Friday Froth: Barleys, Stouts, and Porters

James Gribbon

Here and now, in the some of the shortest days of the year, life could use a little brightening up. This is an instinctual thing with people. We light candle displays, light our homes, and celebrate the low tide of winter having passed, and the return of longer, better days ahead. But it’s still dark. So the brightness in our spirits gets helped along with stronger, winter brews. That’s our theme today.

I always look forward to the old ales, barley wines and especially porters that come out in the late fall and winter. Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter from Vermont is one of my absolute favorites, but Southampton Imperial Porter is a new one (to me) to which I'm giving pretty high marks. People generally confuse your pint, or in my case 14oz. snifter, with a stout, because that's mainly what they've seen before in that color, and it's usually a Guinness. Let them try said porter and they'll generally respond with a shocked expression because they’re expecting the mild flavor and smooth mouth feel of that common (although exceptional) stout. Porters are made with toasted grains as well, which, like Guinness, give them their color. Porters are heavy, delicious, serious beer, and Imperial Porters are the Big Guns on this battleship.

That's why I was so surprised to try this Southampton Imperial Porter, which weighs in at over 7% ABV, and not be nearly overpowered by it. The taste is fantastic: malty and toasty, and the alcohol is present, but not sharp. The toastiness coats your mouth in a pleasant, savory way without sticking there like honey or the thicker offerings in this category. This is a porter that stands a distinct chance of putting you on your butt, but is also a good introduction to the style. Check it out.

The Russian Imperial Stout style is one developed in the 18th century for export to the court of Catherine the Great. They are rich in flavor and especially high in alcohol to prevent their freezing during shipment across the Baltic. Otter Creek Russian Imperial Stout is a very good example of the style (as I've found everything from Otter Creek to be) but, additionally, it's thoroughly sessionable. If you've not had an imperial, imagine a gallon of stout that has been cooked down until there's a pint of it left, and that's this stuff. The head is almost as dark as the beer. It's not the cold, liquid tar some RIS' can be, and is instead - not "lighter," because it's anything but - let's call it “less heavy.” Try it, because the first note I took on this beer read “like magic,” but take care, as it weighs in at over 10% ABV.  If you try and like this, you may want to look into Weyerbacher Old Heather Russian Imperial Stout.

Stone Brewing Co. in California was named as the Top Brewery On Planet Earth by Beer Advocate magazine a while back, and I can understand why. I invited friends and relatives when a local bar had a party to celebrate the brewery’s launch of distribution in Connecticut last year, and the crashing 22oz. bottles of their Arrogant Bastard have been my wake up call at 6a.m. Monday mornings ever since as they find their way from my recycling bin to the city’s truck.

Normally I'm not the biggest fan of barley wines, and I probably wouldn't have tried this one if I knew ahead of time that it was, but I saw the tap handle and thought "OOH! New Stone beer!" and made gimme-gimme hands like an infant until a Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine was placed in front of me in a snifter style glass. Snifters are made as such so when you go to drink your nose passes inside an area of the glass designed to trap the scent of what you're drinking, and the first aroma to hit me was alcohol. “Barley wines” are called such because they are typically as strong as a wine, but made from barley instead of grapes, and thus a beer. They do often have fruit and sweet, toffee-like flavors to them, which is why they’re not usually a first choice of mine. 

At over 11%ABV the alcohol is not just a scent, it's a definite flavor. It cuts through the the sweetness I usually don't particularly enjoy and scours the tongue, allowing the "beerness" of the drink to come through loud and proud. This dedication to keeping this “wine” a beer was the difference between it and others I've had, and what makes it stand out as my favorite I’ve had so far.

I hope the time you’ve spent reading this column today, the last day of the year, has given you a few ideas as you do your planning for tonight’s festivities. In a land where long winter nights lack the lights of nature’s Aurora Borealis, we need all the spirit brightening we can get. Happy New Year.