By Jason Notte
You don't need to spice up a beer or put Santa Claus and wreaths on the label to make a great winter beer. Sometimes you just need to darken it up and give it enough kick to warm you.
Though it's a great time to sip the last of the fall's pumpkin ales and sample the first of the holiday season's winter warmers, this is also stout season. Though the folks at Diageo Guinness seem more than happy to let mainstream American beer drinkers believe St. Patrick's Day ushers in stout season here in the U.S., American craft brewers use this time of year to introduce their malty holiday porters, creamy sweet stouts and high-octane limited release imperial stouts.
But how do you tell a porter from a stout? Should it even matter to holiday beer drinkers looking for a tall glass of something warm, dark and lovely? Not really. Blame Arthur Guinness for the confusion, as his recipe for Extra Superior Porter eventually became Guinness Stout. True porters didn't return until the initial U.S. craft beer boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to this day judges at beer competitions insist stouts are darker, use roasted barley and use less water than porters.
It gets a bit esoteric after that, and even brewers and beers experts don't believe there's much separating porters and stouts beyond what a brewer decides to call it. Writer Adrienne So summed it up in far greater detail for Beer West back in March, but drinkers shouldn't trifle themselves with such distinctions this winter.
There are a lot better reasons to enjoy these seasonal stouts and porters than their names alone. Here are some examples of stouts and porters that are a perfect fit for the cold months ahead:
Alcohol by volume: 12.7% ABV. We'll just go ahead and get the very NSFW 'berzerker' clip from Kevin Smith's Clerks out of the way, as it has nothing to do with this beer but is inextricably tied to the word. With that out of the way, we move on to Anchorage, Alaska, and one of the baddest imperial stouts in the land. This brew isn't masking its alcohol content but bathing it in the scent of whiskey, red wine, dark fruit and tobacco reminiscent of the smoke-filled basements that hosted holiday parties of yore. Aged in wine and whiskey barrels, Berzerker isn't there to candy coat your insides, but to give them a viking funeral. A crackling yule log puts of less heat than this potent warmer.
Alcohol by volume: 15% to 20% ABV. This big beast from Delaware debuted back in 1999 and has given folks near Rehoboth Beach a reason to welcome winter that doesn't involve shoveling loud packs of summer tourists out of town. Once the most potent beer on the planet, Worldwide Stout drinks more like a cordial than a creamy pint of Guinness. It tastes a bit like port and has the slow burn to back that up. The folks at Dogfish Head recommend keeping it in the cellar for a season or so to take the heat off and give it a profile more akin to a roasty stout, but even then it's going to be a bit stronger than most six-packs party guests will stick in the fridge.
Alcohol by volume: 10% ABV. In any other world there'd be lines around the block at New York liquor stores and fanboys wearing wristbands every time Southern Tier released one of the imperial stouts in its Blackwater Series. The Lakewood, N.Y., brewer makes seasonal stouts that taste like coffee, mocha and creme brulee, but perhaps its tastiest treat of all is this chocolate-infused winter offering that appears each November. Debuting just five years ago and always available in high supply, Chokolat takes two strains of hops and four kinds of malts and ferments them with bittersweet Belgian chocolate. It finishes with a deep chocolate flavor and just a hint of dark cherry and serves as the perfect dessert for holiday dinners where you just can't stomach another cookie or slice of pie.
Alcohol by volume: 9.8% ABV. This Minnesota brewery loves itself a 16-ounce tallboy can and an easy drinkin' beer. That Darkness comes in a wine-style bottle capped with a red wax seal and emblazoned with a vampire face should be a sign that it's not messing around. It's tough to consider this a winter holiday beer, as the October release date and goth labeling clearly vie for Halloween space amid the pumpkin ales, but a potent stout laden with hints of chocolate, cherries, raisins, coffee and toffee fits right in at the Christmas table. Just be prepared for some holiday bitterness that doesn't stem from getting socks instead of a tablet. Surly says it adds "a touch of hops" to Darkness, but its 85 IBUs are more than beer lovers will find in some brews that deign to call themselves IPAs.
Alcohol by volume: 9.5% ABV. What makes a "breakfast stout," you ask Well, the first thing you'll want to add is a bit of coffee. Denver-based Great Divide tweaks its Yeti imperial stout this way by infusing it with a whole lot of Denver's own Pablo's espresso. A little vanilla or milky flavor always helps, and Yeti's strong undercurrent of vanilla from its oak-barrel aging certainly does the trick. Finally, you'll want to crank up the volume a bit as a wakeup call. All of those sugars help give this coffee-powered Yeti some extra kick, while the coffee and vanilla keep the burn to a minimum. Can you drink it for breakfast? Some people have a thing about not drinking a beer before noon, but last we checked it wasn't illegal.