Article By: Andy Crouch
The seasonal variety of craft beer is perhaps its greatest selling point for both consumers and retailers. When the weather shifts from warm days to chilly nights, frost-nipped beer lovers turn to rich, hearty beers – including bocks, dubbels and imperial porters – to help them cope with the seasonal change.
Despite the occasional crowing for a pumpkin beer in February, an Octoberfest in May or a Kölsch in December, we all have to agree that there is something special about anticipating all of the joys that accompany each new season – be they the blooming of perennials, the summer solstice, the brilliant colors of falling leaves, or the gleam of a first snow fall. And there is certainly something to be said for getting to enjoy a special, limited release beer alongside each of these memorable moments. There is certainly something to be said about beers that are not available every day, making the occasion of first coming upon them each year a surprising and pleasant experience.
Where Bocks celebrate a judicious balance of malt strength, Doppelbocks celebrate a bit of excess in the malt and alcohol departments. To be sure, these are not over-the-top, sugary sweet malt bombs. To the contrary, Doppelbocks, or Double Bocks as they are sometimes referred, are a descendent of the seasonal brewing activities of German monks. With elevated alcohol and malt levels, expect a stronger, fuller experience but, as with all German beers, restraint and balance remain key elements. Doppelbocks are generally dark brown or ruby in color, although paler versions exist, and offer an off-white, sustained head. The strong aromas are of deep, robust Munich grains with occasional faint traces of roasted or chocolate malts. The mouthfeel is understandably full, with velvety malt waves cascading in the body over enhanced, warming alcohol notes.
SAMUEL ADAMS DOUBLE BOCK
Boston Beer Company
Alcohol Content 9.5% ABV
One of Boston Beer’s most popular offerings, converted to a year-round product, the juicy and sweet Double Bock pours with a deep burgundy tone and a tannish ivory head that appears creamy and tacky. “Soulful” is a proper way to describe the liquid bread aroma, filled as it is with toasted grain, hints of chocolate and fig and touches of roasted malt. Nearly full-bodied and a slow drinker in its own right, the sturdy flavor relies upon the substantial bready Munich malt base, along with roasted caramel and chocolate, dried fruit, a wisp of smoke, and a warming, ever-present alcohol. At times a tad chewy and robust, each sip beckons another.
PIONEER DOUBLE BOCK
Pioneer Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 8.5% ABV
With its deep auburn brown color and sturdy tan head, Pioneer Double Bock breathes of sweet Munich and European malts – bready and alcohol soaked at times – mixed with a touch of vanilla draped over a mildly spicy and grassy hop character. A slight woody note underlies the pleasant composition of sweet and toasted malts, alcohol and another light dose of vanilla, with a herbal bitterness rounding out the edges for a creamy and slightly slick and velvety finish.
Smuttynose Brewing Company
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Alcohol Content 9% ABV
A release with a sometimes difficult to predict schedule of availability, this Granite State specialty possesses a range of reddish to orange hues with a substantial but not overpowering foam head. A touch of caramel and chocolate fill the nose with another slight round of fruit mixed beneath some sweeter malt notes. Despite the hefty alcohol levels, the flavor can be a bit lighter than your typical doppelbock, but still with a strong German resemblance.
Taking the celebration of malt in a different direction, the Dubbel is a feisty blend of intricate malt flavors and layered spicy hints. Complex in both aroma and flavor, Dubbels are closely associated with monastic brewing in Belgium but have graduated to commercial breweries small and large across the United States. Medium brown with reddish hints in hue, the medium to full-bodied Dubbels – sometimes called Abbey – exhibit a vigorous carbonation level, with bountiful and persistent off-white heads, and a slight bite from the bubbles. The aromas possess strong dark fruit and phenolic notes, with hints of plums and raisins, slight peppery tinges and a well-balanced but present warm alcohol touch. Despite its spicy, clovey nose, it is the use of Belgian yeast strains and not actual spices that influence the beer. The flavor largely follows the aroma, with the addition of complex, rich bready malt flavors and light residual sweetness from candi sugar.
Cooperstown, New York
Alcohol Content 8.5% ABV
A deep, hazy rouge-amber hue with a pillowy white head of foam, the namesake brand from one of America’s foremost brewer of Belgian-style ales flowers with a complex fusion of black cherries, bananas, anise, caramel malt, and a hop spice and peppery yeast quality. With its tight carbonation level, the first sip imparts a slight bite followed by a wash of residual, toffee sweetness, honey, black licorice, and a mild but ever-present and rounding spiciness. Slight dark chocolate and powdered cocoa elements show up from time to time in this stellar and well-priced offering.
Allagash Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 7% ABV
Sporting a big, bright reddish amber color and a fluffy top of off-white foam, the Allagash Dubbel is a looker. The aroma is strongly of phenolic spice, dried fruit and caramel malt, with a touch of residual spiciness. The flavor continues suit, but with a slightly reserved quality. The medium body gives way to hints of molasses, clove and a ever-present yeast bite and balance. The Allagash Dubbel does not attempt to blow you over with alcohol, spice or malt, as some American versions do. Instead, this long-brewed beer remains a very straight-forward and approachable representation of the style and one customers can pick up throughout the year.
North Coast Brewing Company
Fort Bragg, California
Alcohol Content 9.3% ABV
Brewed in honor of jazz impresario Thelonious Monk, this hazy burgundy-toned Dubbel possesses a loose breed of cloudy foam and sets free oodles of dark fruit, including ripe cherries and figs, roasted caramel, and a spicy and fresh mixture of cloves and a touch of anise. In a deep glass, the flavors swirl together to create a complex profile including mashed dark fruits, dry and leafy tobacco, hints of citrus, and then another round of spice from among other things yeast. The body stays firm but medium, and balance and order are kept from start to finish in this highly drinkable strong Belgian-style ale.
Porter was also a successful export for English brewers, having jumped to Australia, South Africa and the early American colonies. But it was in the Baltics near the North Sea that the porter style took a turn. Not a particularly strong beer in terms of alcohol, enterprising Eastern European brewers boosted the alcohol levels and occasionally inoculated them with a souring agent to create a slight acidic tang. Robust in aroma and flavor, Baltic porters have enjoyed a resurgence in interest, especially among adventurous American craft brewers. Often brewed in Eastern Europe with lager yeast and cold-fermented to achieve a distinctive smoothness – despite its rougher edges – many American versions are ales and exhibit fruitier notes. The complex roasting aromas often include notes of figs, currants, plums, and licorice with a warming alcohol presence and moderate roasted notes. The Baltic Porter’s flavor follows suit, with very little bitterness from hops or malt, ample molasses and fruit notes interacting with rich chocolate.
Thomas Hooker Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 7.8% ABV
Deep garnet brown in color and capped with a wheat brown fluffy head, Thomas Hooker’s version of the style is an impressive sight. Made with eight different malts and a mixture of German and American hops, the aroma plays between dark fruits, mocha coffee, dark and milk chocolate, and a dry roasted nut quality. Brewed with lager yeast, the flavor is smooth yet nuanced, with a complex array of powdered chocolate, roasted malts with a smoky touch, along with a solid earthy bitterness from the hops. Imperial Porter finishes dry from the black patent malt inclusion yet remains quite drinkable throughout.
Smuttynose Brewing Company
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Alcohol Conten 9% ABV
This is a dark, brooder of a beer, bleak in its pitch blackness and with no love of anything light. Slightly off-brown dollop of foam caps this impressive looking glass, with a rich, deep fruitiness cascading from the start. Despite having been brewed with a lager yeast – which would usually temper the fruit esters – notes of raisins and figs shine through the head. The flavor masterfully mixes the fruit characters alongside a substantial chocolate malt base, with frequent roasted notes. You can easily pick out hints of roasted coffee, bits of black strap molasses, dark chocolate, hints of smoked malt, along with the residual fruit characters. The medium-range level of carbonation provides a strong backbone for the whole operation. A very bracing drink for the right moment.
Another of those confounding, all-encompassing styles, this broad grouping focuses on complex malt flavors to help fortify imbibers against late season nights. The Winter Warmer label has been applied to styles as diverse as spiced beers – sometimes called Wassails – to Old Ales and many in-between. While some beer geeks debate whether any distinctions truly exist between Old Ales and Barleywines, beers of the Winter Warmer style include these malt-forward beers whose alcohol levels do not reach the boozy barleywine stratosphere. With colors ranging from dullish rouge to deep brown, these strong ales possess deep, sweet malty notes ranging from caramel, molasses, treacle, and toffy – and when aged take on some pleasant, nutty oxidized notes. Light herbal spicing may be present in Wassails. These beers possess a dose of fruit esters in the aromas and bodies. Malty sweet with a mix of light alcohol heat throughout, Winter Warmers are well-attenuated and finish dry.
HAMPSHIRE SPECIAL ALE
D.L.Geary Brewing Company
Alcohol Content 7.O% ABV
Once limited to being brewed “when the weather sucks”, Geary’s now offers the superb Hampshire Special Ale (sometimes called the Hampshire Ale or HSA) on a year-round basis. Brewed with classic English pale, crystal and chocolate malts, and a touch of American Cascade and Mt. Hood hops along with traditional East Kent Golding hops, the Hampshire draws ruby brown in color with a tight wad of dense foam and is packed with toasted malt character along with a touch of butter. The beer’s toasted malt flavors and warming alcohol notes help balance a light fruitiness along with mildly grainy malt notes. Beer lovers throughout New England remain quite happy to no longer have to wait for sucky winter weather to enjoy this offering.
OUR SPECIAL ALE
Anchor Brewing Company
San Francisco, California
Alcohol Content 5.5% ABV
One of the first seasonal beers ever produced by an American craft brewery, Anchor’s Our Special Ale was also one of the first American beers to be actively cellared by beer enthusiasts. Vintages go back to the 197Os, with most maintaining great complexity and character long after their release. The specific recipe for this dark brownish-amber ale changes a touch from year to year but usually involves a strong earthy nose, touches of pine and wood, along with deep, dark malt character. The flavor profile often touches upon darker flavors mixed with some mild and changing spice quality and an evened out but decidedly piney and evergreen taste component. Stash a bottle or two away for future enjoyment and to see how the beer develops and evolves.