Imperial stouts. Irish stouts. American stouts. These are different things.

Image: Erik Skaar

NO ONE EVER SAYS, “I CAN'T WAIT FOR SUMMER BEERS, MAN.” Such is the theory of Scott Hansen, a seasoned beer guy and partner at Bellevue Brewing. Besides, brewers have more fun with winter’s beers than with any other style, and customers anticipate them more than any other pumpkin, fresh-hop, or raspberry-hued seasonal releases. 

And yet, winter beer is a bit of an anomaly in hop-happy Washington. “Brewers make what sells, and what sells is hoppy beers,” says Dean Hudgins, a partner in Capitol Hill’s glorious mortuary-turned-beer-temple the Pine Box. Traditionally winter beers favor nonhoppy flavors better suited to firesides and frost. Most of the season’s styles have roots in Great Britain, which mirrors Seattle’s chilly winter months, long nights, and gray skies. The beers are generally dark complected and so smooth it’s easy to underestimate their deeply boozy powers—perhaps that’s why even James Bond is a beer drinker as of his last film. A winter beer is meant to be sipped slowly, like a dry martini, and warm you from within.

For brewers there’s a certain challenge to making these complex, high-alcohol creations. They generally require way more ingredients and effort than a whoops-I-just-downed-three-bottles summertime ale. Which is why some of the best winter beers are made in small batches that cause a flurry when they’re released. And why many are great candidates for aging—in a bourbon barrel, a rum barrel, or your basement until next winter. This being Washington and all, plenty of local brewers still slip some hoppiness into the mix.

Here, a guide to the beers that fill our local bar taps and store shelves this time of year. (Hit up brewery websites for intel on where to find these brews; they tend to be fleeting of season.)

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Barleywines abound at Beveridge Place Pub.


Barleywine

The name is a nod to the winelike alcohol content, which is achieved with barley—lots and lots of barley—rather than grapes. Brewing this sweet, strong beer is a challenge, says Pike Brewing founder Charles Finkel, because it requires massive amounts of barley and malt and extended fermenting time to produce even a small quantity. Brewers originally made barley wines as a Christmas gift for their best customers, says Finkel. It eventually became a commercial beer, but one that usually appears only in small batches around the holidays. And much like a fine wine, barley wine is an ideal beer for aging, what with its high alcohol content. Pike Brewing holds an annual vertical tasting of its Old Bawdy barley wine so drinkers can compare how six releases from past years have mellowed and acquired depth with age. As barley wines caught on in the U.S., brewers began bestowing colorful names befitting its potency and its propensity for aging. You might be shocked (but probably not) to hear that West Coast styles tend to be hoppier than eastern versions.

LOCAL DOSSIER

Pike Brewing Old Bawdy
It dates back to 1990, and the easy drinking belies a nearly 10 percent alcohol content. The hops are subtle as the name—a nod to the brewery building’s history as a well-patronized brothel. pikebrewing.com

Anacortes Brewery Old Sebastes 
Seattle-area brewers geek out on this figgy-sweet powerhouse. It’s the product of four different barleys, and the alcohol clocks in at almost 10 percent.
anacortesrockfish.com/brewery.cfm

Big Time Brewing Company Old Wooly 
Brace yourself; this is a big one and on the drier side. A version has faithfully reappeared at the brewpub every December 1 since 1990, though bottles and drafts are usually gone in a flash. bigtimebrewery.com

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Porter

The optimal glassware for porters is a pint glass.

Image: Erik Skaar

According to legend, this dark beer is the namesake of hardworking(and presumably hard-drinking) London porters—and is a year-round style that arguably is at its best in cold weather. But perhaps the best way to understand a porter is to compare it to stout, since both offer roasty flavors. Adam Robbings is the founder of Reuben’s Brews in Ballard. He’s also a native Briton who enjoys parsing the technical points of beer styles—two qualities that make him an ideal person to break down the difference. First off, every beer should be about balance, he says—even an imperial IPA is about balancing hoppy bitterness with imperial’s malty, high-alcohol flavor. In Robbings’s words, “a stout is roast balanced by creaminess, while a porter is roast balanced by caramel” flavors. Most breweries include a porter in their lineup all year long.


Local Dossier

Flyers Pacemaker Porter
It seems unusual for a porter to be a brewery’s top seller here in IPA land. But this robust-styled version brings chocolate flavors without much sweetness and has a smidgen of hops to appeal to Northwest drinkers. eatatflyers.com

Big Al Smoked Porter
A bit of peated malt lends a scotchlike smokiness to an otherwise classic porter. But not so much that you feel like you just swallowed a campfire; this is about as sessionable as dark and smoky beer can get. bigalbrewing.com

Reuben’s Brews Robust Porter
A very traditional porter, Reuben’s robust has no roasted barley and derives its character—and its coffee and chocolate notes—from a multitude of malts. It’s newly available in bottles. reubensbrews.com

Reuben's Robust Porter—now available in bottles!


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The Pine Box pours up plenty of powerful small-batch brews.


Imperial

This is a maddeningly imprecise term that basically means, “Whoa, this beer is really freaking boozy.” The name comes from the potent brews England dispatched to the imperial court of Russia and European heads of state in the 1700s. Like a good empire, imperials are rich and strong and mercilessly powerful. Brewers can technically make an imperial version of any beer by brewing it with double or triple the amount of certain ingredients. And as with its sweeter cousin barley wine, this process demands way more time and effort. Alex Dittmar, owner of Airways Brewing in Kent, says he even lets his bottles of Final Departure imperial stout sit for a few weeks before consuming them so the heat from the alcohol can mellow. For all of these reasons, imperials flourish in winter, he says. “Nobody wants to drink an imperial stout in the middle of July.”

Local Dossier

Airways Brewing Company Final Departure Imperial Stout
This was first brewed in honor of 2012 Mayan doomsday predictions. But the world didn’t end, and neither did demand for the beer, so Airways is making it an annual release—full of coffee, chocolate, and a big blast of hops. Look for it December 21. airwaysbrewing.com

Scuttlebutt 10 Degrees Below
Here’s something you don’t see every day—an imperial wheat beer, technically a dark German dunkel weiss, or dunkel weizen, that somehow manages to careen between sweet, chocolate, bitter, and fruit. scuttlebuttbrewing.com

Black Raven Brewing Grandfather Raven
An imperial stout that’s chocolatey without being sweet. Seeking this out is a worthwhile challenge—that goes double for the once-a-year release of Great Grand-father Raven, a version aged more than a year in bourbon barrels. blackravenbrewing.com

Scuttlebutt 10° Below


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Winter Warmer

Serve up winter warmers in a snifter.

Image: Erik Skaar

A catchall way of describing dark beers brewed with a higher--than-average alcohol content—the better to warm you from within. “It’s more of a sipping beer,” says George Hancock, owner of Ballard mainstay Maritime Pacific Brewing Company. “It’s not going to be a chugalug, but then again, I have seen people chugalug Jolly.” He’s referring to Maritime’s Jolly Roger Christmas Ale, a seasonal standard since its debut in 1992, a more innocent time when 9 percent alcohol beer was a rarity. Beers like Oregon’s Deschutes Jubel-ale co-opted Northern European winter warmers as a Northwest tradition back in the late 1980s; today local breweries carry it on, often adding hops and gradually nudging the alcohol content upwards.




LOCAL DOSSIER

Maritime Pacific Jolly Roger Christmas Ale
Beware: This ruby-colored staple drinks like a lighter beer, yet packs a potent 8.9 percent alcohol content. It was designed to taste good now, or in a year—or 10. maritimebrewery.com

Dick’s Brewing Company Double Diamond Winter Ale
All the requisite malty, caramel flavors, plus a healthy jolt of hops, just to remind you that this is the Northwest -
dicksbeer.com

Lazy Boy Brewing Mistletoe Bliss
A brown ale take on the winter warmer with plenty of creamy caramel notes thrown in for good measure lazyboybrewing.com

Maritime Pacific Jolly Roger Christmas Ale


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Barrel Aged

This isn’t technically a style—it’s something brewers do to make an already enjoyable beer even more macho. According to Fremont Brewing lead brewer James McDermet, aging smooths out certain characteristics like hoppiness and the brashness of high alcohol. Remove those notes and you’re left with something awfully malty and sweet, but just as boozy; that’s when a wooden barrel, saturated with memories of its previous liquid occupant (most brewers favor bourbon), steps in, sharpening things up with flavors like oak or vanilla. High-alcohol winter beers lend themselves particularly well to aging, though all this extra time and labor means barrel-aged beers are typically found in small quantities; some, like the annual release of Fremont’s B-Bomb, are anticipated like Black Friday or Santa Claus.

 

LOCAL DOSSIER

Fremont Brewing B-Bomb
A special batch of the popular Abominable winter ale is made with extra alcohol to withstand a year in a bourbon barrel. Though the brewery tries to avoid overhyping its Decemberish release, bottles go fast. fremontbrewing.com

Schooner Exact Brewing Hoppy the Woodsman The brewery’s Hoppy Holidays winter ale emerges from a six-month barrel sojourn with a new bourbon-breathing personality and complex oaky notes. This is the first year Schooner is bottling its holiday tradition. schoonerexact.com

Two Beers Brewing Fall Line Russian Imperial Stout Part of a small, rotating lineup of specialty beers that show off what the SoDo brewery is capable of. The winter offering spent six months in a brandy barrel, plus another four on a mix of vanilla beans, Bing cherries, and cocoa nibs from Theo chocolate. twobeersbrewery.com

Brouwer's Bigwood festival begins December 5.




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Stout

Maylani's Coconut Stout is a tasting room favorite.

Okay. Fine. Technically this is also a year-round style of beer. Stouts appear almost pitch black in the glass, but their roasty flavors and creamy texture make for an easy-drinking companion during our grayer months. This style was originally a higher-octane (or “stouter”) version of porter, but now has its own identity, based on the slightly acrid coffee and chocolate flavors that come from roasted grains. Elysian cofounder Dick Cantwell recalls the brewery’s Dragonstooth Stout was the second beer he created, working by the light of a single bulb (the kind of setup you see in an auto repair shop) back in 1995 as contractors and plumbers were busy literally building the brewery around him. The stout is now an Elysian stalwart and a growing interest in craft beer has translated to a larger audience (and recently, increasing sales) for this classic style, he says. These days lots of brewers add in actual coffee and chocolate flavors. Or coconut, oatmeal, cardamom, pecans, oysters—you name it.

LOCAL DOSSIER

Airways Brewing Company Maylani’s Coconut Stout
A tasting room favorite is newly available in cans; it’s quite balanced, despite heady ingredients like Theo cocoa nibs and toasted coconut. airwaysbrewing.com

Iron Horse Brewery Cozy Sweater Vanilla Milk Stout
It was meant to be a onetime thing, but so many people asked after the vanilla-meets-coffee creation that it now returns every winter. ironhorsebrewery.com

Elysian Brewing Company Dragonstooth Stout
Over the years the workaday oatmeal stout morphed into an imperial version. A dash of hops complements rather than crowds all these big flavors. elysianbrewing.com

Elysian Brewing Company Dragonstooth Stout



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Hale's Wee Heavy Winter Ale

Scotch Ale

Their signature is in-your-face maltiness and sweetness—the calling cards of a winter ale, especially when backed up by high-octane alcohol content. At newcomer Bellevue Brewing, owners John Robertson and Scott Hansen were shocked when their scotch ale cemented itself as the brewery’s No. 2 seller, even in summer (here, as in most local breweries, IPA dominates). “It’s not an introductory beer in any way,” says Hansen of the 7.7 percent alcohol content. But because of Scotch ale’s sweetness, “it’s also immediately easy to drink.” And if you’re a marginalized Seattle resident who doesn’t care for hoppy beers, this copper-colored style is a godsend.


LOCAL DOSSIER

Silver City Fat Woody
The Bremerton brewery’s slightly smoky Fat Scotch Ale is superb, but this special-release version, aged for a month on chips of new oak, is life changing. silvercitybrewery.com

Hale’s Wee Heavy Winter Ale An unusual version for the style, with hoppy, floral notes has been around since 1985. halesbrewery.com

Bellevue Brewing Scotch Ale A dignified tug of war between sweet and hoppy notes, and awfully smooth given the booze factor. bellevuebrewing.com

Serve up scotch ales in a tulip glass.

 

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met under the title "Beers of Winter."

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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