.
- Anastasia’s Chocolate Fantasy – South Street Brewery – The Charlottesville, VA-based brewery made this Russian imperial stout aged on cocoa nibs. What’s a nib? Who cares? This beer is like a brownie in a bottle. And I don’t even like brownies (the desert kind, not the human kind, which are OK with me).
- Blitzen – Blue Mountain Brewery – This Belgian imperial Christmas ale is a strong dark ale that is rather bold and in your face. Some hints of fruit and lots of malt.
- Choklat – Southern Tier Brewing Co. – OK, so you can get this imperial chocolate stout in the fall, but it’s not available year round. And if it were, you probably wouldn’t want it on a hot summer day. It’s chocolaty goodness, and I don’t even like chocolate. There’s a growler of it in my ‘fridge right now.
- Christmas Ale – Great Lakes Brewing Co. – I love beer made with honey, and this one has that plus some cinnamon to boot. It’s a multiple award winner, so grab some if you can.
- Einbecker Winter-Bock – Einbecker Brauhaus – Lots of malt in this tasty bock made by real Germans in Germany. Watch out for the ABV.
- Elementary Porter – Three Brothers Brewery – A lot of caramel and a little coffee make this a powerful porter. I wish it was available year round. As good as it is, I like it’s companion beer, My Dear Watson, even better. The Baltic porter is a little sweeter with tastes of toffee on the tongue. Alas, I couldn’t get a growler of it because the tap was acting up and it took 10 minutes just to pour a pint.
- Fairgrounds Fall Ale – Three Brothers Brewery – While there might be lots of flavor going on here, the brothers know how to bring it together into a nutty, malty concoction. Nutmeg and cinnamon lead the way, with a little allspice at theback end. Perfect after a day of raking leaves.
- Hardywood Park – Gingerbread Stout – This thing is being traded around my area, which I’ll call Central Virginia, like gold on the Swiss financial exchange. And let me tell you, it’s demanding quite a bit in trade (don’t even bring those Sam Adams winter lagers in here). I managed to get clued in early, and was able to smuggle one out of state to my Dad in Texas. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. Oh, and if you wonder why it’s in demand, imagine the entire Christmas season in a bottle. That’s the GBS.
- Homebody – Three Brothers Brewery – I don’t even like sour style beers, but this tart brown ale was easy to drink despite its bitterness. Probably because brown ales tend to have more malt characteristics, and this one was also made with cherries and vanilla beans. I like vanilla.
- Long Winter’s Nap – Blue Mountain Brewery – Belgian Triple Bock (lager beer) – I don’t know if this beer will put you to sleep or provide you a slap-in-the-face wake-up call. It’s cold fermented for more than two months before release into the wild. Very bocky. Could put a novice into hibernation.
- Polar Bier – Three Brothers Brewery – I’m not usually a fan of wheaty beers, but this weizenbock is so sehr gut, I picked up a growler of it at the brewery. You can definitely taste the allspice and orange peel. But I bet it’s the candied ginger that makes this a wintery wunderbar.
- Pumking – Southern Tier Brewing Co. – The best pumpkin ale I’ve ever had. I know, I know, brewing with pumpkins doesn’t add anything to the beer. Yeah, well tell that to the folks at Southern Tier. In addition to pumpkins, they add two kinds of hops and two kinds of malts to create a copper colored beer that tastes like pumpkin pie. And I like pumpkin pie.
- Secret Spot Winter Ale – Evolution Craft Brewing Co. – One of the more hopped beers I’ve had this season. Still lots of malty goodness to go around, though. The Salisbury, MD-based brewery calls this a nod to the altbiers of Dusseldorf. Jawohl!
- Siren Noire – Heavy Seas – I’ve gotten to know Heavy Seas quite a bit over the last year, mostly because it’s about the only craft beer served at Camden Yards. So whenever I go see the Orioles play, I’m sailing the Heavy Seas. And this one’s made with Belgian coco nibs (anyone know what a nib is?). It’s also aged in bourbon barrels for that extra kick, with vanilla bean flavors as well. I felt like I could part a few seas after having one or two of these.
- Space Heater – Three Brothers Brewery – Winter warmers might be my favorite this time of year. Sam Smith first opened my account for these beers. The brothers have made a malty English ale with the usual spicy suspects – allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. But this mix is their best. Terribly disappointed I can’t get a growler of it anywhere.
- St. Bernardus Christmas Ale – One must file this under “St. Bernardus” instead of just “Christmas Ale” because it might be the most famous Christmas ale of all. The quadrupel is known worldwide and anticipated by adults as much as Santa Claus is by kids. The good news for us older people is that this Belgian ale made by real Belgians is real. (Sorry, kids, spoiler alert.)
- Winter Solstice – Anderson Valley Brewing Co. – The other winter warmer I’ve tried this season is also delicioso. Tastes of honey and allspice, along with a malty mouthful. It’s the winter compliment to the brewery’s Summer Solstice. I’m just glad it’s my season now.
Of course, the holiday season isn’t over. After Groundhog Day we have Presidents Day, Arbor Day, Flag Day, and Talk Like a Pirate Day (celebrate the latter by drinking more Heavy Seas).
So I’m off to see the folks at Three Notch’d because there’s a Maple Vanilla Porter named “Mathia Sugar Shack” waiting for me with my name on it.
– Eric Van Steenburg