Beer quenches thirst in the hot summer months, but in the short cold days of winter, we see the complete beer flavor spectrum. From the sweet flavor of caramel malt to the bitter tannin of oak, from aromatic spice to earthy yeast, winter beers provide diverse sensory experiences.
These are the days to tuck into hearty winter warmers, intense Imperial Stouts, and boozy barleywines. During the holiday season, breweries commemorate festivities by releasing special beers that keep spirits high in the cold months that follow.
For warmer regions that may not feel like hibernating as much, bars and restaurants should think outside the box with specialty ciders and beer cocktails.
Before diving into the darker side of beer, remember that not all roasty ales are heavy in body or particularly high gravity. You can dispel some misconceptions about dark beer among drinkers by reminding guests that Guinness Draught stout has comparable alcohol content to Bud Light.
“It’s a given that as the weather begins to cool and we enter the winter months, our very seasonal menu changes, as do people’s palates,” says Jordan Burghardt, assistant general manager at Arcana Restaurant in Boulder, CO. “The beer list needs to adapt and become heartier to match the food.”
Arcana sits behind Boulder’s busy pedestrian Pearl Street Mall, and showcases not just American cuisine, but also historical regional fare. Colorado-grown vegetables, grain, and game balance an ambitious bar program that includes boutique wine, fanciful cocktails and carefully selected craft beer. To adapt the beer list to the weather, Burghardt looks to darker brews. “There’s just something warming about English Old Ales, Baltic Porters, Imperial Stouts,” he says.
Sometimes the warming effect is due to alcohol or spice, but Burghardt recommends a beer that straddles both. “My go-to winter beer is Great Divide Hibernation Ale.”
The Denver beer, which Arcana prices at $7, “is incredibly complex, malt-driven, with a kick of English hops to round it out,” he says. “The malt gives it notes of dark fruit, cocoa and roasted nuts—but it’s not as chocolatey/coffee-esque as a lot of winter beers, which makes it a great option for pairing.”
One coffee beer that sells well at Arcana is Denver-based Crooked Stave’s Coffee Baltic porter, a rich and smooth example that pours a deep cocoa brown.
Stylistically, it’s not just the toasty, charred beers that get attention this time of year. Zach Rivera is bar manager at Headquarters Beercade in Chicago, where two levels of retro arcades encourage a lively atmosphere. Patrons challenge each other to games in an urban setting with 28 beer taps between two levels and a wide selection of cans priced $6 to $9.
Rivera values variety in the selection of beer. “Winter is big for porters and stouts, as well as barleywine and winter warmers,” he says. “You’ll also see some spiced beers thrown in the mix. People want to come inside and warm up with something that has some ABV and body to it.”
Barrel-aged And Seasonals
City Works Restaurant and Bar in downtown Minneapolis, features more than 90 taps, with 25% of available beers coming from the Twin Cities area. Bar manager Daniel Sondgeroth is dedicated to offering fresh, local beer and notes seasonal changes to the lineup.
“During the winter months, we also go a bit heavier on barrel-aged and uniquely wintery-flavored beers, as well as getting many of the ‘must-have’ beers, like a Surly Darkness and Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout,” Sondgeroth says. If you can get your hands on desirable kegs or bottles, they will draw enthusiasts.
Another way to attract beer aficionados is with annual favorites such as Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale or Sierra Nevada Celebration. Sondgeroth recommends a coveted Oklahoma brew, Prairie Artisan Ales’, Christmas Bomb! At 13% ABV, it’s a popular choice which City Works sells in 10-oz. pours for $12.
Quality barrel-aged beers perform well in all climates, even where winter doesn’t bring snow. Justin Malone is the owner of Waller Creek Pub House, a casual spot in Austin, TX, with wooden bench seating and robust sandwiches and burgers. “Being in Texas, we don’t get too much wintery weather,” Malone says, “but this time of year we tend to increase our selection of stouts and porters.”
Malone goes on to mention favorites: “Specifically, we like to bring on barrel-aged stouts like barrel-aged Ten Fidy from Oskar Blues, barrel-aged Narwhal from Sierra Nevada, Black Ops from Brooklyn Brewery.” Draft pours at Waller House range from $6 to $8.
Breweries anticipate increased interest in aged beers during the winter, when they are better protected from fluctuating summer temperatures. So they often schedule releases for that season.
Pairing Winter Brews
Apply general pairing principles to seasonal beers and food. For instance, match strength for strength by pairing strong Stilton cheese with high-alcohol barleywine. Contrast flavor elements by cooling spicy chicken with smooth, malty stout. Or complement profiles by balancing dark chocolate with barrel-aged beer.
Party Fowl, a playful chicken restaurant and bar with 24 taps in Nashville, TN, enjoyed a recent success with pairings Owner Austin Smith gives his kitchen staff plenty of creative license, though they don’t take on too much seasonal variability, he says.
“Our chef, Bart Pickens, can do pretty much anything we can imagine,” Smith says. “He recently made a Smoked Chicken Burgoo (thick chicken and bourbon stew), which pairs incredibly well with our Jackelope Snowman Stout,” a Nashville brew.
At Headquarters Beercade, Rivera keeps pairings straightforward and accessible. He starts with main courses: “For a turkey or roasted chicken, I like a Belgian Golden Strong or Biere De Garde,” says Rivera.
When it comes to desserts, “for tarts and fruit pies, a fruit beer to complement or a rich stout to contrast,” Rivera says. Awaken palates with a new spin on familiar flavors such as cherry pie with chocolate stout.
Beer can also be an ingredient in a seasonal dish. “When it’s cold out, I love a good soup or stew,” says Malone at Waller Creek. “We like to incorporate beer in our food when we can, so if we make a stew we’ll throw in a good stout or brown ale while it’s cooking.” Pairing the dish with the same beer used as an ingredient is an easy win.
Ciders For Winter
From sweet to dry, cider beckons wine and beer drinkers alike, and provides an alternative for gluten-free seekers. And it works especially well with food and in cocktails. Among the rich and intense flavors of winter beer, cider cleanses fatigued palates.
Not just a purveyor of beer, City Works earns visitors for its comprehensive drink list. “Ciders are very popular here all year-round in Minnesota, and we do sell a lot of it here at City Works,” says Sondgeroth.
He notes seasonal bumps: “There is a slight boost in sales during the autumn months, but at such a beer-centric place like ours, many wine drinkers may opt for one of our ciders.”
Another factor: “We carry a great selection that would be hard to find anywhere else,” Sondgeroth adds.
Just as the craft beer industry has seen a broadening range of flavors, so too is the world of cider undergoing dimensional growth in flavor possibilities. Rivera notes new flavors that come in and out of Headquarters Beercade. “From a cold-brew-coffee cider to pumpkin spice or Imperial cider, there’s definitely something for everyone.”
At Arcana in Boulder, cider takes a striking presence with 22 on hand, most of them dry and complex, according to Burghardt. “There can be a misconception of cider being sweet and fruit-driven,” he says, “when in all actuality, there’s single-apple-variety ciders aged in oak barrels that are dry, funky, yeasty and as complex as Belgian and wild ales.”
Expect to see even more diversity in cider’s future. And for a more modern approach to seasonal cocktails, consider using cider. The carbonation in cider will lighten the body of a mixed drink, and a dry selection will balance stronger flavors.
Burghardt cites a popular seasonal drink called the Jack Ruby ($12). It’s made with Laird’s Apple Brandy, Dupont’s 2014 Aigre Doux (a low-alcohol, barrel-aged cider vinegar made with honey and ice cider), which adds acid to the drink, Three Pins herbal liqueur from Leopold Bros. and freshly made beet syrup.
Then it’s topped with Argus Ciderkin, Burghardt says, “which is a yeasty and dry cider.” The cocktail has sort of an apple theme between the apple brandy, cider vinegar and Ciderkin, he says. “It’s complex and earthy.”
Erika Bolden is a freelance writer and Certified Beer Server. She is a frequent contributor to L.A. Weekly, West Coaster SoCal and All About Beer magazine.