It’s like the prologue to a frosty thriller: After half a calendar of quarantine and half a foot of snowfall before Halloween, the Upper Midwest settles in for one of its legendary winters. Holidays looming, folks yet leery about large gatherings will be settling in across the table from family members they’ve spent many a long day with, dodging video conference cameras and passive-aggressive quips. As I type, the wife just walked by and eyed my screen, trying too hard to seem casual. I’m sure she suspected I’m tapping out the same sentence over and over… and over.
But this is my season. There’s something about seeing my kid come in, carrying the cold with her, and stomping snow from her boots that resets me. The air and early darkness outside don’t seem forbidding. Rather, they frame the heavy scented air and warm lighting inside. Cozy just can’t exist without cold. And whipping winds beg the alcoholic warmth of winter brews — most of all after the others are off snug in bed. The twinkling lights seem to soften and run a little slower. The glassware trends toward something with a stem. The palate can bear a bit more malty sweetness and roast.
Snowstorm, Schell’s winter release, which is never the same twice, is in its 27th year. This year’s oat stout is a black stout brewed with oats and triticale. Oats impart smoothness due to their relatively high content of lipids and proteins. Triticale is a crop species resulting from Triticum (wheat) and Secale (rye). Rye imparts a spicy, crisp aspect. This year’s Snowstorm isn’t a dull boy. It’s a luxurious promise of roasty notes of chocolate and coffee. For the sweet tooth, I like it with Pot du Crème topped with unsweetened whipped… otherwise, a saucer of veiny blue cheese.
Another local tradition is Summit’s Winter Ale, dating to the ‘80s. It came near to retirement a few years ago, which was staved off by a loyal fan following. Styled after British Winter Warmers, its malt bill — including black and caramel malts — and its array of German and British hops yield spice and crust along with light notes of coffee and cocoa, some caramel and plum. Bitterness is restrained and the sweetness is not overdone. Aside a saucer of chilled glazed ham and smoked Gouda, this spread should turn stir-crazed to jolly in a pinch.
Great Lake’s Christmas Ale has been making the rounds since its debut in 1992. Since then its earned itself a stable of beer competition medals. Brewed with honey, fresh ginger and cinnamon, this Winter Warmer yields hints of toffee, molasses and gingerbread along with the anticipated cinnamon along with notes of nutmeg and clove. Candied fruit sweetness, piney bitterness and spice are surprisingly well balanced. The nose on this ale alone is capable of setting the festive, fireside mood. A saucer of goat cheese and apple slices, or even apple chutney, would pair well with this one, toning cabin fever down a degree to Christmas cozy.