January is the most bitter month in Minnesota. Some hardy souls see it as a time to head outdoors for skiing, snowshoeing and other winter sports. For the more bear-like among us, January's arrival means hibernation -- curling up in the warmth of hearth and home.
But an aversion to cold needn't mean an avoidance of beer. While frosty mugs may not be in order, there are plenty of rich and warming brews perfectly suited to check the chill, whether you're gathered around the fireplace or the fire pit.
Barleywine is one such beer style -- so named because the alcohol content approaches that of wine. Barleywine traces its roots to strong ales brewed on English estates as far back as the 15th century. These are what I call "snifter sippers." Mouth-filling and malty, they benefit from the round bowl of a snifter that lets them breathe. Savor them slowly and experience how they change through the course of an evening.
One of my favorites from England is J.W. Lee's Harvest Ale. This is what English barleywine is all about. Malt character is immensely deep and complex, dripping with rich caramel and dark fruits. It is only just balanced by subtle hop bitterness. You'll often see vintage bottles in stores. This beer ages well. The bitterness fades in aged examples, leaving a sweeter beer. Sherry-like oxidative notes and warming alcohol give it the quality of fine liqueur.
A little extra flavor
In this country it has become common for brewers to age barleywine in used whiskey barrels -- often for a year or more. The beer takes on the character of the barrel's former contents. Commander is one such brew, made by Stillwater's Lift Bridge Brewery. It's a blend of beers aged for up to 18 months in barrels from the Heaven Hill bourbon distillery. Commander unleashes a cascade of flavors in your mouth, including toffee, brown sugar, vanilla and bourbon. Sweetness is tempered by the balancing spice of alcohol. Subtle citrus fruitiness from cardamom and orange peel add some brighter highlights.
Another Minnesota-made sipper in stores right now is Brau Brothers Rye Wyne -- a barleywine with a twist of rye. A generous portion of rye malt and time spent in Templeton Rye barrels lend this velvety-smooth brew a sharp, spicy bite. Sweet caramel leads off with vanilla playing backup. As the beer warms, flavors such as milk chocolate, raisins and molasses join in to round things out. Each sip of this complex beer made me anxiously anticipate the next.
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 email@example.com.