Seasonal brewing highlights the creativity in many craft brewing portfolios, with a frequent nod to traditional brewing techniques and styles. Seasonal beers began not out of marketing but necessity. In the fermentation process, the precise combination of ingredients carries many beers from concept to style, but temperature also plays a large part. In the days before refrigeration, brewers relied on the seasons to do the work of stimulating yeast, stashing a brew in a root cellar or the attic of a farmhouse to produce the desired results.
Many people prefer dark, high-alcohol content beers in the winter for the warming effect. Traditionally, these beers begin in the fall when the temperatures begin to drop to a range where yeast activity peaks, and are reinforced with a strong alcohol content in order to resist degradation throughout the long winter season. Classic examples include Belgian Quadrupels, Russian Imperial Stouts and Baltic Porters, all strong, complex dark beers worthy of a bleak, dreary February day no matter where your locale.
Bostonians have several quality brewers and styles to turn to during a long, cold New England winter. Here are six local stouts and porters (and an honorable mention for a dunkelweizen, a doppelbock and a Quad) that I have enjoyed over the last few months, and will surely get you through another Nemo (or at the very least soothe your muscles after a bout of shoveling or the slopes).
Harpoon Brewery Baltic Porter. This annual release from the Leviathan Series consistently delivers a strong, well-balanced representation of the style. Many brewers do a Russian Imperial Stout in the winter (in fact, Harpoon began brewing Czernobog, an “American” Imperial Stout, in the Leviathan Series just this year) and work on the heavy date-and-fig combination found in many dark, strong beers (similar to Belgian Quads), but I prefer the lesser seen Baltic Porter style because it focuses on intense coffee and chocolate themes. These are well at work here, along with a subtle, creamy mouthfeel that masks the 9.5% ABV quite well. Also, this beer is the only one on the list available in 12 oz. bottles (sold locally in four-packs).
Blue Hills Brewery Three Peak Milk Stout. This is the first Blue Hills beer brewed that is not an original recipe from head brewer and co-owner Andris Veidis. The Three Peak Milk Stout was created by a team of interns at the brewery, and is a milk stout aged on oak chips to give it something of a bourbon-barrel aged feel. This beer is in its second year, and is great for those with a sweet tooth. Milk stouts get their name from the sugar used in the brew – lactose, which is the same sweetener that occurs naturally in milk. Three Peak has a full body, and a touch of sweetness that plays well with a feint coconut flavor that develops from the oak. At a moderate strength (7.6% ABV), grab some homemade oatmeal raisin cookies and crack open a bottle to share with someone – preferably with a fire on and snow falling outside.
Canton-based Blue Hills also bottles a Dunkelweizen, an enjoyably malty wheat beer brewed for fans of the lighter hefeweizen style looking for a dark and hefty version for the winter. A simple beer with caramel notes on a spicy wheat base at 6.9% ABV. Framingham’s Jack’s Abby Brewing does a doppelbock, the Saxonator, which is a dark lager with a cleaner finish than a dunkel weizen. At 9% ABV, it is also considerably stronger, with a deep fruity sweetness. I recommend both for a break from the more prominent stouts and porters of the season.
Rising Tide Brewing Company Ursa Minor Weizen Stout. One of the newer brewers on the Maine beer scene, I stumbled upon this beer last April while browsing the selection at the Whole Foods Market in Portland for some new Maine beers to take home after a weekend visit. Rising Tide has done a nice job of putting together a solid lineup of traditional styles that stand out with the creative mark of brewer Nathan Sanborn. The Ursa Minor is an outstanding stout, smoky with a smooth body owed to the wheat base. Hinting at coffee and chocolate, Ursa Minor reminds me of a more viscous Baltic Porter or Russian Imperial Stout but not as overpowering at 6.7% ABV.
Mystic Brewery Bourbon-Barrel Aged Descendant. Chelsea’s only craft brewers, Mystic Brewery combines science, history and terroir to create unique brews across the spectrum (head brewer Bryan Greenhagen is a former MIT biologist). Many people know Mystic for their outstanding saison collection, but the Descendant goes in a completely different direction. Self-styled as a Suffolk Dark Ale, the beer is a loose approximation of a dry Irish Stout. On its own, Descendant is a very enjoyable beer – not so bitter and charred as the better-known dry Irish stout from St. James Gate. However, the brewery produced a limited run of Descendant aged on bourbon barrels, and the result is a superbly complex brew. At 7% ABV, it is certainly less potent than many bourbon barrel-aged beers. The peat flavors play well with the complex backbone, with even a hint of sour to complete the ambrosia. Head over the bridge to Chelsea and visit their recently opened tasting room to seek this beer out, along with Day of Doom, Mystic’s robust 12% ABV Quad with typical rum-raisin notes with a bitter and less-sweet finish than many in the style.
Idle Hands Craft Ales Absence of Light. While you’re in the neighborhood, head back into Boston on Route 99 and stop off at Idle Hands Craft Ales in Everett, where brewer Chris Tkach is doing a wide range of high-quality, small-batch Belgians. Absence is a Stout made in the Belgian style, with plenty of spice from the yeast and a nice combination of coffee, dates and chocolate on a beer that drinks much bigger than its 7.4% ABV might otherwise indicate. If you are a fan of another New England brewer’s Belgian-style Stout, Maine’s Allagash Brewing Black, grab an Absence of Light to compare.
Enlightenment Ales Cosmos. Brewer Ben Howe has been delivering all manner of enlightenment for local craft beer fans in his Lowell-based brewhouse. With a rare biere de champagne and a Farmhouse IPA under his belt, Howe released this Export Stout a few months ago (and quotes Carl Sagan on the label, for you turtleneck enthusiasts). I found Cosmos to be fairly similar to Absence of Light and Black in the sense that it seemed to share many qualities typical of a Belgian, with some light spicing to play off the stout base. However, Cosmos departs from the others with an interesting caramel backbone to go along with the recognizable coffee and date tones. This is a really unique beer, at 7.5% ABV, and another example of the creative breadth of Massachusetts brewers.
Boston Beer Week, hosted by the Somerville-based national magazine Beer Advocate, is March 10-17 with events all across the region featuring local brewers and some of the “best of the best” that travel to town for the Beer Advocate Extreme Beer Fest (March 15-16, rescheduled from Nemo; check the website for late ticket releases to this sold-out event). You can check the website for the latest updated listings of events, but I want to draw your attention to one near and dear – yes, Area Man Drinks Beer is getting in on the fun.
Join me, along with co-host Matt Osgood of ReviewBrews.com, for a beer bloggers’ tap takeover at Stoddard’s Pub on Tuesday, March 12. Matt and I have pulled together an all-star lineup of small Massachusetts-based brewers that are hard to find inside of 128, including Newburyport’s Riverwalk Brewing Company, Norton’s Bog Iron Brewing and the Tree House Brewing Company from the tiny hamlet of Brimfield in western Massachusetts. Best of all, the pride of Worcester, the Wormtown Brewery, will be donating a keg of its beloved Be Hoppy IPA for the event. Proceeds from the pay-as-you-go event will benefit Pints for Prostates, a grassroots campaign that uses the universal language of beer to reach men (and those that love them) with an important health message.
The PFP campaign raises awareness among men about the importance of regular health screenings and early detection. A registered 501(c)3 charity, funds generated by the group go to fighting prostate cancer and assisting men with the disease. In addition to funding its education and awareness efforts, Pints for Prostates supports other 501(c)3 organizations involved in the fight against prostate cancer. Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education and Support Network, which works to support, educate and advocate for men with prostate cancer and their families, and the Prostate Conditions Education Council, which organizes free men’s health screening clinics across the U.S., are recipients of Pints for Prostates financial support.
So join us to have a great time for prostates (in a totally not awkward way!) on Temple Place in Downtown Crossing, downstairs at Stoddard’s new The Friday Club, a venue devoted to local beers and spirits. 6-9 pm; free. For more information, visit the Facebook event here.
News & Notes: How a Bill Becomes a Law
Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and a host of co-sponsors have submitted a bill (SB 1118) in the current legislative session to update the farm-winery legislation passed as part of An Act Relative to Economic Development Reorganization in 2010. The bill would expand the current licensing provisions for local wineries to small craft brewers that want to sell beer at farmer's markets and related events.
In Massachusetts, there are over 70 brewers in operation, spanning from the Boston Beer Company and its national brand Samuel Adams to five-barrel operations like Portico Brewing in Cambridge. For small craft beer entrepreneurs, new opportunities to sell their beers at farmers markets will help them expand the markets for their beverages, increase their sales, grow their businesses, and ultimately benefit the Commonwealth with jobs, tax revenue and tourist growth.
We have a rich craft beer constituency in Boston, and I want to provide it with a voice and a forum through this blog. Send me your thoughts, event postings and ideas for future stories or reviews at neighbeers at gmail dot com or through twitter @Neighbeers. You can find the archive at neighbeers.blogspot.com. And comments below, good or bad, are always appreciated.