It’s the most wonderful of the year, especially if you like spiced beer. Personally, those aren’t my favorite to drink, but there’s a time and a place ANY beer is enjoyable, right? Rather than focus on the gamut of peppermint spiked stouts and nutmeg infused amber hybrids, let’s talk about some traditional craft beer styles that are synonymous with colder temperatures, shorter days, and the occasional California rain shower. Here are a few of my favorite styles to drink this time of year, in no particular order:
RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT
Yes – IMPERIAL Stout, which signifies a higher alcohol content, and RIS (for short) is no exception. It usually ranges between 8 - 12% alcohol by volume, which adds considerable body to the beer – a heaviness on the palate and also a “warming” sensation. Be it known, examples that reek of alcohol are exhibiting a problem with fermentation – the better RIS will hide any traces of “booze” relatively well as it melds within the layered, rich dark chocolate, burnt caramel, and vanilla that all but characterize this thick, chewy, darkest of ales. Why Russian? The style was brewed primarily for export due to its popularity within the Royal court of the 18th Century Russian monarchy (i.e. Catherine the Great). Some popular examples are Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout, AleSmith Speedway Stout, North Coast Old Rasputin, and Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout, among MANY others.
Note: Many of these imperial stouts are treated to year long stays in bourbon barrels, so keep an eye out for the barrel aged versions – the oak accentuates notes of vanilla, and darker spirits will always complement the roasty, smokey, cocoa-infused malt character of the stout family.
Often lost in a sea of Trappist ales (namely, Singel, Tripel, & Quadruple), the often 6 – 8% Dubbel is one that harmonizes rich malt character with the traditional Belgian yeast esters of white pepper, clove, honey, and an array of floral notes. No need to add spices to this style! The yeast takes care of that (as long as fermentation temperatures are allowed to get a little crazy). The best Belgian Dubbels will almost taste like fruit cake – literally. Biscuity, pie-crust-like malt notes will seamlessly blend with the fruity, spicy tones of the yeast to create quite the holiday sensation of beer drinking experiences. Like I said, no spices needed. Some of my favorites include Ommegang Abbey Ale, Rochefort 6, and Chimay Red.
Note: Belgian Dubbels are extremely versatile when it comes to pairing with food. On the lighter side – anything sauteed; the maillard browning effect of caramelization is virtually the same as the kilning of specialty malts found in the Belgian Dubbel style. Heartier dishes like barbequed pork ribs, grilled steak, and braised lamb shank pair well, as Belgian styles of beer are typically higher in carbonation that other styles of beer, and this higher effervescence cuts through fat, restoring the palate on each and every bite.
Historically, this English style descends from strong ales brewed on country estates, often in the month of October so that they could be consumed in the winter months. More fortifying beers were necessary in these months where meager food rations were the norm, and kept people warm. Today’s Barleywine fall into two categories, English and American. English varieties range from 7 to 10% abv, are amber to brown in color, and provide aromas and flavors of rich, fruity malt and spicy, woody English hops. American counterparts are differentiated by the use of hops and yeast – American hops are known for their piney, citrusey qualities, and most brewers use a neutral ale yeast, which puts greater emphasis on malt and hop flavors (British yeast is quite fruity, and complements the caramel element of the malt bill in British examples). Thus, American Barleywines are very malt-forward, with notes of caramel and raisin, and also very bitter, with typical piney, citrus-like hop flavors. For British versions, seek out Greene King Old Suffolk Ale, AleSmith Old Numbskull, and North Coast Old Stock Ale. Some American versions worth pursuing are Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Stone Old Guardian, Avery Hog Heaven, and Anchor Old Foghorn.
Note: Bottled versions of both styles of Barleywine can benefit from a hint of oxidation. While styles of beer designed to be consumed fresh (IPA, in particular) will detriment from ANY oxygen, the higher alcohol, maltier styles will take on a “sherry-like” character that can be pleasant in low levels. If you buy one of these styles that has been stored at room temp, it’s guaranteed to show some oxidation character, for better or for worse.
J.C. Hill is the head brewer at Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill in Old Monterey. Hill is a Certified Cicerone™ (beer sommelier equivalent) and earned a Brewing Science & Technology degree from The Siebel Institute. He resides in Monterey with his wife, Melanie, and son, Jay.