As we all knew it would, cold weather has returned to Minnesota. Love it or hate it, its arrival means more time indoors, which is compounded by pandemic restrictions that have once again shuttered places that might otherwise have drawn us out of our hovels, and limited the amount of socializing we can do.
But if we have to stay home, we might as well enjoy it. It offers us an opportunity to slow down and perhaps enjoy life's simpler pleasures, like good food and drink. And there is hardly a better accompaniment for such a contemplative existence than big, boozy, barrel-aged beers.
Poured into a snifter, these are beers to savor through an evening, their complexities evolving as the minutes tick by. Extremely high alcohol levels and a full, creamy body make them fit for sharing. A full 12-ounce bottle is a lot for one person to take on. And a word to the wise, don't drink these beers ice cold. Let the bottle rest on the counter for several minutes before you pour: The flavor layers revealed will be ample reward for the wait.
Plaid Habit from Boulevard Brewing Co. out of Kansas City, Mo., has the most seamless melding of whiskey and beer I have ever tasted. Both elements are apparent in this imperial brown ale aged in Canadian whiskey barrels but merge together on the palate as a single entity, one the perfect complement to the other. Bitter chocolate offers a subtle counterpoint to the loads of caramel from whiskey and malt. Date and apple fruitiness add layers of complexity to this luxurious sipper.
The annual Cave-Aged Barrel-Aged beer from Schell's Brewery in New Ulm, Minn., is a nod to the early days when its lagers were aged in icy caves below the brewery. A big Baltic porter-style lager, this beer leads with the flavors of black, dark-roast coffee, with secondary notes of caramel, oak and bitter chocolate. Look for hints of raisin to join the show as you make your way through the glass. A touch of bitter malt roast gives a drying impression to the semisweet finish.
Two years of Surly Brewing's annual anniversary releases are now on store shelves. The Minneapolis brewery's 13 is a sweet and massive mouthful. The big imperial stout is brewed with vanilla bean and lactose, a non-fermentable sugar that brings added body and a touch of sweetness. It is then aged in maple barrels for good measure. The result is a thick, rich brew that drips with dark chocolate, vanilla and maple, barely cut by notes of roasted malt. It brought to mind a slice of chocolate cake topped with a sugary vanilla maple frosting. It's tasty, but definitely one for sharing. A little bit goes a long way.
Surly's Fourteen, an American barley wine aged in Parker Heritage wheat whiskey barrels, is also massive, but much easier to drink. Whiskey and caramel lead, with hints of chocolate and vanilla right behind. Notes of dried apricot and orange peel add interest. It's slightly sweet in the mouth, but finishes dry with lingering citrus-pith bitterness and wood. It all comes together for a deliciously and aggressively complex brew.
If you enjoy an Old Fashioned, you will probably like the Oakspire Old Fashioned Bourbon Barrel Ale from Colorado-based New Belgium. An imperial amber ale and bourbon barrel char provide a sumptuous caramel base. Orange and bitters invoke the cocktail, with subtle cherry completing the picture. Serve this with an orange peel garnish. It's seriously delicious.
Lift Bridge Brewing in Stillwater also included an Old Fashioned-inspired beer as one of three variations on this year's Commander barley wine, along with the original and piña colada.
The original Commander barley wine is an iconic mainstay among local barrel-aged beers. Luxuriously smooth and lightly warming, it's a full-on avalanche of caramel malt and bourbon. A subtle touch of cardamom gives light spicy notes that blend well with faint hints of orange, apricot and plum. Additional barrel character leans toward leather and old wood.
Commander Old Fashioned is brewed with natural orange and cherry flavors. It's more of an homage to the cocktail than an imitation. The orange is fairly strong, giving the impression of a high-end, orange-flavored caramel candy; the cherry is more subtle. The additional flavors brought out chocolate notes that aren't readily apparent in straight Commander.
Piña Colada Commander is the least successful of the variations. The coconut flavor addition works well with the base beer, adding sweet nuttiness to the caramel and whiskey. The pineapple has a syrupy, canned fruit flavor. It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't seek it out.
Guinness Gingerbread Spiced Stout delivers exactly what the name implies. Spices dominate the profile. Ginger, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg combine with subtle caramel and bitter roast to give a true impression of gingerbread. Whiskey, aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, is not apparent, except for light whiffs in the finish. Notes of raisin, cherry and licorice come in as the beer warms in the glass.
The Barrel Aged Dark Fatha imperial stout from Bent Brewstillery in Roseville is finished in bourbon barrels. This one is all vanilla and chocolate cookies. While sweet on the palate, it dries in the finish with a touch of lingering roast. The 12% alcohol leaves a satisfying warmth on the way down.
At 15 to 18% alcohol, Dogfish Head's Bourbon Barrel Aged World Wide Stout is a massive beer, but one that is remarkably smooth. Coffee and milk chocolate lead the way, joined by complex layers of bourbon, vanilla, licorice, blackstrap molasses and old wood. The profile gets fruitier as it warms, with notes of pears and cherries making an appearance. This Delaware-based beer is a delicious mouthful, but definitely one to be sipped and shared.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer-tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.