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Review: Three stouts for winter

It's stout season.

In my house Halloween is the point where we start reaching for heavier beer, so by the time the first snowfall hits we're fully immersed in it. If you're a calendar adherent, Saturday's winter solstice knocks over the final barrier between you and thicker, maltier brews. You can put the pumpkin beer away now.

Stouts can be intimidating for folks in large part because of their appearance. Many incorrectly assume a dark beer is a heavy beer.

"Color can tint perception," says Joshua M. Bernstein, author of "The Complete Beer Course". "Sometimes the darkest beers will drink feather-light, while pale brews may sit on your tongue like a sack of bricks."

He's right, which is why it irks me to no end when someone asks of an unfamiliar brew, "Is it heavy like Guinness?" An Irish Dry Stout, Guinness is not a particularly heavy beer, especially compared to the spectrum of porters and ales and double IPAs which have become so commonplace now. A Budweiser has more calories per ounce than a Guinness. It's time to seek another metric.

The three stouts I've chosen to ease us into winter vary greatly in heft. They're all stouts by name, and they're dark in appearance, but that's where the similarities end. Hopefully by the end you can dial into your favorite style as you crank up the dial on your furnace.

-- Magic Hat Heart of Darkness
English Stout, 5.7 percent ABV

heart.jpgThe term "stout" first evolved in the 17th century to describe the higher-alcohol, bolder flavored beer of any style. Over time it became closely associated with the porter style. The lightest of the three here, Heart of Darkness falls in line with today's porters more than it does today's high-octane stouts.

It pours less viscous than most stouts. I smell chocolate but also dark fruits. The first sip is nicely balanced, with plenty of coffee and dark chocolate notes followed by more raisins and burnt sugar.

Magic Hat describes this beer as "inky black" and "dense"; I found the mouthfeel to be much lighter. That doesn't mean it's a bad beer. On the contrary, if you're looking for all the roasted goodness of a stout without it sitting too heavily in your stomach, this is a great brew.

ursa.jpg-- Rising Tide Ursa Minor
American Stout, 6.7 percent ABV

This Maine brewery's stout starts with a wheat beer base. Ursa Minor pours inky black with very little carbonation. It looks thicker than the previous brew. Plums and dark chocolate dominate the nose.

German yeast introduces clove and banana flavors into the mix, which cut some of the "roasted-ness" of the brew. There are two beer styles melding together here, but it works well. Bitter chocolate, coffee, and molasses are complemented but not overpowered by the unorthodox yeast backbone.

-- Speedway Stout
American Imperial Stout, 12 percent ABV

This last one deserves its own writeup, but including it with the other two is illustrative of just how varied stouts can be.

San Diego's AleSmith Brewing Company makes a lot of good beer, but Speedway Stout may be what they're best known for. This is a big, bold, imperial stout, brewed in the tradition of big, bold West Coast craft beer. It's packed with coffee from Ryan Brothers, an artisanal purveyor in San Diego. On various beer rating websites it ranks as one of the handful of best beers in the world.

The beer flows like cookie batter into my tulip glass. Strong roasted coffee, chocolate, and a seductive vanilla cookie scent waft up from the nose.

In Madrid my wife and I sought out the best hot chocolate in which to dip our churros, a doughnut-like snack. The intense chocolate in Speedway Stout reminds me of that chocolate, which let me tell you ain't Swiss Miss. I had to double-down my faith to convince myself something could taste this much like chocolate.

Speedway Stout is maybe not the most idiosyncratic of the popular imperial stouts, but there are layers here. Licorice and tobacco and dates are all secondary flavors. The coffee comes in up front but blends into the background, giving way to a bitter chocolate finish. This is so boozy! Sit with it for a while and see how the flavors change when it warms, and by all means share it. 'Tis the season, after all.


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