Well Hanukkah is here, the elf is back on the shelf and my mother is obsessed with the number of shopping days left until Christmas. These are stressful times and stressful times call for beer. I’m a firm believer that a good beer is good any time of year (if you want a lawnmower beer in the dead of winter after shoveling the sidewalk, go for it), but you can’t deny the natural pairing of a dark beer on a dark winter’s night. So, we’ve gathered a handful of winter-friendly stouts (and one dark lager) that are perfect to drink over the holidays.
“Looks like a stout, drinks like a lager.” That’s the tagline for NightPils, a dark pilsner that Lagunitas says was cooked up by their brewers on a whim and released occasionally in their various taprooms. Now it’s in bottles (you can get it through December) for the rest of us to enjoy. Our staff beer writer Jim Vorel already dished on his newfound love of dark lagers, and NightPils successfully navigates the crossover between the two styles. It pours dark with a thick, creamy head that sticks around for days, delivers all of the roasted malts you can possibly want bringing fistfuls of chocolate and dark fruit goodies. It’s all swept away by the lager yeast on the backend, giving the beer a vaguely Czech pilsner quality. It’s light, and silky, but the beer is no joke at 8.1%.
And now we get into the true business of holiday beer drinking: the imperial stouts. Crux Fermentation has been releasing this particular beer for six years, and you know it’s a big deal because you have to dig through a layer of wax, then pop the bottle cap before being able to pull the cork. That’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Tough Love is brewed with malted rye and smoked wheat and aged in bourbon barrels. The result is a smooth sipper full of molasses, cherries and vanilla. It’s thick and sweet and boozy—perfect for the holidays, or just the cold weather if you’re not into twinkling lights. But it’s also 11.5%, so watch yourself.
Pisgah Brewing doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other Asheville based breweries, but don’t think lack of hype equates to a lack of quality. They make one of the best go to pale ales in the region (Pisgah Pale), and every winter for the past couple of years they’ve collaborated with Asheville-based Firewalker Hot Sauce to make Mole Stout. The recipe differs from year to year, but this go around they’ve ratcheted up the heat with fire-roasted Guajillo, Habanero and Anchillo peppers. Pisgah also uses vanilla beans, raw cinnamon and cocoa nibs from French Broad Chocolate Factory. It’s spicy, but not overwhelming and the spice serves as a proper balance to the sweetness from the vanilla and cocoa nibs. It’s 7.2% ABV, creamy as hell, and available in big bombers now.
This might be my favorite bourbon barrel aged imperial stout to hit the shelves this season. Elevation Beer Co. is a small, but incredibly versatile, brewery in tiny Poncha Springs Colorado. Oil Man is their big swing at a big beer and it’s a home run. I don’t know how long this beer was aged in bourbon barrels, but it did the trick; The bourbon is strong with this beer. You get mostly chocolate on the front end of the sip, but the back end is dominated by bourbon. Not the barrel, not oak or tannins, bourbon. It’s pretty well carbonated too, with some cherry on the tail end of the sip that plays out a little bit like Cherry Coke. In other words, it’s awesome. Oil Man is 10.8%. Expect a slightly chalky mouthfeel, and expect the bourbon to get stronger as you drink through the bottle.
If you’re looking for a rare bottle as a gift or a way to treat yourself over the holidays, look no further than Schlafly’s Variant II. This barrel-aged imperial stout is the latest in the St. Louis brewery’s Ibex Rare series, and it’s the most exclusive bottle they release all year with a very limited run. And it has “special occasion” written all over it. For the Variant II, Schlafly aged some of their 9.4% imperial stout in brandy barrels and some of the same beer with tart cherries. After almost 10 weeks, they blended the brandy barrel stout and the cherry-aged stout into one beautiful beer. The nose is soft and there’s almost no head at all, save for a thin ring of rosy foam around the edge of the glass. It has a slightly chalky mouthfeel, and definitely satisfies the sweet tooth, as the brandy and cherries come off like a piece of holiday candy. And if there’s ever a time to drink a bottle of nearly 10% cherry candy, it’s during the holidays.