Winter Brew Review
By Hans Maldando with an assist by Dr. Joe Lauer. Photos by JJ Kaplan
As the cool crisp nights of fall have given way to the frigid air and frosted treetops of winter, the warmth that comes from a robust glass of beer seems all the more comforting. Thankfully, craft brewers of the world are ready to respond to our thirst with a variety of malt-driven and sometimes highly alcoholic beers.
This month’s review will be looking at the history of Porter, Stout and Barleywine. That’s right, I said wine. Actually, there are no grapes in Barleywine, and it is, in fact, more beer than the later. Porter, Stout and Barleywine are all progeny of the British brewing tradition of the 1700s-1800s. The beginnings of Porter predate the development of Stout, and one might even argue that without Porter, there would be no Stout.
The origins of Porter can be confusing as there is some disagreement over the details, but I will attempt to wade through the muck and the mire and offer a clearer explanation. In 18th century London, it was common practice for barmen to create blended beers upon customer request as there were several different types of beer available at most pubs. The men who transported goods throughout the city were called porters. They are said to have been fond of a particular blend which was very likely to include both young and old beer with the latter being nearly undrinkable on its own.
Brewers decided to eliminate the need for blending by brewing the beer so that it would taste like the blended version. This explanation is sometimes referred to as the “three threads,” and there is some debate as to whether the story is truly accurate, but it was widely accepted for well over 100 years. I would speculate that, while it may not have been a linear path, each element of the story is independently grounded in some truth.
These early porters would have significantly differed from later examples in that coffee roasting technology had not yet been applied to the malting of barley, hence, there was no such thing as roasted barley. While the earliest porters would have ranged in color from light amber to dark brown, the development of roasted malt in 1817 fueled a change in the color and flavor of porter.
With a darker color and a more robust and roasty, sometimes bordering on bitter, flavor, this new style of beer would hide cloudiness and imperfections in flavor better than its ancestors, thus making Porter poised to take advantage of the increasingly efficient transportation of goods and people throughout England and, indeed, the rest of the world as well.
Today, many people view Porter and Stout as two distinctly different styles of beer. However, for most of each of the respective style’s existence, this has not been the case. A particularly strong version of Porter came to be known as “Stout Porter,” and at some point, the latter word was eliminated from the term. It has been argued that the differentiation began with the development of roasted malt in 1817. Even today, a proper English Porter is more dark brown than it is black, whereas in America, Porter is often just as dark as Stout.
In the 1900s, England began to tax beer based on its alcoholic strength, thus leading to the taming of Porter’s flavor profile and alcohol content. Stout Porter remained true to its roots, and if it had not happened already, there was a separation of styles. Porter continued to become lighter, and what was formerly called Stout Porter came to be known as simply Porter.
As long as there has been beer, there has been a place for very strong beer. In the days of yore, alcoholic strength was somewhat of a necessity if beer was to remain unspoiled as the sanitation practices of the past leave much to be desired.
Old brewing practices also dictated that there be more than one batch of beer produced during a brewing session with each successive batch getting weaker than the previous one. As alcohol is a preservative, the strongest beer would not only keep the longest before spoiling, but as it aged, it could be capable of developing a complexity of flavor that could rival some of the fine wines of France. Given the historical frequency of war between England and France, it was a wise idea on the part of the British to find a suitable replacement for French wine.
The term “Barleywine” was first placed on a beer label in 1903 by the Bass Brewery to describe Bass No. 1 Ale, although the term had certainly been in use for many decades prior. Today, many Barleywines of England and America are labeled with the vintage, as many of the finest examples will improve over a period of years.
My good friend, Dr. Lauer, and I have been fortunate enough to have been provided with some of the finer examples of Porter, Stout and Barleywine that are available in the Indianapolis area – plus a particularly special offering from our friends at Bier Brewery. So, on to the beer!
Hans: I have never been one to allow the weather to influence my choice of food or drink, so for me during the winter months, I am just as likely to reach for a pilsner as I am to reach for a stout. I do, however, look forward to the best examples of the malt-driven beers so widely produced during these months.
Joe: As I prefer bigger beers in general, I certainly look forward to wintertime beers to provide the kick in the tastebuds that I am looking for. I shan’t be one to miss the flabby sessionable IPAs of summer or the forgettably simple Oktoberfests of fall.
H: You are a blasphemer!
Alpha Klaus Porter (Three Floyd’s)
Appearance: Voluminous and lingering head with gorgeous lacing. Almost black with some dark reddish edges.
Aroma: Initial burst of chocolate with lots of piney hops.
Taste: The piney and bitter American hops dominate. The chocolatey malt flavors remain in the background.
Drinkability: At 7.5%ABV, don’t drink too many!
Hans: I have always enjoyed this beer, and it seems to have remained consistent throughout the years.
Joe: I agree, it has been a perennial favorite of mine as well.
H: I actually like this beer either incredibly fresh or with a year of age on it.
J: We agree so often!
Vanilla Smoked Porter (Stone)
Appearance: Dark brown but not the darkest brown.
Aroma: Combination of smoke and vanilla.
Taste: Being that vanilla can be a strong flavor, it is actually used quite modestly in this beer. There is a complex malt profile of roasted grain and coffee.
Mouthfeel: Full bodied
Drinkability: Maybe not so drinkable on its own due to the richness of flavor, but with the appropriate chocolate dessert, this would be magical.
Hans: I found the vanilla character to be restrained by the smoke in this beer, which was a pleasant surprise for me. The smoke was also well integrated into the overall flavor profile of this beer.
Joe: I found the smoke to be quite dominant and the vanilla too subtle. I think that is because I enjoy a bigger vanilla flavor and less smoke.
H: And I am the opposite in that I love smoke in my beer but have a slight disdain for the presence of vanilla.
J: This would be great with brownies with chipotle peppers!
Barrel Aged Teddy Bear Kisses (Upland)
Appearance: Not as dark as one might expect for a stout like this. Slight reddish tint around the edges.
Aroma: Complex smell of roasted malt and coffee combined with bourbon, oak and vanilla.
Taste: Slightly bitter roasted flavors quickly give way to the characteristics of the bourbon barrel. Deeply complex.
Mouthfeel: Full bodied, but the viscosity is restrained for a beer of this style.
Drinkability: This beer shows no sign of it 10%+ABV.
Hans: I have not always enjoyed the regular Teddy Bear Kisses, but this barrel aged version has been so outstanding that I must revisit the regular version.
Joe: I agree. The slightly bitter roasted nature of this beer would be unpleasant if not for the bourbon barrel flavors. As it is, the bitterness is followed nicely by some sweetness.
Double Cream Stout (Bell’s)
Appearance: Almost black with some dark brown at the edges. Good head retention and lacing.
Aroma: Roasty with a hint of sweet cream.
Taste: Roasty and complex, just enough sweetness.
Mouthfeel: Light-medium body
Drinkability: Not too sweet for this type of stout, so drinkability is good.
Hans: I was shocked to see that this is not a milk stout.
Joe: Me too, although I don’t hate milk stout like you do.
H: This beer has been more complex than I expected.
J: I have always enjoyed this beer.
Harvest Ale Calvados Cask (2006)
Appearance: Minimal head as expected.
Aroma: Rich and sweet English Barley, hint of apple.
Taste: Complex. Sweet and warming. Caramel and toffee flavors, apple and leather.
Mouthfeel: Thick and chewy, highly viscous.
Drinkability: If you like English Barleywine, this is near the pinnacle of the style. Drink up!
Hans: The non-barrel aged version of this beer is my favorite Barleywine on the planet! This is an acceptable substitute.
Joe: I prefer English Barleywine to its American version, and you are right about this being the cream of the crop of Barleywines.
Old Guardian 2013 (Stone)
Appearance: Light copper hue with complex lacing.
Aroma: Piney American hops with sweet malt.
Taste: Mostly bitter hops, some pine and citrus. Malt follows after onslaught of bitterness.
Mouthfeel: Thick and chewy.
Drinkability: Limited by bitterness and alcohol content.
Hans: I love this beer with five years of age on it. Right now, it is a hot chaotic mess.
Joe: Absolutely! This beer either needs several years to mellow or a pungent piece of cheese to go with it!
Barrel Aged Winter Warmer (Upland)
Appearance: Quite a vigorous head for a barrel aged beer. Deep, slightly reddish brown color.
Aroma: Rich barley malt, bourbon is merely an accent.
Taste: Tastes heavily of bourbon. Base beer is less perceptible than the aroma would seem to indicate.
Mouthfeel: Thinner than expected for a beer of this magnitude.
Drinkability: ABV is too high to drink a lot of this, but with the right cigar, this beer could go down quite easily.
Hans: After the Barrel-aged Teddy Bear Kisses, perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high for this beer; however, I am slightly disappointed.
Joe: I agree. It is not that this beer is bad. It is just that the BA Teddy Bear Kisses was so good.
H: Part of the art of barrel-aging is selecting the right barrel.
J: Indeed the barrels can vary drastically, thus sometimes leading to great variations in the final beer.
Belgian Quad (Not a Porter, Stout or Barleywine, just a great beer) Sanitarium (Bier Brewery)
Appearance: Dark Brown with hints of amber. Beautiful lace.
Aroma: Raisins and plums, lots of dried dark fruit.
Taste: Confirms the nose. Lots of raisins and dried fruit. No hops characteristics.
Mouthfeel: Incredibly attenuated, which is too say that the yeast consumed all of the sugar, or nearly all of it, during fermentation. This attenuation allows for the tiny and numerous champagne-like bubbles to take center stage. No cloying sweetness or syrupy finish.
Drinkability: If you got your hands on one of these bottles, consider yourself privileged. It was only sold at the brewery for a few hours, so drinkability is limited only by availability.
Hans: I was shocked when Bier sent us a bottle of this for the review.
Joe: It is flattering to have been sent a bottle of the Sanitarium. I only wish that we had another bottle to age for a year or two. I can hardly believe that this beer was 13%ABV.
H: The ABV was remarkably well-hidden. When Bier Brewery does Belgian styles, the mouthfeel in particular, but every other aspect of the beer as well is authentically Belgian.
J: The mouthfeel and attenuation are the two areas where most American attempts at reproducing Belgian styles fall short.
So as the winter drags on, look for those big powerful porters, stouts and brandywines that will be coming on line from local brewers through the season.