Winter Beers to Savor|
by Bob Klein
Though most of us have been taught to believe that beer is primarily meant to relieve thirst on a hot summer's day, the happy fact is that beer is far more versatile. Seasonal beers, designed to take advantage of or cope with the temperature of the moment, have been brewed and eagerly imbibed for centuries. So we find bocks cropping up at springtime. Cases of pilsener and kolsch arrive in time for summer. Octoberfest is associated with autumn. And so forth.
As for the season at hand, winter brews should take a special place in our hearts and on our palates, not the least because they tend to have more alcohol. Colorless, flammable and intoxicating, alcohol provides a warming sensation, adding nuance and character to the flavor and aroma of fermented beverages. Winter ales, the fermented beverage of choice for combating the rigors of cold weather, are also more fullbodied and able to stand up to the heavier, cold-absorbing meals of the season. Importantly, they should always be consumed cool or warm for best taste results.
Broadly, these ales can be grouped into two categories -- those that soothe and those that fortify. Needless to say, there's lots of overlap, and because the effects of alcohol depend on a number of factors about a person (weight, gender, time of day, food intake, mood), one person's soother might very well be another person's fortifier.
Two of my favorite locally available, soothing beers are Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale and the ever-fabulous Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Winter Welcome is lightbodied, lightly fruited and subtly spiced, with some winey aspects in the aftertaste. It's easily recognizable by its colorful, busy label. Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale slightly alters its taste configuration from year to year, but you can always count on its bitter-hop features and aggressive, heartwarming character. It goes great with vegetable-filled pot pie.
A more bracing Samuel Smith's offering is the heavier, subtly complex Imperial Stout, a style originally brewed in the late 18th-century to warm the Tsar in the frigid climes of wintry Mother Russia. It's truly a cold night's delight, especially with sharp cheese.
For a truly fortifying, potent ale, go out and buy a bottle of Portland-brewed Hair of the Dog Adam-Hearty Old World Ale. Hearty is hardly the word. Topping the scale at a hefty 10 percent alcohol by volume (keep in mind that your average American pilsener -- Coors, for example -- is between 3.5-4.5 percent alc./vol.), Adam floats along on a sweet-sour fruit aroma reminiscent of cherry. An accompanying roasted chocolate taste rolls around lovingly in the mouth. Pay close attention and you may also pick up hints of peat and a velvety bitterness. Sip this very slowly.
Grant's Imperial Stout, also from the prolific Pacific Northwest and available locally, is a dark, rich, sweetly roasted beauty of a beer that has a characterful essence of chocolate syrup to balance things out. Containing 7.2 percent alc./vol., it appears to gather even more strength as it reaches the bottom of the glass. It's a great partner with roasted meat and potatoes.
Some others that are both tasty and toasty are Full Sail Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale (raisiny aroma, brandylike character, and 10.6 percent alc./vol.) and both of the wonderful Ommegangs from upstate New York: Belgian-Style Abbey Ale (rich, fruity and yeasty, with a touch of licorice) and Hennepin Belgian-Style Ale (fruity-tart, laced with cloves, hint of banana). Soothing and fortifying, these exceptional beers are also an exceptional value at about $3.49 for a 750-ml. bottle.
There's also another way to approach this winter beer business. The truly venturesome might want to consider the advice of Henry Overton, who in 1641 proclaimed the virtues of consuming heated beer which, he maintained, was " ... farre more wholesome than that which is drunk cold." Several beers available locally make for good mulling. When heated in a sauce pan, Samuel Adams Triple Bock's already abundant plummy-raisiny flavor blossoms like a flower bud in early spring, attaining a sweet, chewy character akin to fresh-poured liquid caramel. Sip this slowly, however; there's a bunch of alcohol in the bottle. At 17 percent alc./vol., Triple Bock once claimed the world's title of the beer with the highest alcohol content.
Likewise, McEwan's Scotch Ale (silky, molasses-like, chewy), BridgePort's Old Knucklehead (rich, strong, rounded honey taste -- sip, don't gulp) and Old Peculier, from England (rich, creamy and caramely), improve with just a touch of heat. These suggestions are not meant to be constraining -- all are eminently winter-worthy at ordinary room temperature. Sit a bottle on your kitchen table for an hour or so before opening it, and you'll be happy you did.
Now that winter's here, who could ask for anything more? Well, you could ask for spring and its gravid basket of beers. Stay tuned.
As we go to press, Bob Klein, author of The Beer Lovers Rating Guide and the 2000 365 bottles of Beer For The Year Page-A-Day-Calendar, has sampled 3,250 different beers. That is an increase of 157 since his last "Beer Guy" column. Hey, somebody's got to keep Alibi readers informed.