Friday, January 30, 2009

Seasonal Beers - from December's Food for Thought

Here begins a bountiful series on seasonal beers. I believe one of the most appealing aspects of our culture’s food and drink is seasonality. Our palates anticipate flavors based on the weather and harvest-ready foods. From spring’s greens, to summer’s corn and fruit, to the pumpkins, squash and pot roasts of fall and winter, our tastes change with the calendar.

Traditionally, beer flavors and styles varied by region and season due to climate and available ingredients. Crisp, clean beers that needed cold conditioning were made in winter and served in summer, the perfect time for a refreshing beer. Robust beers that fermented rapidly in warmer temperatures were made in late summer and served in fall or winter. Maibock, saison and Oktoberfest styles were born of this cycle, as were countless celebrations of local ingredients and seasonal diversity.

Craft brewers are leading a renaissance of seasonal beers. While most brewers don’t depend on the weather to determine their cellar temperature, craft brewers are inspired by the intoxicating call of flavor above all, resulting in palate-pleasing seasonal diversity.

It’s winter. Pick one word to typify the following: a crackling fire in a fireplace, a slow-cooked stew, a snowplow driver or a dog sled captain rushing cross-tundra to your rescue. The common characteristic? Heartiness. Fittingly, that’s also a characteristic worth embracing in winter beers.

Hearty Winter Beers

Winter styles typically showcase the complex, roasty flavors of malted barley. Described as “malty,” these beers showcase caramel, toffee, molasses, coffee and chocolate flavors. Other grains, such as wheat or rye, bring subtler nuance. Focused on a single note or on a poetic combination of several, these are comfort flavors that present well as the beer warms to cellar temperature. This is ideal in a season when we may not want ice-cold beer. Imagining beer in a coffee mug cupped in my gloved hands, I think of these flavors.

Brown Ale Expect rich malty tones that typically bring caramel and nuttiness forward. Medium body keeps this beer easily approachable, maybe a click past ambers.

Porter Porter brings darker flavors forward, typically a combination of subtle roastiness with hints of chocolate. Rarely aggressive, porter is a great start for learning to drink dark beer.

Oatmeal Stout Stout and porter are kissing cousins, and oatmeal stout blurs the line even more. Stout embodies the edgy, roasty character of dark malts. Adding oats lends creaminess and roundness, complementing the beer as cream does coffee.

Stout Stout may vary in intensity and style. Most craft brewers make a roasty, robust stout, slightly dry with a somewhat big character. This is a contrast to the smooth creaminess of “nitro-stout,” which is lighter and more similar to their common Irish ancestor.

Stronger Winter Styles

Some winter styles are a bit stronger than their warm-weather counterparts. Mainstream domestics hover around 4% alcohol by volume (abv) and most average craft beers are between 5 and 6 %. I’d describe beers between 7 and 12% as “strong.” Their warming character and bold flavors are well-suited to that red-faced moment just after doffing your coat, hat and scarf, but before acclimating to the comforting warmth of your local bar. These beers most often present malty flavors, since the sugar that fuels their fermentation is derived from copious amounts of barley, wheat or rye.

Barleywine and Old Ale There’s a thin line between barleywine and old ale. The reality? When you’re drinking them, you don’t care about the difference. Expect a showcase of caramel flavor. Delicious at any temperature, these brews are rich, somewhat sweet and very warming, typically over 9% abv.

Wheatwine Cousin to barleywine, wheatwine has a similar structure. Made from 50% or more wheat, it shares barleywine’s robust caramelization, but possesses a somewhat brighter body with inviting raisin/dried fruit character.

Imperial Stout: With 11% abv, Imperial Stout is “big beer,” a crazy uncle everyone loves, no matter how loud he gets. Big roast, lots of coffee and chocolate, even some balancing bitterness. Deliciously hearty, yet elegant, this is survival beer.

Quads and other Belgian styles: Belgian-influenced styles are quite popular in Beervana these days. Rich in character, these beers are usually known for their fermentation profile. Spicy or fruity, Belgians promise a lively, sometimes tart or tangy profile.

A final seasonal tradition is spiced beer. A common style for Christmas beer, its innovative variations bring new ingredients to the world of beer and go beyond Christmas. Call this the craft-brew version of the ultimate Scandinavian hybrid, Glogg.

Breweries all over West Michigan make delicious beers to fortify us through winter. Visit,, or for resources to find your next beer. Or strike up a conversation with your local retailer and ask what’s coming in this season.


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