It was really damp, dark and depressing yesterday. The sort of evening when you want to curl up in front of a roaring fire with a glass of something warming. When it comes to beer I love dark winter warmers but are they a dying breed? It is certainly harder to find stronger barley wines in pubs and even harder to find a pub that will serve it to you in a pint glass. I will split up my favourite dark winters brews into three categories. The first can often be found all year round but I prefer to drink them on nights like last night.
Stouts and Porters
Stouts are very black beers. To use a Michael Palin line from TVs Ripping Yarns out of context, these beers are so black even the white bits are black. Using heavily-roasted malts they can be quite harsh with coffee flavours giving some bitterness but my favourite stouts have a sweeter taste. They normally have a strength of about 4.5% ABV and the one that fits my palate to perfection is Hop Back's Entire Stout. The Wiltshire brewer should be commended for such a fine beer. A more recent favourite is the much stronger Mud City Stout from Sadlers Ales in the West Midlands. At 6.6% ABV this potent stout is very rich, has a long sweet finish but with quite a complex mix on the palate with chocolate and raisin flavours to the fore. Tonight I tried a Black Widow Stout from Bird's Brewery of Worcestershire. At 4.5% ABV this was again quite a traditional stout with subtle sweetness and hints of coffee and a little bitterness in the aftertaste.
I include porters with stouts as they are often linked together and the flavours can be very similar but I find them to be more mild than stouts although technically there is probably very little difference. However, I have had porters that are lighter in colour to stouts with a dark dark brown tinge to them. An example of this is the magnificent Wickwar Station Porter (6.1% ABV) which I have not seen for quite a few years. Fullers used to do a very nice London Porter and it is still available in bottles. London is where the name originated from as it was a popular ale with porters working in the capital in the 18th century.
Last night I tried a very splendid Celtic Smoked Porter brewed by Isle of Man brewer Okells. This beer had a subtle bitterness and was a very smooth pint. I am told this beer has just been voted best European Smoked Beer in the 2012 World Beer Awards. I was dubious about trying it as the last smoked beer I tried was awful. It is amazing how you can be put off a particular beer style by trying something unpleasant. I will no longer avoid smoked beers though.
Old ales are my favourite winter beer style. As with porters, the style originated a few hundred years ago. They are stored for months or even years (hence the name). Some old ales are strong but they do not have to be. I'm not sure if my two favourites are still available. King and Barnes Old Ale (4.1% ABV) certainly isn't but Bill King continued to brew it when he resumed brewing with his new micro and the taste was remarkably similar. Following his retirement W.J.King still advertise an Old Ale (4.5% ABV) so I will have to check it out this Winter. The King and Barnes connection is maintained by the other Horsham micro, Hepworths. Andy Hepworth was the former head brewer of King and Barnes and he began his micro in 2000 and they produce a lovely bottled Old Ale (4.8% ABV).
My other favourite was Adnams Old Ale which had a similar strength to the King and Barnes beer. I do not think they brew it any more but I'd like to think I am wrong. Perhaps it still appears as a winter special. It had more bitterness than the King and Barnes version but it was still a fantastic beer for those winter months.
Stronger old ales worth checking out are Robinson's Old Tom (8.5% AB) and Lees Moonraker (7.5% ABV). Also falling into this category is the amazing Norfolk Nog brewed by Woodforde's. At 4.7% ABV this beer is truly fantastic and one I must endeavour to find on the bar this winter.
Finally, it may be wise to be wary of beers prefixed by the word 'Old' though as they may not be genuine 'Old Ales'. However, that does not mean they will not be worth drinking. Check things out with the brewer via their website or the retailer if you want to know about a particular beer.
Another beer style a couple of hundred years old, barley wines are always a favourite of mine. They often had a strength in excess of 10% ABV but nowadays this is not necessarily so. Woodforde's Headcracker (7.0% ABV) has always been a particular favourite of mine. As with old ales, they could be stored for up to two years and some of the stronger old ales could also be classed as barley wines perhaps. It is often difficult to categorise some beers and classification can be further obscured by what the brewer says about a particular beer. Barley wines hit the headlines earlier this year with Coniston Brewery winning the Champion Beer of Britain at the 2012 GBBF with their beer No 9 Barley Wine (8.5% ABV). I was lucky enough to sample this at the festival and it was a delightful beer.
A perfect place to sample an excellent range of the very best in stouts, porters, old ales and barley wines is the annual winter ales festival at the White Horse, Parsons Green in SW London. When I lived in London in the mid 1980s this was a regular event for me every year. It is still going strong. It is usually held over the last weekend in November which is a perfect time to sample such beers.
So the onset of winter is not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of beers to enjoy around a nice warm fireside. I would like to hear from anyone who can recommend some nice winter beers I have not mentioned that are worth trying. With so many new breweries in the UK there must be many many winter beers waiting to be discovered. A word of warning though. I do NOT like beers flavoured with winter spices or laced with other additions. In the past I have bought a number of bottled winter ales where I have been unaware of such ingredients. They have always been poured straight down the sink. I'm sure some people enjoy them but they are definitely not to my taste.