The beers of winter
Here’s what to drink on a cold winter night
We are late.
Usually, we do this in October, when oompah’ers are oompah’ing in oompah bands in the beer tents of Munich while drinkers pay homage to malted beverages without which the world would be much poorer. But, then again, everyone, really, does that during Oktoberfest season, when you can’t turn around at the supermarket without stubbing your toe on a case of beer guaranteed to be the greatest beer since, well, last Oktoberfest.
We want to be different.
Beer, of course, is a year-round thing, something to savor, even gulp, in the heat of summer and sip serenely as the days shorten and the air chills. But what, exactly, to drink? What tasted great with hot dogs in July won’t necessarily go down as well with ham and beans or roast duck or venison stew served atop beds of noodles and accompanied by slabs of crusty country French or pumpernickel bread. As we await the snows of December, we yearn for drinks of substance, stouts and porters and ales that can’t be rushed through and will delight either all by themselves or make a great meal taste even better, all while gently suggesting that it will soon be nap time.
And so we assembled a panel of judges, some more expert than others, to assess the merits or demerits, as the case may be, of 25 beers selected from local supermarkets, booze emporiums and breweries. In choosing the contestants for our blind test taste, we erred in favor of beers brewed in the Midwest and Illinois, although beers from around the nation, and a few from other countries, were included in the tasting pool.
Judges, as always, proved a determined lot, tasting and debating and then tasting some more until the moon rose high and conversation between rounds turned to such subjects as Art Bell, conspiracy theories, sasquatch hunters and the proposition that, hey, that kind of stuff really isn’t so weird. That’s to be expected after the 10th beer, and folks generally behaved themselves much better than in past years, when we traditionally tasted 31 beers, one for each day in October. Moderation can be a good thing.
After the last beer had been poured and everyone passed sobriety tests and went home, we tallied the scoresheets to determine which beers were better than others. These are not winners, per se, and they are listed in no particular order. Rather, these were the beers that got the 10 highest combined scores from our panel that included more just plain folks than beer snobs. For neophytes, ABV in the below summaries stands for alcohol by volume, and so the higher the number, the bigger the kick. Some of these beers are ubiquitous, some you might have to hunt for – which can be big fun as you comb the single racks – but they are all, guaranteed, worth drinking. So, cheers.
Dark Horse Boffo Brown Ale
Dark Horse Brewing Co.
ABV: 7 percent
A brown ale is not, by definition, a fall or winter beer, but then again, they drink Guinness year-round in Ireland and elsewhere, and so why not? And if you’re going to drink a brown ale, you could do a lot worse that Boffo Brown Ale, which will give most any traditional English brown a run for its money. Created by a family-run brewery in Michigan, Boffo has been around for more than a decade, and with good reason. The head is thick, tan and lacey. It’s nutty without being overpowering, so it will appeal to folks who like Bud Light but are open-minded. There’s a decent amount of fizz and a slight hint of caramel, which never hurts. “Perfect balance in a dark beer,” decreed one judge. “Gimme another one.”
Sierra Nevada Stout
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Asheville, North Carolina
ABV: 5.8 percent
When you get something right, stick with it, and there’s no better proof of that than Sierra Nevada’s version of stout. It’s one of the first beers brewed by the company that got its start back in 1979, when craft brews were nigh impossible to find. Now one of the country’s largest craft breweries, Sierra Nevada has become ubiquitous, and among beer snobs, the company’s stout is as much a classic as the better-known pale ale. The head is not as thick as one might like, but that’s the only quibble. As stouts go, we’ve had meatier, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Judges remarked on the coffee notes, creamy feel and bitterness that make a stout a stout. “Heavy,” wrote one judge who favors the lighter things in life. “Couldn’t enjoy more than one. Good taste.” This would pair well with a stew or holiday feast.
Bob’s ’47 Oktoberfest
Boulevard Brewing Co.
Kansas City, Missouri
ABV: 5.8 percent
If you hurry, you might still be able to find some of this lingering on the shelf. Intended for Oktoberfest season, Boulevard releases this in August, and it got high marks from judges for appearance and drinkability. A deep copper hue won compliments, although the head seemed a bit thin. It has plenty of malt flavor but judges found it crisp and clean, with a fruity touch. “Light, sweet – makes me think of summer coming,” one judge wrote. Another turned nostalgic: “This tastes like a beer my dad would drink.” Overall, a fine beer to serve at get-togethers large or small so that everyone will be pleased.
Snow and Tell
Boulevard Brewing Co.
Kansas City, MO
ABV: 6.3 percent
The marketers did their job. Who can resist a name like this? This is a Scottish-style ale, with the label boasting that it is oak aged, we think, likely, in the same way that Budweiser is beechwood aged, with chips of wood thrown in at some point during fermentation. There’s sufficient malty flavor, but this isn’t an ale that will knock anyone over. If Miller made it, it would be called Ale Lite. Judges were brutally honest, with the judge who least favored heavy beers remarking, “Good. I have no idea why.” Those with a more encompassing palate rightly found good things to say. “Could be heavier with how good it is,” wrote one judge. “Good brew, but took a couple of sips to get into it.”
Alaskan Brewing Co.
ABV: 5.3 percent
This is a northern classic that has not always been easy to find in the Midwest. We scored some at Binny’s Beverage Depot, the new place on Wabash Avenue, and judges were thankful. Long a staple in the land of the northern lights, Alaska Amber made its way to the Lower 48 in the 1990s and quickly gained a Left Coast following as the merits and joys of craft beers and microbrews became apparent to palates deadened by products produced in mass quantity. If it’s from Alaska, it must be perfect for winter, right? Well, yes and no. This is, truth be told, somewhat an all-seasons brew, but it does seem to go down just a tiny bit smoother when the leaves turn and the weather turns brisk. It was rated among the most drinkable beers that our judges tasted. “Good beat, easy to dance to,” one judge wrote. For those attuned to technicalities, this is billed by the maker as an “alt style” beer with roots in Germany, where altbiers are fermented slowly and at cold temperature. The result is a deep copper, or amber (hence the name), color, and it only gets better when the sipping starts. Nutty and fruity at the same time, it’s not too sweet and not too bitter and not too malty. “A nice mid-season beer,” one judge wrote.
Rolling Meadows Brewery
ABV: 8.5 percent
It didn’t take long for judges to pick up on the strong suits of Abe’s Ale. “Tutti fruity with brown food coloring!” one taster enthused. “This is fun and interesting,” raved another. “Pretty good,” declared another. “Could see how this one could get away from you.” On this latter point, Abe’s Ale has a higher alcohol content than most of the other fare that was on the tasting menu, but it is well disguised, with the sweetness nicely toned down with a nutty flavor. Judges found this brown ale both slightly sweet and creamy. “A nice balance of sweet and sour,” one wrote on his scoresheet. Others detected caramel and hints of brown sugar.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager
Boston Beer Company
ABV: 5.6 percent
Beer lovers in winter cannot subsist on stouts or porters or dark ale alone, and so brewers have bestowed us with all sorts of tweaked India pale ales and light fare aimed at tickling and satisfying thirsts until spring arrives. Much of it, and there is no getting around this, is horrid, but, given the right marketing, unsuspecting people will snap up most anything for holiday parties on the theory that the smiling elf on the label is cute and no one, really, wants to actually drink the heavy stuff. Leave it to Samuel Adams to figure it out. If Samuel Adams ever made a bad beer, we haven’t tasted it, and their marketing department is superb. The company’s winter lager is exactly that, but what they don’t tell you is, it’s a bock, and what the unsuspecting don’t know won’t hurt them. A bock is a lager, but a heavier, stronger style than the light-colored stuff we slurp down in summer, and it takes longer to make. The label, complete with Christmas tree, says that it’s brewed with orange peel, cinnamon and ginger – makes you want to leave one for Santa – but this beer is serious business. “A lighter dark beer,” one judge observed. The label notwithstanding, any flavors of orange, cinnamon and ginger are not so forward as to be objectionable: You get, at most, a clue that they are there, but not to the point of being hit over the head. Speaking of head, there’s nothing to write home about here in that department, but with a translucent copper color, it’s beautiful to behold.
ABV: 6.8 percent
Drink up, comrade. Besides being a hit with judges and the only offering in a can that cracked the top 10 (a nice gesture toward the Stag set), Eugene Porter stood alone as the only beer we tried that is named after a socialist. The can features a depiction of Eugene Debs, a union leader who ran for president five times and led the Pullman strike of 1894 that ended with his arrest (prosecutors dropped charges mid-trial after realizing that Clarence Darrow, Debs’ lawyer, was kicking serious butt). He was called “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race” by the New York Times. On the other side of the can from a picture of Debs hoisting a keg festooned with a red star (naturally) over his head, is a clenched fist. No, you won’t find this in Bruce Rauner’s refrigerator anytime soon, but the union-hating governor who is said to be an aficionado of quality beer would be the poorer for not picking up a six-pack. Even the only judge on our panel who acknowledges – indeed, brags about – voting for Donald Trump liked this stuff. This has some chocolate flavor to it, but judges also detected coffee, toffee and oatmeal. “Sweet, not overpowering,” one judge wrote. It is a beverage to savor and study that one judge admitted was beyond her. “This is a beer for more sophisticated beer consumers than me,” she wrote on her scoresheet. “This beer has too much going on, lots of flavor.” Others found nothing to complain about. “Yummy,” wrote one. “Christmas waiting-for-Santa beer.” It’s worth noting that Revolution Brewing was launched in 2010, so the company is a relative upstart. But the taste is big league.
Engrained Brewery and Restaurant
ABV: 6.5 percent
Engrained pours oatmeal stout 12 months a year, but it always seems to taste best in the colder months. It’s a stout that appeals to folks who claim not to like stout, and certainly for folks who love the heavier things in life. “Gawd, this is good,” one judge wrote. Another found it “warm and cozy,” even though we served it cold. Creamy. Dark. Smooth. Not too carbonated. Coffee. Complimentary adjectives just kept coming, although one judge wished for a stronger smell: “Could be more aromatic, especially with how delicious this is.” That’s as close to a putdown as we got. Quite simply, if you’re going to Engrained and you’re having only one, get this.
66 Degrees Scotch Ale
Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery
ABV: 5.5 percent
Fair warning, there is no guarantee that this will be on tap when you visit. Obed and Isaac’s brews what they want to brew and when they want to brew it, and if they’ve run out, well, tough hops. But their version of Scotch ale has been on tap with fair frequency this fall, and that’s a good thing. This stuff, so far as we’re concerned, belongs with Long 9 IPA and Ditzy Blonde as an O and I go-to elixir, so they should make as much as possible as often as possible. With a warm amber color and a distinct barley flavor, it’s the essence of drinkability, with the judges agreeing that this is, or should be, a staple. It’s not overly complex, just simple and clean. “Something I could drink all night long,” one judge declared. “Really good,” said another. “Nice bite. I could have this with a meal rather than it being the meal.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.