Happy brew year

Winter’s dark seasonal beers great for warming up Northwest nights

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



Winter Seasonal Selections


BridgePort Brewing Old Knucklehead (Portland)

Dick’s Brewing Company Barley Wine Ale (Centralia)

North Coast Brewing Company Old Stock Ale (California)

Full Sail Brewery Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale (Hood River, Ore.)

Rogue Ales XS Old Crustacean (Newport, Ore.)

Winter Warmers:

Avery Brewing Company Old Jubilation (Colorado)

Great Divide Brewing Company Hibernation Ale (Colorado)

Ridgeway Brewing Bad Elf Ale series (England)

Scuttlebutt Brewing Company 10 Degrees Below (Everett)

Diamond Knot Brewing Co. Ho! Ho! Winter Ale (Mukilteo)


Port Brewing Company Santa’s Little Helper Imperial Stout (California)

Ridgeway Brewing Lump of Coal Holiday Stout (England)

Ninkasi Brewing Company Imperiale Stout (Eugene, Ore.)

North Coast Brewing Company Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (California)

Caldera Brewing Company Old Growth Imperial Stout (Ashland, Ore.)

Spice Beers:

Fort George Brewery North V Strong Ale (Astoria, Ore.)

Midnight Sun Brewing Company CoHoHo Imperial IPA (Alaska)

Bruery Elysian Stone La Citrueille Celeste de Citracado (California)

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Pangaea (Delaware)

The Lost Abbey 10 Commandments (California)

Here in the Pacific Northwest you don’t need long nights or cold fog to let you know winter is almost here — you can tell from the color of the beers.

Winter beers are thick, filling and made to keep you warm no matter what the weather brings.

The colors tend to match the darkness of evening, and while the styles may vary, most have one thing in common: Winter beers are designed to pack an alcoholic wallop.

“I think the darker beers and the higher alcoholic content, it creates a sensory perception of warmth,” said Arlene Nunez, owner of By The Bottle, at 104 W. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver. “It’s the feeling of having something hearty and robust to fight the cold.”

Unlike beers from other seasons — or your nondescript cheap American beers — some winter styles are actually designed to be cellared like wines.

Barleywine, which is the darkest and most alcoholic of the styles, especially tends to get better as it ages over a few years.

“They’re your strongest, most malty beers,” said Angelo De Ieso II, head beer blogger at http://brewpublic.com and an employee at By The Bottle. “The English barleywine is where the term and the style originated from. The beer is brewed with malted barley and it has the alcohol content of a typical wine: above 8 percent and generally above 10 percent.”

A typical American beer, in contrast, has around 5 percent alcohol.

Barleywines have a lot of dark, fruity notes like caramel, molasses and raisin. As they age, oxidation gives them a hint of a honey flavor and the hoppy bitterness lessens, he said.

“It’s a high octane beer,” De Ieso said. “And it’s definitely an after-food kind of beer. It’s good with a cigar if that’s your thing, or even some kinds of sharp cheeses.”

Larry Pratt, owner of Salmon Creek Brewery and Pub, 108 West Evergreen Blvd., has a barleywine at his restaurant called Lunker Tyee. He made it three years ago.

“It keeps getting better and better,” Pratt said of the beer. “It’s not quite as hoppy as it was in the beginning. Aging really smooths out the edges.”

Making a barleywine can be expensive. It takes about twice as much grain as a traditional beer, but in the winter not much beats it, Pratt said.

“It’s a comfortable beer,” Pratt said. “You sit by the fireplace and sip it.”

The most subjective category of seasonal beer is called a winter warmer or Christmas beer. These also have a high alcohol content, although not quite as high as barleywine.

“It’s anything that’s a little heartier and more robust,” De Ieso said.

If you look at the labels, almost all of the winter warmers will have pictures of snowy woods, Santa, reindeer or other similarly themed holiday sights. Sometimes they’re flavored with spruce tips or other piney flavors.

Among the more interesting winter warmers stocked at By The Bottle are those in the Bad Elf series made by Ridgeway Brewing in England. It includes beers called Bad Elf, Very Bad Elf, Seriously Bad Elf, Criminally Bad Elf and Insanely Bad Elf.

“They’re malty, sweet, biscuity, and the worse the elf gets, the more strongly alcoholic the beer is,” De Ieso said with a laugh. “The last one he’s in a straight jacket.”

Eric Surface, who owns Mt. Tabor Brewing, 113 W. Ninth St., is fond of more traditional stouts and porters that tend to dominate the season. Those two beer types can be found all year long, but in winter you often get imperial stouts or imperial porters, which are a bit stronger and darker and are also great for cellaring, he said.

“I love imperial stouts,” Surface said. “I’m thinking about brewing another one, possibly in January, that’s about 11 percent. It’s a super big stout. It’s a winter beer that really warms you up.”

The beers are brewed with more malt to give the yeast more to eat so that the alcohol content increases. The sweetness of the malt tends to give stouts and porters natural coffee or chocolate hints.

Surface also has a preferred way to drink a good after-dinner imperial, he said.

“I put a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream in it and make a float,” Surface said. “That’s the best. I love that. The vanilla bean really brings out the chocolate flavors of the malt in the stout.”

Pratt said he’s also a huge fan of making stouts. The richness of the malt gives the beer a lot of character, he said.

“I have a motto — when in doubt, brew a stout,” Pratt said.

The final winter brew category is spice beer, which also includes quite a range of flavors. Like the other winter beers, they tend to have a higher alcohol content, but they also include unusual flavors like juniper, licorice, honey, nutmeg, cinnamon, pumpkin, yam and even chile peppers, De Ieso said.

Stone Brewing Company in San Diego, Calif., has an interesting variety that it created with Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle and The Bruery in Orange County, Calif. The special-release beer, called La Citrueille Celeste de Citracado, has a mix of pumpkin, citrus, yam, fenugreek and birch bark flavors, among others, Nunez said.

Fort George Brewery North V Strong Ale, made in Astoria, Ore., is another interesting spice beer. Brewed with five different malts, it has a mix of fruit added at the end of the process.

“It’s supposed to be a beer that resembles a fruit cake,” Nunez said.

Whatever your tastes, there’s a lot out there to try over the winter season. And with winter officially beginning on Thursday, there’s plenty of time to explore all the styles.

“I wish it was winter all the time,” Pratt said. “I love the thick dark beers, and I don’t feel guilty drinking them in winter. In summer, they might taste good, but you just can’t get away with it.”