Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Three prime winter beer styles: Imperial Stout, Barley Wine, Doppelbock.

A menacing queue forms before me.

It is comprised of well-intentioned nutritionists, crusading physicians, profiteering diet planners and congenital killjoys. In this nastiest of personal nightmares, they have gathered to demand that I eschew the habits of my expansive past, to convert, to see the light … to eat and drink “right.”

Stubborn and unrepentant, I point defiantly to the thermometer. It’s not a fit night out for man or beast; Louisville is cold. Salade Nicoise, gazpacho, watermelon and corn on the cob all seem inadequate. Waxen imitation veggies need not apply.

No! I want food to warm the bones, to arouse the slumbering genes of my ancestors on the steppes and in the forest, those enduring and resourceful people who during winter reached for the pickled vegetables, delved into cellar for potatoes, beets and onions, and cracked open stocks of salted beef and fish.

I demand the hearty ingredients for soups, stews, goulash, cabbage rolls and casseroles.

Furthermore, I want beer styles to match them! Beer that is cool, not cold; strong, not puny; challenging, not simple.

Winter provides the most suitable conditions for sampling and studying the heavyweight classics that have come to us from the various Old World brewing cultures and in turn have been embraced and redefined by America’s innovative microbrewers.

Among these are multi-faceted imperial stouts, deeply affecting barley wines, and big, brawny German “double” bocks. Not only do these beer styles provide ample warming for bodies iced and chilled in the great outdoors, but they also stick to the food that sticks to your bones when it matters most.

Imperial Stout.

Just as exuberantly hoppy India Pale Ale evolved along the shipping lanes from Great Britain to toasty colonial India, robust and jet-black Imperial Stout was adopted by English brewers and traders as the ideal export beverage for cooler northerly markets in Russia and the port cities of the Baltic Sea.

Highly alcoholic, displaying intensely roasted and deeply fruity flavors, Imperial Stout is perhaps the only style of beer that can be termed “thick as oil” without a trace of exaggeration.

Originally top-fermented, Imperial Stout spawned numerous imitators all along the shores of the blustery, chilly Baltic, the survivors of which are often designated as Porters and are brewed as lager beers, eliminating ale’s fruity esters but retaining the style’s signature full-bore intensity.

It is often recommended that Imperial Stout accompany desserts, but I favor staples of Northern European and Scandinavian cuisine, especially fish like smoked salmon or mackerel, served with buttered new potatoes with dill, and perhaps an opening course of pickled vegetables.

Samuel Smith Imperial Stout remains the best readily available English example, but for an incredible glimpse into the tastes of the past, search for A. Le Coq Double Imperial Stout – elusive, expensive, but singular. Bell’s Expedition Stout (Michigan) and Stone Imperial Stout (California) are fine American versions. Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing Company annually releases Imperial Stout, and the New Albanian Brewing Company in New Albany brews Solidarity, a textbook Baltic-style Porter.

Barley Wine.

In archaic Brit-speak, the term “barley wine” refers rather vaguely to a style of high-gravity ale with an alcoholic strength approaching that of wine. Interpretations faithful to the English ale making tradition are noteworthy for their complex maltiness, tending toward flavors like caramel, biscuit and sherry.

English examples are less alcoholic and not as aggressive as American microbrewed adaptations, which in addition to mouth-filling malt usually emphasize sticky and citrusy West Coast-style hops, and as a result are massive in every respect. Unlike most other beers, bottled Barley Wine can be aged and its vintages compared and contrasted.

Barley Wines are wintertime fireplace ales writ large, served at cellar temperature, for contemplative armchair sipping with a captivating novel, perhaps some mixed nuts, certainly a cheese plate, and even a cigar closer to the end of the session so as to permit a proper appreciation of the genre.

In ascending order of strength, look for Old Nick (U.K.), Anchor Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (both from California), and Rogue Old Crustacean (Oregon). Our most renowned local example is Bluegrass Brewing Company’s Bearded Pat’s Barley Wine, a two-time gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival, and a feather in the wool cap of brewer David Pierce.


Literally, a utilitarian meal in a glass, devised by monks and brewed at a high gravity with ample residual sugars for a sweet, full-bodied, belly-filling beverage that joyfully lessened hunger pangs during the Lenten fast. “Double bock” should have a burnished and rich brown color, a clean but complex malt flavor, and just enough noble German hops for balance.

By Bavarian tradition, Doppelbocks bear the “ -ator” suffix (in honor of Paulaner’s pioneering commercial entry, Salvator), and often are represented visually by a goat.

At around 7% abv, the style is less alcoholic than others in the same range, but more filling than most, and mankind has yet to create a sweetly malty beer that is better suited to accompany Bavarian-style Schweinehaxe, or pork knuckle, with its crisply chewy rind. It is the lager of choice for steaming tureens of bean, cabbage or sauerkraut soup, with or without pork.

Originals versions from the Old World are easy to find, among them Salvator and Spaten Optimator, both from Munich, and the glorious Celebrator, which is brewed by a smaller, family-owned brewery in Aying, located just south of the Bavarian metropolis.

(A version of the preceding originally was published in Food & Dining Magazine)

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