If you, like me, love all things dark and toasty-malty, you have finally arrived at what is truly the most wonderful time of the year. There’s no shortage of dark ales, imperial stouts, and porters available, and just tasting all the options for this roundup put me in a world of delicious hurt. These are the best ones I found.
Boulevard Brewing Co.
You can’t just drink stouts all winter. Well, you can, but they’re called stouts for a reason. When you need something a little lighter—just 4.2 percent ABV—this is your beer. The sour ale is complemented by tart blackberries and blueberries. The finished product is the color of liquid garnets and makes you feel fancy as you drink it (and also scared that you’re going to spill it on the sofa).
This black lager manages to be dark but not bitter, thanks to a German technique called mash capping. Essentially, the brewers spread a layer of roasted crushed grain over the mash. You get all that roasty, toasty flavor but in a super-drinkable final product. At 5.3 percent, it’s not totally innocuous, but it also won’t knock you flat on your back the way some of the other choices on this list will.
Fire and Eisbock
Mammoth Brewing Company
With this beer, Mammoth Brewing Company wanted to pay homage to its home turf—the Sierra Nevada—which experiences fire in the summer and ice all winter long. The brewing process starts with an extended boil to help concentrate flavors. Then the brewers freeze the beer, à la a traditional eisbock. Removing 2 percent of the frozen water (since alcohol freezes at a lower temperature) results in an even more potent final product. It’s surprisingly smooth, which makes it dangerous at 10 percent ABV. Plan to share the 22-ounce bomber with a friend—or two. Also, grab an extra bottle to cellar for next year; this is one of those beers that gets better with age.
SweetWater Brewing Company
Spiked with just enough spice to feel festive, this toasty brown ale (8 percent ABV) doesn’t feel like licking one of those super-stinky holiday candles. I love the Munich, chocolate, and black malts mixed with just the warmest hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s subtle and perfect for pairing with your Christmas roast beast.
Great Basin Brewing Co.
Brewed with Fuji apples and just a touch of ginger, the nose on this beer (6.5 percent ABV) reminded me of standing in the kitchen as my mother baked our Christmas apple pie. That’s just the aroma, though. The beer itself really isn’t sweet. The apples are balanced out by the malt, and the spices show up only in the finish. It’s an easy beer to love but a hard one to get. The brewery only makes 600 bottles—so don’t wait and hope you’ll have a second chance to pick one up.
Rise and Pine
IPA lovers, here’s your new favorite winter seasonal. No, it’s not an IPA, but it has all those great piney notes, thanks to handfuls of Chinook and Simcoe hops and the addition of juniper. The dark ale (7.5 percent ABV) is made from Carafa, chocolate, Munich, and Caramunich malts, which provide a perfect, rich base that lets the hops and juniper really shine.
Magic Formula for Peace
Surly Brewing Co.
I’m not totally convinced beer is going to bring us peace on earth, but this oatmeal imperial stout (9.1 percent ABV), made with coffee and oranges, will at least make us happier. If you’re a purist, this will likely be too espresso heavy for your tastes—you get a strong hit of java right up front. But for those of us who believe coffee is sweet nectar from the gods, it’s great. The orange is subtler. Sip carefully and you’ll get it.
I would drink stouts every day in the winter if I could. However, since I need some level of sobriety to, you know, function, I’m stoked to see a company making a lower-alcohol version. Schlafly’s Session Stout has just 4.5 percent ABV and all the chocolaty, malty, velvety richness you want in a winter beer. It’s brewed with lactose, so it has a slight sour kick at the finish. While that threw me off on the first sip, it seemed positively normal a third of the way into my glass.
Absence of Light Peanut Butter Chocolate Milk Stout
4 Hands Brewing Co.
This beer is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing. I loved it. The peanut butter and chocolate are front and center: these are not subtle notes. If dessert-like stouts are your deal, you’ll rock through the pint. But with a 7.1 percent ABV, just don’t do it on a Friday afternoon while you’re returning e-mail, like I did.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Wiseacre Brewing's Starless beer as a black ale. The story has been updated to reflect it is actually a black lager. Outside regrets the error.