Like the season itself, winter beers are a little darker and heavier than their fair-weather counterparts. And, while some beer lovers are content to stick with their go-to pale lager beers year round, others find their palates turning toward something a bit more robust, flavorful and warming - a beer to be savored and celebrated in true holiday fashion. As the traditional carol reminds us, 'tis the season to be jolly, and few things make the heart jollier than a pint of dark, flavorful ale.
As years pass, Southern Illinoisans are treated to more and more variety when it comes to winter seasonal beers on local store shelves. Now, more than ever, the adventurous imbiber can indulge in a plethora of dark, strong and spicy beers brewed to evoke the spirit of the
holidays. In keeping with this spirit, here are a couple of robust beer styles to consider this year for your own holiday merriment.
Originally brewed by German monks in 17th century Berlin, Doppelbock is a beer style rich in both history and flavor. Technically a lager (identified by the type of yeast used to ferment the beer), the Doppelbock style has very little in common with the beers most often associated with the term ‘lager' these days.
The color is a rich gold to ruddy brown and crystal clear with a voluminous head of caramel-colored foam. The aromas are reminiscent of toasted bread, caramel, molasses and even a hint of chocolate. Like the nose, doppelbocks are malt-heavy and display flavors consistent with the aroma of the beer.
Doppelbocks are strong beers, typically in the 7 to 10 percent ABV range, and they are meant to be savored and enjoyed for their satisfying qualities. In fact, the monks of St. Francis of Paula drank Doppelbock beer to sustain them during lengthy fasts. While you might not wish to attempt the same, you might try one with food, particularly with a cow's milk cheese, such as Brie or Havarti or a rich Crème Brûlèe.
The name Doppelbock, by the way, means "double bock," with "bock" referring either to the German word for goat or, as some believe, a corruption of the name of the city, Einbeck, where some of the first examples of this style were brewed.
Belgian Dark Strong Ale
Some of the most highly rated and sought after beers in the world belong to the Belgian Dark Strong Ale family. One in particular, known as Westvleteren 12, is so rare that it can be legally purchased only at the Trappist brewery monastery of St. Sixtus in the West Flanders province of Belgium, and then only during very narrowly defined times. Fortunately, however, several other monastic and secular breweries in Belgium export fine examples of the style that are much more available to the average beer drinker.
One of the strongest ale styles, Dark Strong Ale, is characterized by pronounced dark fruit flavors and high alcohol levels, occasionally rivaling wine strength. The beer pours a dark amber to brown color with good clarity and a rocky sand-colored head that persists well.
On the nose, expect an immensely complex combination of raisins, plums and figs, along with a distinct spiciness and notes of alcohol. The palate is similar to the nose, with sweet malts, dark fruit and spice dominating up front with warming alcohol smoothing out the finish. Because of their strength and bold flavors, try pairing a Dark Strong Ale with Blue cheese or a rich bread pudding.
There are only six breweries in Belgium and one in the Netherlands that carry the official "Trappist" appellation. This designation denotes beers brewed by an active monastic order at its own facility. Other similar beers, often labeled "Abbey" beers, are brewed by secular breweries and are not under the direct oversight of a Trappist order.
SHAWN CONNELLY writes for Beer Connoisseur magazine; he is a craft and specialty beer retail consultant and an award-winning home brewer. Read his blog at beerphilosopher.com.