By Gail Oberst
For the Oregon Beer Growler
What is a winter warmer? It’s an enigma wrapped in a label and poured in a glass. The answer, in Oregon anyway, is best left to poetic interpretation.
But perhaps the experts can help us. When I looked up winter warmer’s definition on the BeerAdvocate website, I found a description including “malty sweet,” “low hop bitterness” and some allusions to wassail-like spices.
Some of the beers judged by consumers at the Oregon Beer Growler’s winter warmer tasting fit those descriptions, but more often, winter warmers in Oregon lodge themselves firmly in categories all their own. Oregon’s winter warmers occupy a wide range of styles and innovation. Olde ales, IPAs, barleywines, brown ales, farmhouse ales and CDAs are all perfect winter warmers, as far as Oregon brewers who entered this tasting were concerned.
What’s this mean for you, craft beer drinker? It means a wonderful variety of seasonal beers are now in your local bottle shop or on tap in your brewpub. These brews can be enjoyed with a holiday meal, on the slopes, in front of a fireplace or at a New Year’s celebration.
As always in our blind tastings, our non-professional tasters were asked to indicate what beers they liked as a winter warmer. Their choices and comments are as follows:
McMenamins: *565 Strong Ale, Eugene 9.3% ABV, 100 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A big-time beer for big-time fans. This beer was brewed in the fall of 2014 and aged with Billy Whiskey-infused oak, giving it plenty of time to grow up and work its way into your glass. Plenty of Chinook and Cascade hops.
Consumer Comments: Tastes like a prized bottle pulled from the cellar and slowly sipped. Smells like barleywine teen spirit. Tequila! Full-bodied, flavorful brew; easy to sip by the side of a fire. James Joyce’s Chamber Music XXXVI. This is the beer you bring home to mom and dad if mom and dad respect beer, bourbon and liquid blankets. Great for winding down after Christmas or family gathering shenanigans. Bourbon, heavy, malty.
Uptown Market: Beeracle Off 92nd Street, Portland 9.5% ABV, 49 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Believe in Beeracles! Cold-steeped, roasted malts lend complex flavors without any acidic bites. This warmer also boasts a complex blend of chocolate, tobacco, fruit sweetness and is that a hint of toffee? Yes, yes it is.
Consumer Comments: Flavor explodes in my mouth at first taste. Very good … I enjoyed this one. Reminiscent of raw cocoa, so it’s good for me, right? Is it barrel-aged? Coffee strong.
Wild Ride: Nut-Crusher Peanut Butter Porter, Redmond 6.0% ABV, 18 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Wild Ride brings together two favorite flavors, peanut butter and porter, in this nutty, chocolaty and caramel beer. It’s a true liquid peanut butter cup.
Consumer Comments: Like a liquid chocolate truffle treat with a strong nuttiness. Tastes like semi-sweet baking chips. Very chocolaty. Makes me want to drink it with ice cream. Peanut butter explosion in my mouth. Drink this with a brownie. Sexy candy. Tremendously dangerous. Drink this for dessert after every meal. Dutch Bros. Can I drink this for breakfast?
Cascade Lakes: Slippery Slope, Redmond 6.4% ABV, 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This beer is one smooth, wintery ride. Full-bodied and well-balanced, this seasonal ale uses crystal malt and generous amounts of Cascade hops.
Consumer Comments: Not heavy, but good for a mellow Oregon winter. I loved it. Nice and mellow. Kind of takes you by surprise. Fragrant like a Christmas candle. Hoppy and floral. Piney.
Hop Valley: Festeroo Winter Ale, Eugene 6.8% ABV, 60 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: When it’s cold outside, wrap yourself up in this Northwest take on an English-style old ale. It’s brewed with a slightly spicy combination of malts and hops.
Consumer Comments: A respite from the season: bright, hoppy and a break from the rain. Super enjoyable winter sippin’ brew. Really enjoyed this winter brew. Lemon bread with jam. I could drink this in the summer, too.
Sunriver: Shred Head Winter Ale, Sunriver 8% ABV, 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A robust, Northwest-styled ale brewed with dark brown sugar, packed with the finest American and European malts and fortified with the a hearty helping of Northwest and British hops.
Consumer Comments: Sweet warmth. A winter treasure. Perfect for winter. Bready and malty. Christmas candy. Burnt sugar.
Montavilla: Old Fellowship Barleywine, Portland 9.8% ABV, 60+ IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Big malt aroma rides side by side with a figgy, caramel-toffee aroma. Centennial hops balance out this mighty barleywine with citrusy, dank notes. Young, but still smooth and drinkable.
Consumer Comments: This brew would be great to sip in an igloo. Spicy like an IPA but soft and syrupy. Malty and boozy. Big, but easy to drink. Zippy aftertaste.
NEXT FREE TASTING: Oregon Beer Growler’s Belgians Tasting, 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, at F.H. Steinbart Co., 234 SE 12th St., Portland.
Oregon Beer Growler each month invites consumers to “blind” taste a different style or group of beers at various locations across the state.