There is nothing like an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day. But it’s January. And we’re in Minnesota. Ice and cold are in abundance. A frosty nip is not what’s needed to take the edge off winter’s deep freeze. January in Minnesota calls for something cozy and creamy with a good bit of alcohol to help warm your bones as you curl up by the fire.
There’s a beer for that. The “winter warmer” is a broad category of beers with a history that stretches back at least a few hundred years. It’s difficult to pigeonhole these hearty brews into any particular style. They come in many forms and flavors. They may be light or dark. They’re sometimes spiced or flavored with wintry ingredients like juniper or spruce.
Certain broad generalizations can be made about winter warmers. While some are hoppy, most favor the caramel, toffee, toasty and roasty flavors of malted barley. Elevated alcohol content is the norm. They typically start at around 6.5 percent. From there, the sky is the limit.
This being Minnesota, it’s only reasonable to assume that our local brewers would be on top of brewing these comforting quaffs. They do indeed oblige that expectation. There is an assortment of Minnesota-made winter warmers to choose from.
Indeed Brewing Company’s Stir Crazy Winter Ale is just the beer for those who prefer to sit out the coldest months comfortably ensconced in the warmth of home. Brewed with cocoa nibs, vanilla and raisins, this is a Christmas cookie of a beer. Flavors of bitter chocolate and vanilla flow like a satin ribbon across the tongue, while low notes of toasted grain add an extra layer of complexity. Raisins bring an undertone of dark, fruity sweetness. Falling at the lower end of the alcohol range, this one will carry you through an entire evening.
The name of Bad Weather Brewing Company’s winter warmer Ominous evokes the dread that accompanies an approaching winter storm. It starts with a brooding nose of caramel and toasted grain, with background notes of dry, bitter chocolate, plums and orange peel. On the palate, the chocolate comes to the front — almost too far to the front. I want more of the sweeter caramel and toasted flavors to carry over from the aroma. It’s a pleasant sipper nonetheless that leaves with lingering hints of vanilla, spice and dark fruit.
Spiced Ode from Olvalde Farm and Brewing Co. is a super-complex sipper. This spiced version of the brewery’s spruce-tinged rye porter, Ode to a Russian Shipwright, delivers layer upon layer of sensory stimulation. Peat-like smoke mingles with brisk pine and intense herbal notes. Anise, cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla all make an appearance. Taken together it brought to mind the singular taste of horehound hard candy. Let this one warm up a bit to really bring those flavors out.
Hefty mouth feel and 9.5 percent alcohol make Fulton’s Worthy Adversary Imperial Stout a formidable foe to the cold. It’s as full-flavored as it is mouth-filling. Dry, chocolaty roast and blackstrap molasses lead the way. That is almost balanced by a hint of caramel sweetness, but like Bad Weather’s brew a bit more would be welcome. Prominent alcohol smooths as it warms in the glass, making this one to sip and savor over a couple of hours.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.