Tap This: Try one of these cold ones to make the winter chill a little less bitter
Now that the first snowfall has come and temperatures have reached the single digits we can officially claim that winter is upon us. While many animals have stored up their bounty for the cold winter months, craft beer drinkers do their best to keep a well stocked beer fridge for those days of being snowed in.
What are the best beers to enjoy during the winter months? Are there specific styles that are better to enjoy when it’s cold outside? Does bigger always mean better? The answers to these questions are covered this week as we examine the beers of winter.
It should be noted that these are recommendations and if you enjoy drinking a light summer-like pilsner or wheat beer when it’s -5 degrees that is not a problem. However, many beer drinkers enjoy celebrating the seasonal change through beer.
As the colder climate settles in, beers on the shelves in stores and bars seem to have gotten higher in ABV.
Why is this?
Traditionally brewers have saved higher ABV beers for the colder months. Mainly due to historical brewing traditions that have become commonplace for modern drinkers.
Traditionally brewers, or settlers brewing beer to survive, tried to make higher ABV beers in the winter to help warm themselves. Much like a great scotch has warming properties, beer can have the same effect. However, as we know with many historical beers the taste was not always the focus and many of these beers resembled wine. The key with brewing bigger beers now is a balance of flavor and trying to not have the alcohol be too present.
The feat of keeping the alcohol in check is the most difficult for many brewers especially with beers that reach an impressive 18 percent ABV and higher. However, when done well, beers that have a high ABV can drink like a beer that has a minuscule 5 percent ABV and when you find one of these beers you will understand its wonders!
So what are the beer styles that are best for warming yourself on a cold winter night? There are a few particular styles that are great due to their higher ABVs and warming properties. Styles such as barleywines, imperial stouts, Belgian quads, and Doppelbocks are all perfect choices.
Many of these styles are available year round, but brewers hold off on some until the winter months. The combination of higher ABV, rich flavors, and warming properties make all of these beers perfect for when the temperatures drop below freezing.
Barleywines are named so because they are higher in ABV, ranging from 7 to 15 percent ABV. Some are even higher and despite its name it is very much a beer that is full of flavor and also great for aging. When fresh they have an aggressive hop forward flavor but as they age they mellow out and become very smooth with a solid malt backbone. They can be very sweet due to the amount of malt used in brewing, but they are balanced and delicious.
Imperial Stouts can be either American or Russian in style with American being more chocolate heavy with sweeter notes and Russian being a bit more aggressive and bitter with dark bitter chocolate and ripened red fruit notes making appearances. These are also styles that many brewers enjoy aging in bourbon barrels to give them an even higher ABV. The range is typically from 7 to 12 percent and can of course go higher.
Belgian Quads, or Quadrupel, are the big kids in the Belgian beer family. They are stronger and bolder than their Dubbel and Tripel brethren and the style was inspired by Trappist brewers in Belgium. Typically they are deep red, full bodied with a rich malty palate. The ABV ranges from 8 to 13 percent and the alcohol can be present in fresh batches but will greatly dissipate with some aging.
Doppelbocks are in the German lager family and are the tamest of all the beer styles mentioned here with an ABV range typically of 6 to 9 percent. They are very malt forward and full bodied and were like a meal in a glass that many referenced when discussing German beer. Doppelbocks are sweet with a great warming malt quality but are exceptionally clean and easy drinking. If you really want to dive deep into big bock beers though, be on the lookout for some Eisbocks whose ABV can topple the 15 percent ABV mark!
No matter what time of year or what the weather is like outside any good quality beer could and should be consumer. However, especially in the winter months, a beer can truly make the difference and help make the bitter cold seem a lot less bitter.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.