Ah, Oregon winter. Some folks strap on skis and snowshoes; others hibernate or plan sunny vacations. Breweries keep us fat and happy with winter warmers, the flannel-lined pants of beers. We here at The New School are gratefully pulling up our galoshes for this first round of staff picks, which will be a regular feature moving forward. With the unfortunate disappearance of the regional print publications that ran tasting panels, we hope to fill a bit of that void with these recommendations.
As craft beer lovers wading in an Olympic-sized pool of breweries, there are umpteen winter warmers to taste. Most of the beers (and one cider) here are not what you’ll see on every grocery store shelf, and are likely the product of our respective local breweries. Being in the beer industry, we occasionally receive free beer; this will be noted in an effort to promote transparency. Here’s what we’ve plucked from the crowd, in alphabetical order by brewery name:
Fremont Brewing Winter Ale
Dark as its namesake season in the Northwest, Fremont Winter Ale has lovely garnet highlights and pours with a towering head of cappuccino-like foam. In the glass it’s a beautiful beer. It smells like a schmear of chocolate on a piece of toasted bread plus a nudge of fig and plum along with some subtle phenols. Rich and roasty with a woody, peppery spice character that dries the beer out and carries into the finish, Winter Ale is full-bodied and food-friendly, begging for a savory companion like a pot roast or a comforting dish like creamy, crispy baked mac and cheese.
Hoppier than a typical Porter or Stout yet considerably darker than any double IPA, Fremont’s strong seasonal tiptoes to the edge of Cascadian Dark Ale territory in the best sort of way, and packs 8% abv. As the days get shorter here in Seattle, this is one beer I’ll be counting on to light up my taste buds until warmer temperatures return.
Hair of the Dog Brewing 2019 Doggie Claws
Hair of the Dog, more than two and a half decades in business, has been releasing its annual Doggie Claws seasonal barleywine for the better part of the last two decades; there are still a very few 2001 magnums in a few collectors’ cellars. The beer has had some variation over the years, mostly in level of sweetness in the finished beer, but it’s been a reliable stalwart among HotD seasonals. The 2019 edition of Doggie Claws was released on November 26, 2019 in twelve-ounce bottles; the draft version will be in a very few select venues. HotD’s own on-premise draft selection still featured the 2018 release, to be replaced by the 2019 version when the 2018 keg finally expelled its last few drops.
For 2019, expect a firmer, less sweet, somewhat more attenuated American-style barleywine with dry, bitter finish and plenty of malt and hop aromas. The hops seem more prominent in this year’s release, and overall, this edition of Doggie Claws sports a pleasant character that belies its 11.5% alcohol strength. Drink this one with a favorite specialty cheese, maybe a Norwegian gjetost for its sweet caramel character to link with the beer’s malt character, or enjoy it all on its own, in your favorite goblet or snifter.
Bottles are on sale at Hair of the Dog’s taproom in Portland at 61 SE Yamhill Street; give them a call at (503) 232-6585 to make sure there’s still some for sale. If you have any previous vintages, do a little vertical tasting; the 2018 Doggie Claws on draft was noticeably sweeter than the 2019 bottled release. You can choose to hang on to a bottle for a few years, for future comparisons, but be aware that the firm hoppiness will drop off, and like most standard crown-capped bottles, oxidation will eventually make itself known. Still, vintage bottlings of Doggie Claws make for fun and instructive tasting sessions.
Hopworks Urban Brewery Whiskey Barrel Aged Abominable Winter Ale
Balancing hop bitterness and malt-forward flavor, HUB’s Abominable Winter Ale has long been a cold weather staple for Northwest beer lovers. This year, the increasingly innovative Portland brewery has upped the ante with a whiskey barrel-aged version of Abominable. While hoppy barrel-aged beers tend to be hit or miss (looking at you, Founders Doom), the brewers at HUB have done a fine job balancing the hops and the whiskey flavor from the barrel, which is definitely strong.
Malty and robust with notes of caramel and vanilla to tone down the hop bitterness, BA Abominable carries a cozy booze burn that is sure to warm you on dreary winter nights. In terms of barrel-aged beers, this is one of the more unique offerings from a local brewery, and at 10.2% ABV it’s a proper winter sipper.
Little Beast Brewing FólkvangrDark Norwegian-style Ale
Fólkvangr is Little Beast Brewing’s new winter seasonal, available now in 16oz cans and on draft. The name of the beer comes from Norse mythology; it’s the name of a meadow in the afterlife that is ruled by the goddess Freyja. As usual, Little Beast does something a bit different with its winter release and has crafted a dark farmhouse ale with Norwegian kviek (typically a medley of yeasts). I received a 4-pack of the new release compliments of the brewery, and enjoyed a can while selecting beers to bring to the family Thanksgiving dinner.
Fólkvangr pours a muddy and rich burnt umber with a frothy grayish brown head, like the onset of rust on an old kettle. A long whiff of its aromatics reveals an astringent nose of burnt beechwood, allspice, and pine cones, although it is not spiced. On first sip it’s the silky full bodied malt character that washes over your tongue first, followed by notes of charcoal and toasted oak. Fólkvangr manages to have the consistency of a milkshake without the sweetness. It finishes softly with just a tiny bit of bitterness and lots of yeast fermentation character. The kveik is not as pronounced as in some beers using these exotic yeast strains, but it’s there. The malts come first in Folkvangr, but the fermentation character is a close second, offering ethereal notes of spices like cedar bark, anise and chicory. This is a beer to take mushroom hunting.
Fólkvangr replaces Wolf Camp Saison in the Little Beast seasonal 16oz can rotation. It is available on draft and in 4-packs for $15.99 throughout Little Beast’s network in Oregon, Washington, and California.
Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas Bomb!
The Oklahoma boys are known for their decadent stouts, yet in the age of diabetes-inducing pastry stouts they surprisingly went for a more restrained approach with this year’s Christmas Bomb! Using the brewery’s flagship imperial stout as its base, the 2019 edition of Christmas Bomb! features cinnamon as the sole adjunct.
As one might expect, the cinnamon is right up front, yet it doesn’t overpower the heavy notes of chocolate malt. There is a creaminess to this beer and a luscious mouthfeel followed by a warm boozy kick that is accentuated by the subtle spiciness of the cinnamon. It is surprising to get such a smooth drinking beer considering it comes in at a whopping 13% ABV.
Christmas Bomb! manages to straddle the line between being a big yet no frills imperial stout and being appropriately festive. Don’t snooze on popping this one as a companion to a slice of pie or a plate of Santa’s favorite cookies. It’s worth noting that the brewery also released a barrel-aged version of this beer, which is sure to be a little tougher to come by depending on where you live, but is sure to be amazing.
Stone Circle Cider Mulled Cider
Described as “hot, boozy and sweet” and “everything a winter drink should be,” Stone Circle Cider’s Mulled Cider is all that. Show up to your holiday feast with this, heat over a low flame, and enjoy.
As luck would have it, Dan Lawrence, Stone Circle’s owner and cider maker, was pouring samples at Beer Store Milwaukie before the long Thanksgiving weekend. I learned that the cidery—snuggled near Estacada in Clackamas County on a Christmas tree farm that’s transitioning to an apple orchard—recently helped lead the way on a state bill. The bill now gives Oregon apple and pear farmers land use approval to produce and sell cider on their property. (That’s a separate, longer article being written for New School.)
Anyhow, back to the Mulled Cider. Enjoyable. Drinkable. Perfect for cold Pacific Northwest winter nights. For a little extra holiday cheer add bourbon or rum, or for a botanical twist, add a glug of gin.
You can pick up the Mulled Cider by visiting the farm. Take in the views, and grab a Christmas tree while you’re there. Available in gallon and half-gallon jugs ($15 for a half gallon, $22 for a gallon), and at 5.2% ABV, it’s the perfect holiday guest gift or gift for yourself. If you can’t make it out to the farm, their everyday ciders are available around Portland via High Road Distribution, recently featured on New School.
Stone Circle Cider 36797 SE Kemp Road, Estacada
Trap Door Brewing Nut Tree
Trap Door Brewing communicated directly with the nut vendor from the festival to develop Nut Tree – a candied nut imperial porter – specifically for this year’s Holiday Ale Fest. At 8.5% ABV, clove and nutmeg explode up front as they make way for a smooth and deep body of brown sugar sweetness and nuts. It finishes rich with a touch of roast and the lingering presence lf clove.
Nut Tree will be poured exclusively at HAF before its release in cans at Trap Door and in bottle shops around the PNW on Monday, December 9th. This was received as a free preview sample from the brewery.
Viking Braggot Company Winter Squash Porter
Squash beers are seldom seen unadulterated by spice rack powders; would that there were more like Viking Braggot Company’s Winter Squash Porter. This perennial release started its life with broadsword pyrotechnics, and continues its saga with this year’s draught and 500ml bottle release.
Turnip honey, spicy-piney hops, and an array of brittle-esque malts offer the illusion of spice, but also bolster the delicate aroma and flavor of roasted Delicata squash. It has the hallmarks of a great wintertime beer: a dash of burnt sugar bitterness and lip-smacking stickiness augmented by the turnip honey’s earthy tones and mild acidic touch. It is a good weeknight sipper at 8.4%, and will pair wonderfully with the bountiful baked goods of the season.
Winter Squash Porter can be found on draught at Viking’s brewery taproom and Southtowne Pub in Eugene, craft beer bars, and in 16.9oz bottles (~$8) from Salem to Ashland and on the coast.
Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.