The beers of winter are lush and vivid in appearance, aroma and flavor. Special wintertime brews can be traced well beyond the advent of the Christian calendar. During the celebrations of Winter Solstice special drinks, including beer, coincided with merrymaking and the change in season. Today, winter beer is not a single distinctive style; rather, it's a range of robust, full-bodied beers with rich color and flavor. Many are called "big beers," an indication of high alcohol warmth, lots of viscosity or mouth feel, assertive spices and bitterness, and monstrous amounts of sweet malty flavor.
Here are a few favorites to get you through the cold weeks ahead.
Strong Ales and Old Ales make great winter warmers or nightcaps. Some, such as a barley wine, may have aged more than a year before being sold. Most commonly dark bronze to black, they range from 6% to 9% alcohol by volume (ABV). The Hilldale-Great Dane currently offers Siam Strong Ale, which is indeed dark and malty. The brewpub's downtown location is serving ESB 3000, to mark the brewpub's 3,000th batch of beer since opening 15 years ago. While called an ESB (Extra Special Bitter), this big beer is more like a strong ale or barley wine with 8% ABV, deep copper color, malty flavor and spicy finish.
Porter beers are dark brown to black, medium- to full-bodied, and can be moderately strong. In a good porter there's a blend of mild, malty sweetness and roasted aftertaste. Ale Asylum's Contorter Porter is an excellent choice.
The Scotch Ale is rich in malt flavor, deep bronze and packs 6%-8% ABV. The Great Dane's Stone of Scone is one of the best local renditions and is worthy of a half-gallon growler.
Anything imperial seems to be the rage among brewers nationwide. Imperial is an adjective, loosely applied across beer styles and names. It usually signifies a ramped-up recipe that produces a beer with lots of body and alcohol. Among current favorites on tap at Madison's Malt House is an Imperial Doppelbock from Capital Brewery. Brewmaster Kirby Nelson released only a few quarter-barrels into the local market last month, and while difficult to find, it's worth seeking out. Rob Larson, brewmaster at Tyranena in Lake Mills, made a limited amount of an Imperial Weizen, and it too is on tap at the Malt House. Normally, a weizen is light-bodied and crisp, a summer beer; but this "imperial" rendition is a wheat beer lover's dream, with a thick mouth feel and the warmth of an angora sweater on a cold snowy night. Larson also makes an imperial coffee oatmeal porter called The Devil Made Me Do It that defines "robust" beer.
For the big snow yet to come, grab a six-pack of Satin Solstice, a Russian Imperial Stout, from Central Waters Brewing of Amherst. This beer is full-bodied and creamy, with lots of chocolate maltiness. The Russian Imperial Stout is a distinctive style, originally made for the czars of Russia. This is a hearty beer that can exceed 10% ABV.
Bourbon barrel brews are beers that have been partially fermented in used bourbon barrels, leaving them warm and sweet. Among the best is Rocky's Revenge, a year-round beer from Tyranena that's even more appreciated in winter. Both Gray's Tied House in Verona and the Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb have bourbon barrel styles of stouts on tap. And Central Waters makes a bourbon barrel cherry stout that is sweet, warm and fruity.
Traditional bock beer is brewed in the fall and served in late winter to celebrate the coming of spring. Local bocks are already turning up, like Velvet Hammer at the Great Dane in Fitchburg and Sprecher's Winter Brew. Capital of Middleton will again mark the seasonal release of its bock beers with Bockfest on the last Saturday in February. This year's entry will require a ticket, so celebrants will want to watch the brewery's website for info.
Perhaps it was the length of last winter that brought out the variety of seasonal choices we have this year. Whatever the reason, our local brewers have offered a little warmth for the cold days that lie ahead.