Suds with Sophie: Winter Beers to Warm Your Belly

By Sophie Nelson

While you’re snuggling up this winter during the seemingly endless snowfalls, make sure to pair the cold weather with the perfect winter beer. The classic recommendation is, of course, a rich, dark beer that will warm you up. I’ll help you navigate the many styles that are available this winter with brief summaries and my top recommendations. 

Barrel Aged

This refers to aging beer for an amount of time in contact with wood, whether that means adding wood chips or, more commonly, using wooden barrels. Barrel aging is done to transfer some of the wood’s flavors to the beer, so if you’re a bourbon, whiskey, wine (red or white), or gin fan, try a beer aged in a barrel that was previously used to make one of those. 

Because barrel-aged beer needs to be stored for a while, these beers tend to be higher in alcohol, but this isn’t a given – even some lighter styles can be barrel aged. Other possible barrel flavors include vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, coconut and sherry, among others.

For a good barrel-aged beer, try the classic Goose Island Bourbon County, which is aged in bourbon barrels and changes a little bit every round – different years have different flavors. Another option is Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, which has dark-fruit flavors. This wine-barrel-aged version of the staple from the Beligian-style brewery is more than 9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and insanely smooth. 

Russian Imperial Stout

Before refrigeration was a possibility in transportation, one way to preserve beer on long voyages was to increase its alcohol content. One of the destinations for strong, dark beers from England was Russia, and especially the Russian court of Catherine the Great. (Those folks were big fans of these boozy drinks.) This led to increased exports of the accurately named Russian imperial stout: full-bodied, dark stouts that have a chocolate and coffee flavor with minimal bitterness and rich, sherry sweetness. 

Try the cult-favorite North Coast Old Rasputin for a smooth booziness and rich alcohol warming. Tastes of dark fruit, coffee, tobacco and malty goodness will warm you right up. Also try Worthy Adversary from Fulton for minimal booziness and a rich, smooth coffee and chocolate malt body. 

Stouts and Porters

Although often confused, there’s a difference between stouts and porters, but it’s not a cut-and-dried explanation. The first of these was the English porter, named for the dock workers in England siswho drove the obsession with this brown, malty and relatively cheap ale. The craze quickly spread throughout Europe and even became a huge player in the Industrial Revolution as the first industrially produced beer. 

The style faced hardships, however, when industrialization inevitably led to product cheapening and the loss of the original flavor. Advances in malting technology then led to the increased popularity of a stout porter – a stronger version of the original that quickly became the more popular of the two and, eventually, was referred to simply as stout.

After a few hundred more years, additional technological developments and an American craft movement, the original ABV distinction between the two was lost, and both styles now overlap in a variety of ways. A common – but not standard – differentiator these days is in the malt characteristics: Porters tend to be sweeter than stouts. If you think of porters as coffee, then stouts are espresso.

If you’re into stouts, try the Stone Brewing Stone Xocoveza. This is the cream of the crop of Mexican hot-chocolate stouts. It tastes like a rich, chocolate dessert with a contrasting spice – pasilla peppers – and complementary cinnamon and nutmeg additions. Renegade Brewing Company’s Pancakes Maple Porter is also quite a treat. Take a sip, and you’ll swear you’re eating pancakes with maple syrup and lots of butter. It’s not overly heavy, though, and has a great balance, so you can easily get carried away.

Sophie Nelson. Submitted.

Door County local Sophie Nelson is the county’s first certified cicerone (pronounced sis-eh-rohn), which is beer’s equivalent to a wine sommelier. She’s spent several years traveling and working with beer in various capacities all over the world, and she currently works at Door County Brewing Co. in Baileys Harbor. You can follow her on Instagram at @a_beer_abroad.