Happy New Year craft beer enthusiasts! I hope those of you in northern climes are staying warm while we say a prayer for our friends on the summer side of the planet with that category 5 Cyclone Yasi beating up Australia.
I’ll nonetheless be northern hemisphere-centric in this column as we’ll be spending a lot of time on winter beers. The winter portion of the traditional beer calendar features darker, heartier and stronger beers designed to shake the cold from your bones.
For the stout of heart
Most beer drinkers are familiar with stout beer, or at least the extremely popular variety known to the world as Guinness. But like most types of beer, stout comes in wondrous varieties representing many subcategories. The key to this style is the roasted malt or barley that gives stout its black color and rich flavor profile. I’ve sampled a number of these dark beauties over the winter so let’s drink up!
First up, Fisherman’s Imperial Pumpkin Stout from the Cape Ann Brewing Company of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Pumpkin Stout is a regular Fisherman’s offering, but this Imperial version raises the stakes to 11% Alcohol By Volume (ABV) compared to the 7% standard version.
I liked this beer a lot, finding it a fun combination of fall/winter flavors. Pumpkin beer is a traditional fall offering, so packing pumpkin flavor into a full bodied imperial stout makes for a great winter surprise. It’s a beer to get cozy with (and you should probably split the 22 ounce bomber bottle with someone else…or else!). Fisherman’s Imperial Pumpkin Stout offers a great combo of stout richness with just the right amount of pumpkin flavor.
Victory Brewing Company, the pride of Downington, Pennsylvania, has developed a solid reputation in East Coast craft beer circles. Being a hophead, I originally experienced Victory’s beer through hop forward offerings such as HopDevil, Prima Pils, Hop Wallop, and Yakima Glory (which I have yet to acquire for at-home consumption, in case any of my dear readers are feeling generous). But late in 2010 Victory created a stir when they announced the one-off creation of Dark Intrigue, a bourbon-barrel aged version of their Storm King Imperial Stout.
I couldn’t get my hands on any Dark Intrigue but it did pique my interest in Storm King. This is a BIG stout, with more hop bitterness and aroma than is typical for this type. It’s backed with a rich, chocolate maltiness. A sip starts on the bitter side with a fair amount of carbonation and a sugary, malty aftertaste. The hop bitterness and high 9.1% ABV make this a little harsh for those expecting a smooth, creamy stout. Storm King would be perfect for someone looking for a dark beer with a bit of bite.
In 2010, Weyerbacher Brewing Company of Easton, Pennsylvania celebrated their crystal anniversary with Fifteen, a smoked imperial stout. There’s a traditional German beer style called rauchbier, made by drying malted barley over an open flame, that is worthy of its own entry here. But other types and styles of beers occasionally make use of smoked grains to create varied flavor profiles. As you might imagine, dark beer styles like stout are a good match for smoked grains, where roasted grains already provide a similar flavor. I’m a huge fan of smoked foods, a favorite being smoked hummus (seriously!) from Neopol Smokery in Baltimore, Maryland, so I was very excited to try Fifteen.
Let me say right off the bat that Fifteen did not disappoint, showcasing a rich smoky aroma on popping the top. The smoke flavor lives in the taste without overwhelming. My dear wife, a fellow craft beer enthusiast who won’t follow me down the smoky food trails I’m known to wander, really enjoyed Fifteen as well. This alone is worthy praise! In one word I’d say this beer is not smoky, but rather balanced – the smoke flavor, hop bitterness, and malt sweetness present harmoniously, making for an eminently drinkable beer to really enjoy.
More than a mitten
My aforementioned lovely wife is a native of the handy state of Michigan, which, fortunately for me, is home to a number of fine craft breweries. (Look out for a future Growler devoted exclusively to beers of the Great Lake State.) But for now I’ll focus on two offerings from what is perhaps Michigan’s best-known craft beer export, Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo. With an eighteen state distribution area, Bell’s has risen from its 1985 founding to regional craft brewery status today.
In keeping with the column’s theme, first up is Expedition Stout, a Russian imperial stout that Bell’s claims was one of the first beers of this style brewed in the US. As most craft brew fans can attest, imperial stout has become a very popular style among U.S. craft brewers. Expedition Stout may be among the first of its kind, but it’s also among the best.
One of my craft beer converts, now a trusted voice on the subject himself, flagged Expedition as his official “winter beer” and waxed rhapsodic about its complex palate. So I dug into this beer with gusto. I found that I spent as much time smelling this beer as I did drinking it, which I admit made me look a bit touched, but it was worth it. Marveling in a complex aroma reminiscent of port or a fine red wine, I found those big whiffs only added to my drinking pleasure. Sweet, fruity, and smoky in the nose, Expedition is sweet and smoky in the mouth and finishes like a bourbon. It has that je ne sais quoi that lets you know you’re drinking something special. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some, try a few and then, if you can resist, age a few – a beer this complex is sure to evolve in interesting ways.
Get it if you can
By the time you read this column you’ll probably have missed your chance to get your hands on the 2011 release of Bell’s Hopslam. My condolences.
As the name indicates, this is a hop forward ale. It’s gained legendary status in the craft beer community. Innovation is the cornerstone of the American craft beer movement and brewers have done great things by going bigger and bolder with their recipes. In this way American craft beer has become known for strongly hopped beers, so much so that some are wondering if we’ve crossed over into too much of a good thing.
But Hopslam is not that beer, despite a name implying a pile-driver from the hop rope. The beer has a strong hop nose and a great hop character, but is carefully proportioned and exceedingly drinkable.
Bell’s has cleverly balanced the massive hops infusion of Hopslam with a hefty body of malt and honey that leaves the beer surprisingly light, crisp, and thirst quenching. If you’ve tried “hoppy” beers and found the taste aggressive, punishing, or too bitter, please promise me you’ll try Hopslam. It represents all the best that brewing’s essential herb can provide, with a wonderful fragrance and smooth, clean taste. When my wife picked up a mini-keg at the local Whole Foods she was high fived by the store’s beer guy, who told her “Hopslam – it’s a lifestyle.”
Until next time, dear readers – viva la Hopslam!