COLUMN WRITTEN BY MATT BRASCH
For Digital First Media
Winter, with its frigid temperatures and bone chilling precipitation, provides a special backdrop for beer drinking. Instead of looking for a beer that provides relief from the heat of the sun, in winter we find ourselves seeking out beers that drive away the cold, to enjoy in front of a fire while the wind and snow blow outside. Several styles of beer can suit the Winter perfectly — Winter Ales, Porters, Stouts and Barleywines.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (“BJCP”) Guidelines, 2015 edition, include a subcategory of spiced beers named “Winter Seasonal Ales.” They are defined as “beers that suggest cold weather and the Christmas holiday season, and may include holiday spices, specialty sugars, and other products that are reminiscent of mulling spices or Christmas holiday desserts.” According to the Guidelines, “Throughout history, beer of a somewhat higher alcohol content and richness has been enjoyed during the winter holidays, when old friends get together to enjoy the season. Many breweries produce unique seasonal offerings that may be darker, stronger, spiced, or otherwise more characterful than their normal beers. Spiced versions are an American or Belgian tradition, since English or German breweries traditionally do not use spices in their beer.”
Many breweries produce these winter ales prior to the holiday season and include every possible spice or flavor that can be associated with the holiday season. See http://www.tickettoentertainment.com/blog/2015/11/24/let-the-festivities-begin-2015-holiday-beers-hit-the-market/.
But some winter ales are more malty and less spicy — a heartier, sweeter beer that provides a warmth and satisfaction as it slides down your throat. Weyerbacher Brewing, located in Easton, Pa., produces an excellent example of the style in a seasonal release simply called “Winter Ale,” described as having “a warm, roasty flavor, balanced out with a slightly dry finish. It’s smooth but not cloying, with a warming belt of alcohol,” at www.weyerbacher.com.
Cooperstown, New York’s Brewery Ommegang recently released its “Lovely, Dark & Deep,” which pays homage to Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Lovely, Dark and Deep is a stout brewed with Ommegang’s house yeast strain, which provides a Belgian spiciness perfect for warming up after shoveling snow for hours (or after just watching the snow fall from the warmth of your home, for that matter).
Another style of ale that provides warmth in winter is the barleywine. Originally created in England, the barleywine is described by the BJCP as “A showcase of malty richness and complex, intense flavors. Chewy and rich in body, with warming alcohol and a pleasant fruity or hoppy interest. When aged, it can take on port-like flavors. A wintertime sipper.” According to the BJCP, the name “Barleywine” was first used in 1872, and is “[u]sually the strongest ale offered by a brewery,” typically having an ABV anywhere between 8 – 12 percent. Weyerbacher Brewing also makes a fantastic English Barleywine – “Blithering Idiot.” At 11 percent ABV, Weyerbacher’s website suggests that the bottled beer can be aged after purchase to allow the flavors to become more complex — “We feel comfortable setting our ‘Best By’ date out to five years beyond the bottling date,” as stated at www.weyerbacher.com/beers/year-round/blithering-idiot/
Similar to the traditional English IPA, American brewers took the English Barleywine and added more hops to it. As a result of this change, another BJCP category was created — the American Barleywine — defined as “A well-hopped American interpretation of the richest and strongest of the English ales.” One excellent American barleywine produced here in the greater Philadelphia area is Victory Brewing Co.’s “Old Horizontal.” This malty beer is “combined with fresh harvest American hops [which] make[s] it aromatic and spicy on the nose. Floral, fruity aromas slide into honeyed malt depth with lingering sensations of candied and citrus fruit,” according to www.victorybeer.com/beers/oldhorizontal/. Victory recommends drinking this one at home, because at 11 percent ABV, “…you’ll discover why ‘horizontal’ is in the name.”
Although we have not been subject to harsh temperatures or high accumulations of snow so far this season (thank you El Niño), when you get the word that the next blizzard is coming, make sure you add a “winter warmer” to your emergency shopping list of milk, eggs and bread. Then stoke up the fire, settle back with a craft brew, and enjoy the winter.
Columnist Matt Brasch is a Souderton Area High School graduate and a beer enthusiast. For more, check his blog at http://thebrewholder.com.