Hophead: Warmers, Porters And Stouts To Make The Season Merry And Dark

While last week's Hophead focused on just a very few of the great Christmas beers available this time of year, this week's is a more general look at winter seasonal beers along with beers that are well suited to drinking by the fireplace or in a warm pub escaping the cold.

Here, "cold" means any temperature under 60 degrees. Living in North Texas during the winter shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying a warmer.

Here are a few I've enjoyed so far this season.

Rahr Whiskey Warmer
This one is a real treat if you can find it. I tried it at The Libertine last week, but don't know how long the keg would last at the Lower Greenville beer-lover's destination. The Fort Worth brewery ages its strong (9.5 percent ABV) English ale Winter Warmer in bourbon casks--this year, in Maker's Mark barrels--and distributes a limited number of the kegs. It's a dark brown, cola-colored brew with a creamy, foamy off-white head that leaves lingering lacing behind. There's a strong presence of caramel, vanilla, oak and roasted malts. While there's a little alcohol warmth, the ABV is pretty well-hidden, though the bourbon is very prominent on the nose and is especially noticeable in the finish. It's like a beer with a whiskey chaser.

Real Ale Shade-Grown Coffee Porter
While the beer was promising, my experience with this one at last week's firkin-tapping at the Libertine was disappointing. Libertine owner Simon McDonald said the Real Ale rep was disappointed upon taping this particular firkin and finding it flat. A bartender tried to spin it, though, saying the style was meant to be flat and that they intentionally did not hook it up to the bar's CO2 system. Also, the Real Ale rep added an extra cup of fresh coffee to the small keg, which made the coffee flavor even more pronounced. A few roasted malt notes aside, coffee was just about all I could taste in this thick black beer. Very satisfying, though, and not too sweet or bitter for such a stout beer. This used to be draft only, but this fall was released in bottles for the first time. It was promising enough that I'll give it another shot.

Rogue Chocolate Stout
Thick and cloudy, this chocolate stout poured a dark tan-brown head and a body that was absolutely black, letting no light shine through. This one really drove home the importance of letting a stout warm up before drinking. My first impression as it was still cold out of the fridge was that it was disappointingly bitter with way more hop presence than necessary. Even at over 50 degrees, the bitterness was a bit much. I figured that if you've got your own hop farm, as Rogue does, the temptation to use a bunch of hops must be overwhelming. But as it warmed, the hops softened and the chocolate malts and added bittersweet dark chocolate really came to the forefront. In fact, the nose is exactly like the smell of ripping open a packet of Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix. Overall, it's a very good stout bordering on great as it approaches room temperature. But I preferred Oskar Blues Ten FIDY and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout this year.

Young's Winter Warmer
Picked this up for about $4 for a half-liter at Sigel's. It's a nice, well-balanced ale with a tan head and reddish brown body, soft bready malt flavor and a gently bittersweet finish. But considering the price and middling 5.2 percent ABV, it's a bit too polite and, well, British for my taste.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
This Russian Imperial has been my favorite stout of the year. Viscous, rich, thick, complex, bitter, sweet and packing a 10+ percent ABV punch, it's a meal, dessert and nightcap all in one. Flavors include roasted dark malts, dark chocolate syrup, dark berries and espresso. The body is like liquid velvet dancing on the tongue. I wasn't sure whether to drink it or make love to it. Wonderful beer--and infinitely superior to the mediocre Scottish ale that Brooklyn is calling its "Winter Ale" this year. Pick some up pronto.

Oskar Blues Ten FIDY
The only thing wrong with this impy stout is how maddeningly hard it was to find. According to a beer buyer at Central Market a few weeks back, Ben E. Keith ran out of this almost immediately. Whether or not that's true, I've only managed one can so far, at ... well, I hesitate to say where, but it was at a bar in Oak Cliff that rhymes with Chemo's Cavern. Creamy, thick, black with appropriate dark chocolate, roasted malt and bitter coffee notes, it was a very close second to Brooklyn's Black Chocolate Stout in my book.