As the days get darker, so too does the beer in my glass. I imagine the urge comes from the primitive part of my “beer”ebral cortex; the search for extra fortification during the leaner times that lie ahead. In much the same way that a wine drinker might reach for a meatier Malbec or Port during cold weather, the beer connoisseur looks for a darker malt beverage that lingers longer in the mouth and warms the soul.
There are great examples of cold weather beers on the opposite end of the color spectrum, but the dim spotlight of winter typically shines on beers whose labels are emblazoned with the words: “Imperial,” “Old,” “de Noël,” ”Christmas,” or — my personal favorite — “Wee Heavy.”
Styles that are geared toward cold weather traditionally share the similarities of alcohol warmth, emphasis on malt as opposed to hops, and deeper colors that range from chestnut to obsidian. Holiday spices such as nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and citrus may also be thrown in for good measure.
If the beer is defined as an Old Ale or Barleywine, you can expect a copper to bronze-colored, viscous beverage that has flavors of dried fruits, rich malt, toffee, nuttiness and potentially sherry. Any American version will be hoppier. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine will be available in the next month and is a textbook example of the hoppier American version. A Scottish Wee Heavy shares a similar color and flavor profile to the previous two beers, but may also contain peaty or smoky flavors like the whiskeys that hail from the same region. Leininkugel’s Big Eddy Series bottles and kegs a Wee Heavy that has a great price point and exhibits some complex malt and smoke characteristics. Founders Brewing Company produces Dirty Bastard, which is a hoppier America version of a scotch ale. A Belgian or French “Bière de Noël” will share some of the rich maltiness and color of the Barleywine or Wee Heavy but will be drier and have its own unique spice created either by a regional yeast strain or by actual spice additions. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale or Fantome De Noël are very tasty, and locally available.
As the beers get darker, you are more likely to be in the realm of the Imperial Stout, Baltic Porter, or some variant. These beers can be dense like a port, with roasted grain character that can range from dark chocolate to coffee to soy sauce. They often exhibit deep fruit flavors that are reminiscent of plum or raisin. Look for bottles of Samuel Smith Imperial Stout or Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.
These higher alcohol beers are served in smaller portions (6 to 12 ounces) and in glassware that might be defined as a snifter or a tulip. Lacking one of the aforementioned, a red wineglass is perfectly acceptable. The goal is to spread the chilled liquid across a larger surface area so it can warm closer to ambient temperature and release more of its aromatics. Swirling the beer and then cupping one’s hands around the glass to facilitate warming will speed up the process. The smaller opening at the top of the glass concentrates aromas so they are more apparent to the nose. With good beer the mantra is: Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor. Following a method like this with about any artisan beer will not only improve the sensory experience, but also pay more respect to the brewer and to the beverage you spent your hard-earned dollars on.
For those who want nothing to do with the word “dark,” I offer three, low-calorie pieces of advice: 1) Be open to sampling a small portion of a robust beer with no preconceptions; 2) Sample it one more time; 3) If you still aren’t buying it, then turn your focus toward lighter-colored beers that ferment with a Belgian yeast strain. Quaffing a fruity Belgian Tripel (pronounced “triple” in Flemish) or a peppery Saison (say-saan) is also a great way to celebrate the fact that you have shelter from the impending snowstorm. I recommend Westmalle Tripel or Saison Dupont as benchmarks for these styles. Jolly Pumpkin is a brewery out of Michigan that produces excellent saisons and are worth your time.
With the ingenuity of brewers these days, it is important to know that there are exceptions and variance to every rule. If possible, ask for a sample from the bartender or pick the brain of the retail specialist. Cheers, and enjoy the beers ahead.