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Stiff Winter Brews

When the mercury dips, up the alcohol

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Winter is here, and that means cooler weather. (We can’t really say cold—it is Florida, after all.) Get ready for cozy fireplaces, footed jammies and, of course, winter warmers and barleywines. It wouldn’t be a Folio Beer column without some history, so stoke the coals and settle in for a tale of  two wintertime staples.

Barleywines have been around in one form or another since the 18th century. Typically brewed by the butlers of well-to-do British families, this strong ale wouldn’t go into mass production until the Bass Brewery created Bass No. 1 in 1903. The style is characterized by alcohol levels in excess of 8 percent—sometimes even as high as 12 percent. Bass No. 1 boasted a 10 percent ABV. According to a 1909 issue of the Aberdeen Journal, doctors often recommended the bevvy for their patients as “a sustaining and nourishing food-beverage for the winter months, and for such persons as need a safe pure malt liqueur.”

“The beer possesses a decidedly nourishing value,” the Journal continued, “and more so than many so-called nourishing stouts.”

Over the years, though, barleywines have fallen out of favor with English drinkers. Only a few remain in production in Dear Old Blighty today.

Old Foghorn, made by San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company, holds the distinction of being the first American barleywine. Brewers carefully studied British recipes and methods to produce this amber-hued libation with aromas of apple, cherry and caramel and robust malty flavors, braced with a slightly bitter hops finish. Another outstanding American barleywine is Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. This brew is true to the style, with lots of flavor and tons of hop goodness. Bitter, oily, sweet and earthy, Bigfoot is a beer to be sipped and enjoyed slowly.

The winter warmer is another season-specific beer. Like barleywine, this style of beer also originated in England, where peasants solicited drink from their feudal lords through song. The tradition was called wassailing, and it earned the wassailer a cup of strong, warming beer.

That warming sensation is from the brew’s high alcohol content. Though not as stiff as barleywine, winter warmers typically range from 6 to 8 percent ABV (though they can go as high as 10 percent). They typically display a malty profile with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger or allspice.

One excellent example of a British winter warmer is Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. In 1990, this fine beer was welcomed as the first warmer to be imported into the United States. The brew has a strong biscuit flavor, with caramel and toffee notes as well as dark fruits and spices. Another winter warmer to look for is 21st Amendment Brewery’s Fireside Chat. Another San Francisco treat, the ale contains the caramel and toffee notes so common in the style, combined with cinnamon and nutmeg. Serve with rich desserts or meats.

Now that you know some of the history behind these two highly alcoholic and rich brews, head on out and pick up a few bottles for the cold winter nights ahead. If the alcohol and spices don’t warm you, just wait … Florida’s winter climate will warm again in a few days.

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