Although we haven’t seen any significant snowfall yet in Portland, we’ve definitely felt the cold chill of the season. While many warm up with a hot cocoa or peppermint coffee, others choose to celebrate with the return of another seasonal beverage––Maine winter beers.
This time of the year, Portland’s bars and restaurants stock up with brews flavored for the season with chocolate, mint, nutmeg, caramel, spice or cinnamon. While it may seem cruel for breweries to let you fall in love with a seasonal brew only to take it away for a year, they have good reason for doing it. Back in the earliest days of beer, when it was stored in ice coolers or cold cellars, beer flavors changed based on what was available. Summer beers were usually light, fruity pale ales while, winter beers were heavier and darker because of the restrictions from the weather and hop availability.
Changing the ingredients of beer based on the season also helps support the local economy and boosts sustainability. Brewers give preference to the spices and flavors that are naturally available during the season because it’s easier and actually is good for the environment.
Today beer craftsmen create the same seasonally dependent flavors despite having the technology and ingredients available to make out-of-season brews year round. But where’s the fun in that? There’s something exciting and enjoyable about working up the craving for a specific flavor.
“As the seasons change, so do people’s palette for beer,” said David Geary, the president and brewmaster at Geary’s Brewing Company in Portland.
Seasonal beers are also popular because they maintain the illusion that we can only get them for a limited time. But usually the cool weather, winter atmosphere and holiday festivities are enough to get beer lovers grabbing for a winter lager or stout rather than a pale ale or an IPA.
“I always look forward to winter beers. They help you keep warm during the cold month of Old Man Winter,” said Benjamin Moore, a junior communications major and active beer blogger.
Winter brews tend to have a higher percentage of alcohol blood volume, are sweeter, maltier and in general, heavier. In turn, these kinds of beers are almost always more complex in flavor than other beers.Typical styles include stouts, porters, tripels, strong and dark ales.
“My favorite winter brew is Oxbow’s Saison Noel,” said Moore. “It’s definitely not your traditional winter seasonal, but I instantly fell in love with it.”
Oxbow’s Saison Noel dark saison a type of beer that is highly carbonated with a complex body, aroma and taste – malty yet still dry in the finish. The flavor is slightly tart and roasty. Oxbow Brewing Company’s motto is “loud beer from a quiet place,” and according to Moore, this beer is just that.
Another great hoppy taste of winter comes from Portland’s own Geary’s Brewing company. Geary’s Winter Ale is classified as an “Extra Special Beer” and for good reason. At just over 6 percent ABV, this rich beer’s unique taste comes from the fact that Maine maple syrup is added during the fermentation process.
“It’s certainly detectable as a flavor, but most people can’t tell that it’s actually maple syrup––they say ‘What is that’? A beautiful beer, it’s delicious,” said Geary.
With the semester coming to a close, any free time students thought they had will probably be spent hunched over textbooks and laptops, trying to cram in a few months of work into this coming. A nice, dark brew might be just what you need to help you get into studying, or unwind and celebrate after you’ve turned in your final papers. We’ve compiled a list of what we think are Maine’s boldest and most tasty winter style beers to help you repel the cold sting of winter.
1. Geary’s Winter Ale
This beer features a rich body, dark color and a flavor that you just can’t pin down. You’ve learned now that the special ingredient is real Maine maple syrup, adding the perfect level of sweetness to complement this beer’s bitterness. This brew really exemplifies how much time Geary’s puts into making sure their brews are Maine-made.
Alcohol Content – 6 percent
Color – Dark copper
Aroma – Sweetness from English hops and maple syrup
Flavors – Caramel, toasty, clove, and toffee
Feel – Sweet start, bitter finish and medium carbonation.
2. Shipyard’s Mint Chocolate Stout
This beer is Shipyard’s newest creation and an instant classic. Perfect for the holiday season, this beer features many classic winter flavors, including nutmeg, anise, chocolate, mint, and licorice. Props to Shipyard for making a mint beer actually work, which isn’t an easy feat. The complex flavor combinations are combined well enough to smooth out the alcohol taste, which is surprising because this beer has the highest alcohol content on this list at 9 percent ABV. Shipyard recommends that this beer be drunk around 55 degrees so all the flavors have a chance to come out.
Alcohol Content – 9 percent
Color – Inky black
Aroma – Spearmint and faint licorice
Flavors – Roasted malts, fudge and chocolate. Spearmint and licorice come as subtle after tastes.
Feel – Smooth creamy body, lightly carbonated
3. Peak Organic’s Winter Session Ale
This ale is a tasty brew that’s very well fitted for the winter. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like any extra flavor in your beer, this might be the one for you. This beer has the classic flavors that beer lovers crave without over spicing with winter flavors. Using dark malting and a single hop procedure this beer captures the essential flavors of sweet malt, toasted Citra hops and earthy wheat for a no nonsense beer. However it might just be a little too under carbonated which gives it a dangerously smooth drinkability. Seriously these beers are very sessionable and easy to send down the hatch.
Alcohol Content- 5 percent
Color- Light brown, amber.
Aroma – Sweet bread, rye and slight fruitiness
Flavors – Earthy, spicy and bitter
Feel – Fresh with a dry finish. A bit under carbonated.
4. Sebago’s Slick Nick Long Winter Ale
This highly anticipated Sebago seasonal is back, and this time rebranded with a new label. First brewed in 1998, this beer now sports a new look with a scene completely reminiscent of a Maine winter, with icicles, trees heavy with snow and a snow covered log cabin. This robust ale offers a bigger body than last year’s brew and has also been given a boost in alcohol content. Thankfully the extra strength doesn’t compromise the beer’s drinkability. Easy to drink and full of flavor, this beer is great to have back to warm our bellies.
Alcohol Content – 7.2 percent
Color – Deep, orange amber
Aroma – Light fruit notes, spicy hops, gingerbread and brown sugar
Flavors – Sweet caramel at first with a long lasting bitterness and spice throughout.
Feel – Full bodied, creamy feel, and high carbonation
5. Baxter’s Phantom Punch Winter Stout
Named after Lewiston’s 1965 famous boxing heavyweight championship between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, “Phantom Punch” packs a lot of gusto. This stout is also at 6.8 percent ABV, unusually high for a stout, and may be the “phantom punch” drinkers are warned about. This beer is well balanced for a stout, as it is both dry at first and sweet at the finish. There are a lot of different flavors working together to make this beer the drinkable and hearty brew that it is. Baxter’s delectable concoction of organic cocoa, real vanilla beans and roasted malts is now available. Unfortunately it doesn’t come with its own bear skin rug and roaring fireplace––that would be perfect.
Alcohol Content – 6.8 percent
Color – Dark brown and caramel
Aroma – Chocolate, licorice, gingerbread, cloves and spices
Flavors – Light chocolate, coffee, vanilla and caramel
Feel – Very thick and rich and medium carbonation.