Winter is a fun time for craft beer. Brewers, free from the summer tasting room frenzy, find the time to experiment and brew more labor-intensive beers. While many beer folks go looking for boozy, sweet comforts of imperial stouts and spiced Christmas ales, there’s plenty of room for beers that are outside of what you’d consider a winter beer.
Take, for example, Beelzebubbles from Banded Horn. The style of this beer sounds straightforward – a steinbier – but the process is one of the most unique in beer. Originating in Germany, and remaining popular in colder climates, the process of making a steinbier involves adding hot rocks directly into to the wort (the unfermented beer). Other than the fun of watching the sizzle and boil that would result, why would anyone want to do this? Caramelization. Imagine a crème brulee dessert. The hard shell on the top is where flames have melted and hardened the sugar on top of the custard, creating that delicious burnt sugar flavor. The sugars in the wort can be caramelized slightly by this process, creating both a roasty and sugary flavor. Beelzebubbles pours a deep reddish brown, but tastes nothing like a stout or porter. Its got some sweetness, but not in any way that is cloying or off-putting. Mostly, it is a roasty, malt-forward German beer that has some distinct notes of vanilla, roasted malts and a little bit of that caramelized sugar. At festivals, particularly in the winter, I’ve seen brewers put hot pokers into the fire and dip them into malty beers hoping to achieve a similar effect. While I think the thrill of sticking a hot poker into your beer is fun, only do this if you’re sure you have a sturdy ceramic or non-glass vessel. Glassware tends not to react too kindly to extreme temperature changes.
On the other side of the spectrum is the latest trend in IPAs, the brut IPA. Rather than following the lead of their juicy New England IPA cousins, brut IPAs are designed to be dry. Brewers creating brut IPAs use special enzymes that break down the leftover complex sugars into simpler ones that yeast are able to digest. That makes sure that all the sugars that can be consumed are gobbled up – leaving behind the “dry” characteristic that has a mouthfeel similar to champagne (hence, the name). The enzymes are more typically used in stouts to clean up the sugars, but some clever brewers figured out how to apply it to the hoppier beers and brut IPAs were born. While they have grown in popularity nationally, there are still only a trickle of brewers making them in Maine. My favorite so far is the 1911 Extra Brut from Liquid Riot Bottling Co. The first thing that might strike you is the beer’s clarity – you can clearly read text through the other side of the glass, which is far from possible with the hazy-to-opaque New England IPAs. What I like most, however, is that it finishes so cleanly. There’s a burst of tight hops, a wash of pine hop flavor and then it zips away and leaves me feeling refreshed. Named after the Champagne Riots in France in 1911, Liquid Riot has also succeeded in weaving history into a brand new beer style.
Whenever my geekiest beer friends see “triple IPA” as a descriptor for a beer, they snicker a little and say something like, “What does that even mean?” Double IPAs were so named for having double the typical amount of hops in a beer, so the Triple IPA implies that there are even more than that. But, lacking a real style guideline (there is no current entry in the beer judging guidelines for triple IPA), you can interpret triple IPA to mean hops – and lots of them. I picked up the Blanc XXXmas from Bunker Brewing Co. because of its festive, holiday sweater-themed label. Later, I noticed that in addition to being generously hopped, it is also 9.5 percent alcohol. Bunker based this beer on its successful IPA, Blanc, which is more than worth your time to seek out if you haven’t run across it yet. But Blanc XXXmas is a delight in and of itself. When you drink it, you’ll be hit with a waterfall of hops that all blend together in harmony. Its alcohol content is not obvious in its taste profile, so it might sneak up on you if you’re not too careful. With its alcohol content and strong piney notes, I think this one is just as good for a cold winter’s night as any barrel-aged stout could be.