There will always be a place in my heart for high-strength beers and an ideal time to enjoy them: in the darkness of winter in Maine. I first discovered the warming power of alcohol when my grandmother splashed a tiny bit of whisky into a glass of tea she poured for me when I came in shivering from an afternoon spent playing in the snow. As an adult, I initially turned to fortified wines when the wind howled outside.
Then, in the early 2000s, there was a push by brewers to create “extreme” craft beers — with flavors and alcohol contents stronger than their competitors — in a frenzied attempt to keep the new and fickle beer consumers’ attention. There were a flurry of beers released whose strength exceeded wine and even some spirits (I once tried a beer that was a stunning 55% ABV, which, unfortunately, tasted like a combination of rubbing alcohol and lager). Eventually the pendulum of tastes began to swing in the other direction, and the popularity of lower-alcohol “session” ales took hold. The ABV arms race subsided, but it left a permanent niche for stronger brews.
Enter the barleywines, imperial stouts and barrel-aged beers.
Imperial stouts are probably the most flavorful and booze-packed beers of the bunch, and Maine is home to several breweries producing these world-class stouts. Due to the exceptionally high cost and intense effort required to produce them, imperial stouts are usually once-a-year releases, and are rarely widely available. Thankfully, they do age well, so if you find one you like, you can squirrel some away for the following winter.
The top of my list is Sexy Chaos, from Marshall Wharf Brewing, in Belfast. Released seasonally, it’s an aged version of their Chaos Chaos (an excellent Russian imperial stout in its own right) to which they’ve added vanilla beans and toasted oak chips. This 11.2% ABV beast will warm you up on the coldest nights, and the notes of vanilla give it a decadent flavor.
Arguably harder to find than Sexy Chaos, but just as worth the search, is the Russian imperial stout from dTributary Brewing Company, in Kittery. Brewer Tod Mott’s reincarnation of his famous Portsmouth Brewery recipe, now named Mott The Lesser, has been delighting dark-beer fans since its return a few months after the new brewery opened. This incredibly complex beer offers up flavors of plums, raisins, and dark chocolate, and is divine when warmed up ever so slightly. At 10.5% ABV, its smoothness surprises me — the hidden booziness manifests as a feeling of contentment when you’re about halfway through a glass.
There are few releases I look forward to in wintertime more than Sebago Brewing Company’s barleywine. Sold this year in unique two-packs of cans sealed together with a wrap, Sebago’s Single Batch Series Barleywine stands out on the shelf. A strong and assertive barrel-aged ale, this beer is rich with notes of vanilla, oak and bourbon, and instantly warms you from the inside out. It also lacks the sticky sweetness that can be cloying in other barleywines. I believe this is the best batch of the Barleywine Sebago has made to date, and it’s also the highest in alcohol content. The 2015 batch weighs in at a hefty 11.8% ABV — you’ll definitely taste the booze. If you want it to mellow a bit, try putting it in a cellar for a few years to round it out.
My final go-to for the season is actually available year round: Allagash Curieux. Traditionally, I bring a bottle of this to New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s a Belgian-style tripel ale that’s been aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels for nearly two months. If you’ve not yet taken the opportunity to tour Allagash’s Portland brewery, do so and make a point of walking into the room where these barrels are kept — the sensuous aroma of vanilla, oak and sugar will stay with you for quite a long time. Coming in at 11% ABV, Curieux is great for sharing with a few friends and inspiring a reflective mood — pour it into a glass goblet and stare into the fire for awhile for best results.
So, what do we care how much it may storm? We’ve got our beer to keep us warm.