Winter Beers Find Their Season
The word hibernate comes from the Latin hibernare: to spend the winter. That’s the root for the French word meaning to wish for winter, hiver. Hence, the French Canadian brewery Brasserie Dieu du Ciel releases its winter saison, Solstice d’Hiver, around the winter solstice. The same goes for Fantome Hiver, brewed near Liege, Belgium. Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm Brewery is one of the few U.S. breweries to create a winter saison, but there’s no shortage of high-ABV ales to help diners spend the winter.
Stateside you’re more apt to see malty (and possibly pie-spiced) beers, known as “winter warmers.” European Christmas markets and cafés sell glühbier—the malty, fruity cousin to glühwein (better known as mulled wine)—but few U.S. establishments are willing to try to sell someone some hot beer. Whatever beer styles may be dominating tap lists, there’s a good chance consumers will happily trade in a bear cave for a gastropub, where warm, cozy environments are made for complementary and warming dishes and grogs. Few locales exemplify this like Milwaukee.
Paces from the shore of Lake Michigan in the Bay View neighborhood, Goodkind is a communal hub, more a full bar with a kitchen than a restaurant with 20 taps. Co-owner William “BJ” Seidel says, “Winter fits perfectly into our self-identity. We gather together in those dark, cold months to enjoy the strong drinks, warming comfort foods, and camaraderie that we hope will keep us warm until the great thaw.”
Seidel explains that his customers—more often than not, of good German stock—come in looking to drink, and eat, heartily. They’ll find slow-cooked meats from the rotisserie alongside earthy root veggies. And, once firmly into autumn, Seidel says Belgian quadrupel ales, or “quads,” imperial stouts, and other strong ales return. Wisconsin breweries such as Karben4 and Good City can be found, along with regional breweries Founders, Surly, and Short’s. “The warming, nutty, chocolate, caramel, and heavier malted beers tend to cast a long shadow through March. However, we always keep a handful of fat-cutting, palate-cleansing sours, saisons, and pale ales to round out our list.”
When it comes to serving such beers, Goodkind sets aside the 16-ounce nonic glasses reserved for pale ales and other highly quaffable styles and, instead, fills 11.5-ounce snifters. Drinking 7 to 12 percent ABV beers by the pint could be dangerous, and serving them in that portion could be too expensive, to say nothing of irresponsibile.
One of Seidel’s favorite combos to serve is smoked pork sausage or Goodkind’s beer-braised pork and “syrupy” bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout. A classic example from the area is Founders’ Kentucky Breakfast Stout. He also suggests not being afraid to pair maltier, stronger ales that bring residual sugars alongside spicy curries, mole, or other saucy dishes.
Of course, a snifter or a 5-ounce sample glass of Karben4’s Deep Winter—the coffee stout brewed over in Madison—accompanying a slice of Goodkind’s chocolate stout cake is the ideal finish before guests brave the elements.
An hour and a half down shore in Chicago, Band of Bohemia is a new brewpub that delights in contrasting norms or expectations, starting with how executive chef Matt DuBois tackles hearty seasonal myths. “Here’s the deal: Even as fall turns into winter, we still have fruit available to lighten up and brighten dishes,” Chef DuBois says. “And then, as winter edges in, you get a ton of citrus and tropical fruits. ... The idea that you can’t serve fruit and lighter things in the winter, we really don’t buy into that.”
Chef DuBois points to the bounty of shellfish that also can lighten up a food menu. Although he’ll happily prepare braised meats and stews, DuBois states, “I’d like to combat the notion that you have to eat nothing but weighty stews during the winter. I’d rather serve fish and seasonal citrus to go head-to-head with the dreary weather. Winter in Chicago can be pretty depressing, so you need some bright, exciting food. ... The meat-and-potatoes notion is outdated.”
Ultimately, being Bohemian means being unconventional. And that’s what co-founder and head brewer Michael Carroll set out to create. With his background as a brewer at Half Acre Beer Co. and bread baker at vaunted Alinea, he says, “As a general rule, we really like to break the rules around here!”
As for the winter climate, Carroll says, “The weather only affects me in the sense that I wouldn’t drink a high-ABV imperial stout in mid-August. However, I can easily drink a light Tecate with lime in the dead of winter. ... But the idea that darker beers can only be relegated to winter months can be too restrictive.”
Case in point: Band of Bohemia will welcome back Honey Biscuit, an ale featuring slow-roasted persimmons and raisins. But, he’s also brewing up a Sweet Potato and Honey Porter this winter.
“Beer always comes first,” says Chef DuBois. “Michael brews the beer and then I taste it in order to start the process of finding complementary dishes that best pair with them. It sets us apart in a sea of brewpubs.” Furthermore, he explains that every Band of Bohemia beer has been turned into flavored beer vinegar to incorporate into his dishes. Of particular note was the one he made using a black ale that included cocoa nibs, figs, and bay leaves along with dried chilies. Chef DuBois used that vinegar to pickle kohlrabi plated with a fried chicken dish.
“We are a more winter-focused restaurant with a cavernous space,” says Carroll. “One thing about Chicago, winters are long, so we need to go out to [avoid] cabin fever.” Adds Chef DuBois, “Hospitality doesn’t waver with the seasons.”
Speaking of being unconventional, the southern half of the country spends a quarter of the year pretending that it experiences winter. In California’s sunny Hermosa Beach south of LAX airport, brothers Jonathan and Jason Baran opened Baran’s 2239 early this year. Their partner, Chef Tyler Gugliotta, had cooked his way across the L.A. area.
The restaurant operates with only a beer and wine license, so Chef Gugliotta realizes it’s important to emphasize the best in those liquid realms. And although there’s nary a snowflake in the South Bay, Gugliotta still plans on having guests sink their teeth into dishes such as coffee-braised pork shank and rack of elk.
The restaurant’s beer program, a dozen taps strong, leans heavily on Southern California breweries such as Stone, The Bruery, Modern Times, and Firestone Walker. All of them bring out heavy, rib-sticking beers—barrel-aged stouts or barley wines—because even a clientele that doesn’t have to endure a rough winter still likes to drink like it.