Yes it is that time of year again. Autumn begins to wave goodbye as winter approaches with the promise of cold dark nights. For me it usually means swapping my love of hoppy pales for beers from the dark side. Porters, stouts and old ales will be on the menu for the next few months and I have already been enjoying them in the past couple of weeks.
The first sign that winter is approaching is the arrival of Harveys Old Ale. The Swan in Midhurst is a perfect pub in which to enjoy this lovely beer. Now with new tenants who are looking like they will make a great success of the pub we enjoyed an evening of Old Ale there a couple of weeks ago. It is never the same from year to year and I found it to be a bit fruitier this time around with notes of dark fruit and raisin prominent. A lovely pint and at only 4.3% ABV you can have a good session with it (and I did!!).
The Wetherspoon pubs in my local area have improved tremendously in the past twelve months and are now always selling some excellent locales. A trip to Southampton last week to see the magnificent Saints meant a few pre-match beers at the Giddy Bridge and this improvement is apparent here too as this GBG-listed 'Spoons was also displaying a great range of Hampshire ales. There were a couple of porters available and I eagerly tried both. Flack Manor Black Jack Porter (4.6% ABV) was quite fruity with a bit of a nutty finish whereas the Andwell Porter No.2 (4.9% ABV) was full of roasted malt character and delightfully smooth and with coffee and chocolate notes dominating. These two porters were both excellent but the Andwells is the one I preferred.
My local in Yapton, the GBG listed Maypole Inn, has had some lovely dark beers available over the past few weeks and last week a lunchtime stroll led me to their door and a pint of Cheddar Ales Totty Pot (4.5% ABV) in front of a roaring fire. This black porter didn't have such a smooth texture but it did have plenty of coffee bitterness and a satisfying bittersweet finish. A lovely pint and well worth the short walk.
Many new London brewers are cropping up and I picked out a couple of darks to try over the weekend from two that are now firmly established in that they began brewing way back in 2011! The first of these was from London Fields of Hackney and their Black Path London Porter (4.2% ABV). This beer had a nice frothy head with plenty of roasted malt character on the nose. Once I had prised it away from my wife who was gulping down far too much of it I discovered a beautifully smooth beer with bitter coffee and chocolate notes before the sweetness of dark fruits came crashing through into the finish.
From here I moved across to East London with the Quadrant Oatmeal Stout (5.8% ABV). This is my first beer from the East London Brewing Company and I'm sure it won't be my last. Once again my wife was enjoying it far too much but it is understandable. This beer is actually a collaboration with the National Homebrew Competition champions Graeme Coates and Tom Dobson. Much stronger than the London Fields porter but you wouldn't particularly notice as it is easily drinkable and not as rich as I was expecting. The aroma is chocolate raisins and the taste is quite sweet with hints of raisins, plum and molasses with very little bitterness. I think I preferred the London Fields porter but my wife preferred this one so I guess it's a draw.
Finally, here are some of my favourite dark ales you should look out for this winter. All of these are highly recommended.
Durham Brewery, Temptation (10.0% ABV) - only available in bottles I believe but this strong Russian stout is my favourite beer of this style.
Sadlers Ales, Mud City Stout (6.6% ABV) - when I was working in Warwickshire this was a regular at my local 'Spoons and I couldn't get enough of it. Silky smooth and a perfect balance between bitter and sweet with hints of vanilla.
Arundel Sussex Dark (5.5% ABV) - formerly known as Old Knucker, this winter classic is brewed just down the road from where I live. Rich, smooth and dark with sweet dark fruits and a malty coffee bitterness.
Adnams, Old Ale (4.1% ABV) - as with the Harveys Old, this is a classic winter session beer.
Woodfordes Norfolk Nog (4.6% ABV) - not had this for a few years but it was always my favourite winter beer when I lived in Norwich and I would love to find it available locally this winter.
Fullers London Porter (5.4% ABV) - only had this lovely beer in bottled form so I really must find the cask version this winter in one of their pubs.
Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (6.0% ABV) - this bottled beer is a classic full of roasted malt character with strong coffee and chocolate notes.
Thornbridge St Petersburg (7.4% ABV) - a perfect imperial stout full of chocolate and coffee bitterness. Now out of stock on their website so may be hard to find.
For me this list could actually be endless as there are many many others well worth finding and, as I have already discovered, there are also many new brewers coming up with very drinkable winter warmers for the first time. Put your thick winter coat on and head for a local pub with a warm fire and dark beer. A perfect combination.