Back in your mom and dad’s generation, before the days of the craft-beer revolution, they drank the same pale, fizzy lager year-round. If they were a bit more discerning, they might drink beer in the summer and switch to wine in the winter. That’s just how it was.
Since the resurgence of beer diversity in the past 20 years, beer consumers have had a wider range of options available to them. Tastes have evolved enough that some styles are better consumed in the summer—like weizens, blonde ales and fruit beer—while others are more appropriate for winter sipping. Some of the obvious styles for winter drinking include big, hearty stouts and porter, alcohol-heavy barley wines and the ironically named wee heavy.
Of course there is space for all styles at any time of year, but dark, malty beers just seem to fit better with cold, snowy nights. Fuller-bodied beers can be a bit too heavy for the deck, but seem to warm our insides when it’s minus 20 outside.
So feel free to reach for that stout or porter: you will be immensely satisfied. However, if you are a bit bored by the usual winter beers—or those beers just aren’t your thing—allow me to offer some unexpected suggestions for winter beer. These are choices that might not first come to mind when you’re sipping around the fireplace, but I believe they can be as equally satisfying as the old standbys.
Fruit beer is the single biggest-selling craft style in Alberta. Clearly, a lot of people enjoy the fresh taste of beer fused with blueberry, apricot, grapefruit and other fruit flavours. Almost as a rule, the base beer to display the fruit is light and rather unassuming, which means they are not the best fit for the dark days of winter. Thankfully, there are a few breweries that break the mold and add fruit to a darker beer. Not every type of fruit can work in a dark beer; raspberries and apricots tend to just disappear in a fuller beer, but a darker, more flavourful fruit can offer a nice contrast to the beer’s chocolate and roasted malt. One longstanding example is Cannery Brewing’s Blackberry Porter. Blackberries are quite a bit more assertive than other berries and therefore hold up nicely in a nutty, chocolatey porter. Another example of this style is Wildrose Brewing’s annual winter release, Cherry Porter, which is made with sour cherries. (This will be released on the market on November 1.)
Fear not, lager fans, for you can get a more wintery version of that clean, crisp, refreshing taste: dark lagers offer a light body and a clean, crisp finish, but they add a bit of caramel, chocolate and dark malts to create a second dimension to the flavour. Given its accessibility, dark lagers are surprisingly rare in Alberta. However, Paddock Wood’s Black Cat Lager offers a great example of the classic German schwarzbier style.
For the last few years, India Pale Ale (IPA) has been the “it” beer. An increasing number of beer drinkers are becoming certified hopheads, looking for that intense bitterness and hop flavour that IPAs offer. But what is a hophead to do in the winter? Those big, citrusy IPAs may not fit well with a winter palate. Well, you don’t have to give up your lupulin (the key ingredient in hops) when you pull out your parka.
Thanks to the relatively new style of Cascadian Dark Ale (called Black IPA by some who don’t have a problem with oxymorons), hopheads can get their bitter fix over the winter. Cascadians are darker ales, usually similar to a brown ale, but with the hopping level of a standard IPA—marrying the best of both worlds. I find the bigger malt base actually balances the hops nicely, making a more drinkable beer that might appeal to non-hopheads. Good examples available in Edmonton include Hopworks Secession Cascadian Ale and Flying Monkeys Netherworld.
There is more than one way to fit your beer preferences into a winter context. Just go a bit darker, a bit fuller and you are on your way. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.