Your guide to winter beer in Alberta

Your guide to winter beer in Alberta

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Whereas summer is all about activity, being outside and enjoying the warmth, winter is more about hibernation, roaring fires and cozy evenings inside.

For those long cold nights, you don’t need a cold, thirst-quenching beer; you want a flavourful, full-bodied beer that you can linger over and enjoy as it warms.

On my CBC Eyeopener beer column this month, I talked about winter beer. Now that’s a pretty broad topic – winter beer encapsulates a huge spectrum. It’s not easy to drill this down into such a massive swathe of the beer canon in one six minute segment, but try I did.

The holy trinity of winter beer

I chose to focus on the three broad styles that I get most excited about at this time of the year; stout, porter, and barleywine. The weather simply demands that I drink these three beers.

That’s not to say that I shun other styles. Oh no, there is plenty of room at my fire place for all manner of beer. Stronger Belgian beers such as dubbels and tripels and quads hold a particularly fond place in my heart and really are at their best during cold dark days in front of the fire. I’ll never say no to doppelbock at this time of year either.

I say broad styles, because each of these has various sub-styles – sweet stout, dry stout, oatmeal stout, foreign stout, robust porter, English porter, and different barleywines from England and America for example. I chose the three styles I did because they are most accessible and recognizable to those who may not be in to craft beer. I always assume that the majority of the Eyeopener audience doesn’t have a great amount of beer knowledge, so I try to keep things as simple and engaging as possible in the hope we can hook more people into this fun world of ours.

Stout in summer? You crazy!

Now, if you’d asked me four months ago whether I liked stouts and porters, I’d have told you that I don’t mind them, but they’re not my favourite style. Ask me again now, and I’d tell you that it’s a glorious style that more breweries should make. Why? The weather! The season! The dark!

Why is it then that these darker and stronger beers taste so much better in winter? Well, there is a couple of reasons.

  1. They evoke flavours and smells associated with winter – smokiness, roastiness, coffee, chocolate and cocoa. Like chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
  2. They’re often on the higher side of alcohol – so they are warming, and make you forget about how cold it is and how most of your day is lived in darkness.
  3. It’s less about quenching your thirst and more about settling down in front of a fire and sipping slowly.
  4. These beers have a great deal of character and aroma as they warm up. In summer, a warm beer is gross. In winter, it actually tastes nice. Seriously.
  5. They are great for cooking those rich hearty winter dishes we love – porter gingerbread, sticky stout brownies, beef and beer stew, stout onion soup. All delicious and guaranteed to make your house smell awesome. If you can spare the beer.

I (now) like stout, that’s what I’m about

I also covered the difference between porters and stouts, because to the untrained eye and palate, they look the same, smell the same and taste the same. It doesn’t help that styles can merge and slide, especially by craft breweries who like to bend the rules. But how are these “black” beers different? The most simple way to explain is as follows:

  1. Porters tend to be lighter in colour – a shade of medium to dark brown compared to stouts which are usually black (although if you hold them to the light you will see a brown or red hue).
  2. Porters tend to be nutty or biscuity and have notes of light chocolate, caramel and toffee. Stouts will always have a roastiness that resembles coffee and dark chocolate.
  3. The big difference is that stouts use roasted barley as a key ingredient – instead of malting the barley first to release its sugars, it thrown straight in the kiln and takes on a burnt, acrid flavour, like a less oily version of a really well roasted espresso bean.

Interesting fact – although they seem fuller and therefore higher in calories, a glass of Guinness actually has less calories than a glass of Budweiser. It’s that creamy body, full flavor and mouthfeel (and maybe some advertising…) that fools you into thinking you’re drinking a meal in a glass. So stop holding back!

A buttload of beer please

Porter’s got some history behind it. It was the original dark beer for the masses. It originated in London in the 1700s and was a working man’s drink named for the porters that worked the dock. Porter was the original “super style” to be shipped around the world.

Early accounts are that it tasted gross – really harsh and aggressive due to fire kilned brown malt that was predominantly used. One way to smooth out the edges was to age it in large, 108-gallon casks called “butts” (yes, a buttload of beer truly is a lot!)

In the 1800s, “stout porter” or high alcohol porter became a thing. Ireland, and Dublin in particular, home to Guinness, took to this style primarily because its water is so soft, meaning they could make dry and crisp stouts that people loved. Guinness grew like crazy – a lot of that was to do with its iconic “Guinness gives you strength” advertising – and remains, by far, the world’s leading stout.

A dash of barleywine, old chap?

Now, barleywine is a complete different kettle of malt. It’s beer, but it is brewed to wine strength – usually around 10 to 14 per cent. These beers are usually extremely rich, with a really complex malt presence. They can have a ton of bitterness, but it usually hidden by the sweet malt richness. There is usually a nice gentle alcoholic warmth to remind you that this beer is not for chugging.

They go really well with dessert – the strong flavours and sweetness match the intensity of a sticky sweet dessert like crème brulee. They also act as a great counterpoint to cheeses; the sweetness and alcohol stand up to even the most salty and rich cheese, like an English stilton, and the carbonation cleanses your palate of fatty residue.

These beers are definitely best shared, in a glass that has loads of room for the beer to breathe (try a brandy snifter if you don’t have a massive rounded beer snifter) and are good for sipping in front of the fire. They also age very well if you have a cool dark place in your house to store them.

So what should I be drinking?

Most local breweries do a version of a porter or stout at this time of year. When it comes to stouts, porters and barleywines, I tend to gravitate towards beers that have been produced for a very long time.

  1. Wild Rose Cherry Porter
  2. Alley Kat Olde Deuteronomy Barley Wine
  3. Brewsters Blue Monk Barley Wine

A couple of “newbies” make worthy examples too.

  1. Dandy Brewing Company Oyster Stout
  2. Ribstone Creek Old Man Winter Porter
  3. Zero Issue Terraform Porter

What’s your favourite local winter beer?

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