Wintry winds evoke yearnings for the imperial
Editor's note: Jed Reinert is a bona fide beer geek. He likes just about all styles except fruit beers, and is happy to talk at great length about brewing, from the details of traditional German labels to the hop profiles of modern West Coast IPAs. He may have even created a beer-tasting database on his smartphone.
The very name conjures an image of something regal and strong; a powerful, rich brew.
It's also the perfect beer for this time of year.
Its boozy warmth and roasted flavors make imperial stout the beer I crave most when the temperatures plummet.
Also known as Russian imperial stout or, to a lesser extent, double stout, this beer style traces its origins to 18th-century England, where it was brewed for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia.
The style is known for its high alcohol content -- usually 8-9 percent alcohol by volume -- and huge flavors of roasted malt.
Those flavors are augmented in modern American variations by actually infusing the stout with coffee or chocolate, or aging it in oak whiskey barrels.
The American variants also have upped the ante on alcohol content, with some weighing in at nearly 20 percent ABV. That's a truly staggering level of alcohol for a beer -- and the consumer may be left staggering as well, which is why most bars and restaurants pour these beers in small servings.
If you haven't ventured into the realm of the imperial stout before, I'd say there's no better time to do so than the chilly month of February.
Annie Bailey's bartender Frank Fontaine agrees. I asked him for some recommendations -- both from local brewers and elsewhere.
His first suggestion for a locally made option?
"Stoudt's Fat Dog," he says. "Especially this time of year, because you get the oatmeal in there, too. It's got a warming, breakfasty, put-it-on-your-cereal goodness."
Fontaine also recommends Hegemony Imperial Stout, from Ephrata's tiny-but-excellent Saint Boniface Craft Brewing Company ("It's off the chain," he says).
I'll add Iron Hill's Russian Imperial Stout to that list. It's a solid beer, and the brewers there occasionally fancy it up a bit with the addition of chocolate or by aging it in bourbon barrels.
Moving outside of Lancaster County brewers -- but still in the realm of things you can buy in local bars and takeout shops -- there are many more options.
Annie Bailey's currently has Blue Point's Sour Cherry Imperial Stout on tap, and the Long Island, N.Y., brewery has managed to create a fruit beer that I actually like. The cherry flavor is nearly nonexistent, just a hint in the aftertaste. And the whole thing, despite its 9 percent ABV, feels surprisingly light. Which is odd, but not unpleasant.
Available locally in bottles are Sierra Nevada's excellent Narwhal, Founders' spectacular Breakfast Stout (made with oatmeal, chocolate AND coffee) and the deceptively named Tiny, a 12 percent ABV stunner from Easton's Weyerbacher.
Of course, one would be remiss to not seek out a classic English take on the style. Samuel Smith's is your best bet there; it's readily available in finer beer shops, and it really is the ideal example of this style's origins.
And if you're new to the many tastes and styles of the beer world, don't be afraid of these dark, heavy brews.
I've encountered people exploring craft beer for the first time who were looking for the lightest beer they can find. The thing is, especially in the current mindset of "hops, hops and more hops" in the craft-beer sector, dark styles like porters and stouts are where you'll find the least aggressive flavors.
There's plenty of taste there, but it tends to favor malt over hops, roasted sweetness over intense bitterness.
And sometimes, that's the perfect gateway into the many flavors of the craft beer world.
Especially when it's cold outside.
"What Ales Ya," a local column paying tribute to craft beer will appear the first and third Wednesday of the month, starting in March. Offer your input via the reporters' email, or through the Lancasteronline Lifestyle Facebook wall, YouShare or Twitter (@LancLifestyle). Always drink responsibly.