For many people, beer is the quintessential quaff of summer. But at no time is the exciting rise of the craft-brewing movement drawn more sharply into relief than winter. It's the season of creative beer making.
More chocolate stouts, coffee porters, brews laced with berries, spices and honey are working their way onto shelves, adding afestive note to the traditional lineup – at least in Canada – of standard ales and lagers. It's as though brewers haveemptied the contents of the holiday baking pantry into their fermenting vats.
I think few examples embody the trend better than Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, a new offering in Ontario and Manitoba from Muskoka Cottage Brewery. Like many so-called winter beers, it's available for a limited time in limited quantities, capitalizing on our cold-weather craving for bolder flavours.
Dark and creamy, the beer oddly reminds me of a Fudgsicle, underpinned by a complementary note of tart cranberry. It has a delicate effervescence that creates the sensation of ice crystals melting.
Muskoka, based in Bracebridge, Ont., sources the cocoa from the Simone Marie Belgian Chocolate store in Toronto and the fruit from Johnston's Cranberries, a farm in Bala, Ont., in the heart of Muskoka cottage country.
"Someone called it the new eggnog," says Gary McMullen, Muskoka's president and head brewer. Still, it's no child's treat. Like good, spiked eggnog, it's sweet but not excessively so, managing to straddle the line between beer and dessert. A small glass doesn't spoil the appetite the way creamy eggnog tends to, though I prefer it as an after-dinner drink. At 8-per-cent alcohol, it's also not the kind of thing you'd want to chug before getting behind the wheel or attempting to level a leaning Christmas tree.
There's even a hint of classic beer bitterness. Mr. McMullen told me he had to scale down the hop content – the traditional source of beer's sharp flavour – because unsweetened cocoa pods have their own bitter note.
Microbreweries across the country, from Howe Sound in Squamish, B.C., to the excellent Brasserie Dieu du Ciel! in St.-Jérôme, Que., to Propeller in Halifax, have turned seasonal brewing into an extreme winter sport, inspired by centuries of flavour tinkering by their European counterparts. Howe Sound makes a popular offering called Father John's Winter Ale whose ingredients sound like the makings of a fine holiday cake: ginger, nutmeg, molasses, vanilla, honey and yellow sugar.
There's no hard-and-fast definition of a winter beer, but they tend to be dark, full-bodied and higher in alcohol than the standard 5-per-cent brew. Some don't contain offbeat flavourings, even if the names imply it; many "chocolate" and "coffee" stouts get their suggestive flavours from malts that have been roasted, creating a sort of olfactory illusion.
I love dark stouts and porters with rich cakes as well as gamy meat dishes, even many hard cheeses. Lighter ales flavoured with spice, honey or maple syrup can be nicer with lighter cakes, cookies and softer cheeses.
All that experimentation and departure from classic beer flavours, though, can mean love-it-or-leave-it status with consumers. If you prefer to eat rather than drink your dessert proceed with caution.
Brasserie Dieu du Ciel! Solstice d'hiver, Quebec
Score: 92. Price: $3.50/341 ml in Ont.
Chestnut-brown in colour and vaguely sweet, with a strongly bitter undercurrent. Hides the 10.2-per-cent alcohol behind fruit and caramelized sugar flavours.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, the United States
Score: 94. Price: $2.95/355 ml in Ont.
The chocolate-like flavour comes from roasted malt, so it's subtle and sublime. Creamy and rich, this 10.1-per-cent glory delivers a solidly bitter backbone and espresso-like finish. Good to the last drop.
Christoffel Winterse Bok, the Netherlands
Score: 92. Price: $3.10/330 ml in Ont.
It comes in a cute stubby bottle with a resealable swing-top lid. Dark amber, faintly sweet and fruity, with a malty core and nuances of licorice, brown sugar and cooked tree fruit. Alcohol: 7.8 per cent.
Innis & Gunn Winter Beer, Scotland
Score: 90. Price: $14.95 as part of a three-bottle variety pack in Ont.
Available in a case that that includes Innis & Gunn Original and Rum Cask beers plus a stemmed glass. It pours with a silky texture and has a slight sweet, bourbon-like flavour, with stewed fruit, caramel, hint of vanilla and whisper of baking spices. Amber-red and 8.5-per-cent alcohol that lets you know you're not in Corona-ville.
Lake of Bays Mocha Porter, Ontario
Score: 88. Price: $7.95/750 ml in Ont.
Ebony-coloured and refreshingly dry for a winter brew, its velvety texture carries dark chocolate and smoky overtones, finishing with a bitter kick and seamless 5.2-per-cent alcohol.
Meantime Coffee Porter, England
Score: 88. Price: $3.15/330 ml in Ont.
Chestnut-coloured and packaged in a curved little Champagne-style bottle, it has a big espresso essence, but, despite the 6-per-cent alcohol, it can seem more like something served at Starbucks than at a pub.
Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, Ontario
Score: 93. Price: $9.95/750 ml in Ont.
The resealable swing-top lid has its advantages. One sip of this 8-per-cent potable velvet is a mouthful and three may be enough. Medium sweet, it coats the mouth with dark chocolate and just a hint of cranberry, finishing with subtle bitterness.
Olvisholt Brugghus Lava, Iceland
Score: 94. Price: $5.70/500 ml in Ont.
A smoked imperial stout with sublime balance. Dark, creamy and rich, like chocolate ice cream melted over a roaring fire. The 9.4-per-cent alcohol hides in the background, until you realize you've just polished off the bottle and can't get up from your chair.
Trafalgar Ales & Meads Smoked Oatmeal Stout, Ontario
Score: 88. Price: $4.75/650 ml in Ont.
Dark mahogany colour and a timid 5-per-cent alcohol. Dry, with a prominent oatmeal flavour and less smokiness than the name might suggest. Wintery beer for those who like their heartwarming breakfast in a beer mug.