We’ve actually had something like real winter in Mobile lately, so the time is ripe to delve into those richer, darker, maltier beers that warm the soul more than quench the thirst. Let’s hope we have more weeks of cold weather, because these beers are better served fireside than poolside.
First up is Black Hemp black ale from Missouri’s O’Fallon Brewery, which does not taste of pot or rope — not that I’ve tried chewing either one. What it does taste of is dried fruit, like dates or prunes (reminiscent of Dr. Pepper, in a way), with a briny edge. It’s brewed with toasted hemp seeds, and I attribute the brininess to them — although O’Fallon’s website says they add nuttiness. One of my taster-helpers said Black Hemp tasted like a shot of wheatgrass juice — something else I’ve never tried, so we’ll have to take her word for it.
The O’Fallon Brewery has been brewing since 2000 and makes a variety of beers — at least one more involving hemp seeds. Given Black Hemp’s dark-brown, nearly opaque color, it’s less heavy-bodied than you’d expect. It has a very dry mouth feel and minimal fizz, and although there’s a hop presence, malt flavors prevail. Overall, the word it conjured for me was “rustic.” Because of the brine, it needs to be paired with un-salty foods, like Baby Swiss cheese. (5.8 percent ABV; 12-oz bottles; distributed to better package stores by United Johnson Brothers.)
For a weightier winter-warmer, try Ballast Point Brewing Company’s Victory at Sea, Coffee-Vanilla Imperial Porter. This black brew with a creamy, mocha head looks like an oversized shot of espresso and smells like a slice of Devil’s food cake. The taste starts with a surge of sweetness, giving way to a coffee bite and dry finish. Victory at Sea is brewed with coffee and vanilla beans — with extra cold-brewed coffee in every pint — and it definitely smacks of both. I don’t advocate “breakfast beer,” but it did perk me up.
Victory at Sea is a full-bodied, mouth-coating brew whose flavors withstand a good chilling. It’s rich like a Kahlua cocktail. People make jokes about “beer floats,” but I couldn’t help thinking a scoop of ice cream might be OK. For me, this was a sipping (vice guzzling) beer — and at 10 percent ABV, sipping probably is the way to go. I didn’t pair it with food because it was pretty filling on its own — although I did crave a slice of pound cake. (Available in 22-oz bombers at better wine/beer and some grocery stores.)
Swordfish Double Cascadian Dark Ale, a member of Fish Brewing Company’s “Reel Ales” line, is to slurping what potato chips are to munching: you can’t have just one. I planned to “taste it” so I could write about it, but Swordfish had other plans. Have you ever noticed how fast 22 ounces can disappear when you’re having fun?
Fish Brewing Company hails from Olympia, Wash., and Swordfish blends hops from the Pacific Northwest with dark-roasted malt to create layers of complementing flavors and an almost perfect hop-malt balance. It has chocolate and coffee notes, but they’re better integrated with the hops than in Ballast Point’s brew. The color is translucent dark, like gleaming walnut furniture but, despite the darkness, it’s medium-bodied, not heavy.
Some folks say Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA) is actually the proper name for “black IPA,” and that’s an argument I’ll avoid — but Swordfish is lots like the black IPAs I’ve had. It has striking hop aromas, with pithy bitter highlights, a dry finish and prickly, long-lasting carbonation. The balance with the malt is what, for me, distinguishes Swordfish. Try it with a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich or loaded potato skins. (7.5 percent ABV; available on-line and distributed to Florida — presenting a golden entrepreneurial opportunity to bring it here. Just saying.)
Finally, Innis & Gunn’s Scottish Porter (Oak Aged Beer, with Molasses Added) should, I think, be called a Scottish Ale, not a Porter. This brew is dark-honey colored, with medium body, a whisky finish (not a hoppy one) and lots of fizz. The molasses flavor dominates, so if you like the taste of molasses, dive in — but I’ve never liked it. (Maple syrup, yes; molasses, no; neither one in my beer, thanks.)
All in all, though, it’s a well-made beverage. There’s a whiff of dark rum and banana, with a malty framework and fruitcake spice. If you offered me one, I’d definitely drink it (not make up excuses about being on antibiotics, like I sometimes do). It’s comforting without being heavy, and pairs well with winter foods like meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, or butternut squash soup. (7.4 percent ABV; brewed in Edinburgh; available on-line and at larger retailers.)
Now if you’d like to sample dark beers, and some other styles besides, head to Domke Market on Jan. 23 when Sarah Cure, Craft Manager at Budweiser-Busch Distributing, will pour Goose Island’s Vintage Ales Series. The group includes a Belgian-style farmhouse ale — Pepe Nero — brewed with black peppercorns. Sarah calls it dark and malty, with medium-to-heavy body and a peppery finish. Goose Island vintage-dates the labels and says this beer can age for five years, with flavors developing in-bottle. Tasting is free, from 4:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. (corner of Dawes Road and Cottage Hill).
And if you’re still thirsty, Sarah will be at Cottage Hill Package Store (corner of Cottage Hill and Hillcrest) on Jan. 24 with some new beers from our local Fairhope Brewing Company. We know Fairhope’s Painted Black IPA is brilliant, and they’ll be showcasing their newest limited-edition brew, “(Take the) Causeway IPA.” They’ll also tap a firkin (a British unit of measure, roughly equal to a quarter barrel, or 9 gallons).
Amaze your friends by reciting the unit sizes in order (gallon, firkin, kilderkin, barrel and hogshead), or just enjoy the beer. The event runs from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. and is also free. (You like me for telling you about free beer, don’t you?)