Winter’s Best Brews

When the days get shorter and the temperature drops, the best way to warm up is with a frosty pint of dark, rich beer. Despite a lousy year for farming hops, many of the nation’s most celebrated breweries are still churning out seasonal favorites just for winter. Here’s a sampling that would make Homer Simpson proud.

Black Chocolate Stout, Brooklyn Brewery

black_chocolate_stoutF.jpgLike fine wine, this beer from Brooklyn-based Brooklyn Brewery gets better with age. Brewmaster Garret Oliver says some customers have been known to “lay down” the beer for years before drinking it. “We wanted to brew a winter seasonal beer that would make a big impression on people,” Oliver says. With 10.1 percent alcohol by volume, it does just that.

Brooklyn beermakers use three mashes to brew each batch of this beer, achieving a luscious deep dark-chocolate flavor through a blend of specially roasted malts. This approach is modeled after Imperial Stout from Thrale’s Brewery in London, which once made the beer for export to the Tsar of Russia.

Today, Black Chocolate Stout tastes more like port wine than Budweiser, and is best served in a snifter glass that can trap some of the beverage’s cocoa aromas. Oliver says the beer pairs well with chocolate desserts, cheesecake, fruit tarts, and ice cream. It is also good with strong cheeses, especially Stilton. The beer is available in the greater New York area and at specialty liquor stores throughout the country.

Storm King Stout, Victory Brewing Co.

Though this beer is available year-round, brewers at Pennsylvania-based Victory Brewing Co. consider it best for winter because of a massive, roasted malt flavor that invokes caramel apples, cinnamon sticks, and nutmeg. Another reason: the beer’s alcohol by volume is 9.2 percent, one of the strongest brews the brewery makes.

Storm King is different for other reasons, too. Brewmaster Bill Covaleski makes all of his beers with whole-flower hops, a strategy that translates into a fuller body and more aromatic flavors than most traditional German malts. “We thought we had something new to bring to the style,” he says.

Covaleski describes Storm King as “rich, warming, roasty and substantial.” Apparently, beer connoisseurs agree. Storm King was named “Champion Stout” at the 2002 Real Ale Festival in Chicago, and top-rated American Beer by BeerAdvocate.com in 2003. For the holidays, try this brew with a slice of pumpkin or pecan pie a la mode. The beer can be purchased in specialty liquor stores nationwide.

Winter Brew, Sprecher Brewing Co.

sprecher_winterbrewF.jpg“Dunkel” means “dark” in German, which would explain why true beer lovers call the Winter Brew from Sprecher Brewing Co. in Glendale, Wis., a “dunkel bock.” In the glass, the beer is the color of roasted chestnuts. To the taste, a flavorful blend of four dark-roasted and sweet caramel malts and four different hops defines this smooth and robust lager.

Head Brewmaster Randy Sprecher says the nourishing flavors of a full-bodied Munich bock make this Bavarian-style brew perfect for those long winter nights. “It warms you up from the inside,” says Sprecher, who studied beermaking in Germany and has been brewing this particular elixir since 1986. “What more can you ask for at this time of year?”

Sprecher’s Winter Brew is no stranger to accolades. The beer has won gold and bronze medals at the World Beer Cup. The beer goes well with roasts and ducks, not to mention Christmas turkeys and stews. With only 5.75 percent alcohol by volume, it’s one of the lightest winter brews around. The beer is found almost exclusively in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois.

Red Brick Winter Brew, Atlanta Brewing Co.

Brewmaster Dave McClure had been making this double-chocolate oatmeal porter at home for years before Atlanta-based Atlanta Brewing Co. released it in 2004. Today, the recipe calls for five different roasted malts including oats and barley as well as a number of different hops.

The result is a luxurious brew that can stand on its own or as a dessert aperitif. Dave Weil, the brewery’s director of operations, says he enjoys the beer with heavy foods such as soup and steak. “Hearty food calls for hearty beer,” he says. “It’s not like you can pound a few of these and still have a big meal.”

Currently, “ABC” makes two versions of its Red Brick Winter Brew — one version with 7.8 percent alcohol by volume for the Georgia and South Carolina markets, and another with 5.9 percent alcohol by volume for the Tennessee and Alabama markets (where laws are stricter). While the latter version lacks some punch, the rich flavor is the same. The beer is sold throughout the Southeastern United States.

Other options

Other microbreweries make special stouts and ales to celebrate the winter, among them:

The Lunar Harvest Ale, a full-bodied and heavily hopped beer from the Ukiah Brewing Co. in Ukiah, Calif. The beer is tasty, and the brewery bills itself as the first organic brewpub in the U.S.

The Abyss, a darker-than-dark, 11 percent alcohol brew from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore. Hints of molasses, licorice and other rich flavors in this brew give the complexities of a pint of Guinness a run for their money.

Blackout Stout, an unfiltered Irish dry stout from Cambridge Brewing Co. in Cambridge, Mass. Interestingly, alcohol by volume in this brew is only 4 percent, making it hard to have just one.

Matt Villano