This is not the season for light beer. It is not the season for mild flavours, or mere refreshment. We are in an all-out battle with winter now. Christmas is long gone, maple season could be 6 weeks a way. Last summer is a distant memory and the warm weather is so far off in the future as to be impossible to consider.
We have winter sports. Hockey, skiing, snow shoes, snowmobiles, etc. but when it comes down to it, the main thing most of us want to do at the end of the day is to keep warm. Beer is the quintessential Canadian summer drink, and while a nice citrusy summer style beer still tastes good even in the winter, a slightly chilled heavy Imperial Stout or a barley wine, something with some body and some weight, is almost a necessity on a cold winter’s night when the woodstove is steaming but the wind is still howling and rattling the windows.
There was a time when an imported Guiness was synonymous with stout beer. But with all due respect to that venerable company, the canned Guiness in the beer store is, to my view, a reasonable contrast of dark beer and white, creamy head, but it is too thin and too sweet for a Canadian winter. And at 4.1% alcolhol, it is a good choice if you are driving, but in a warm chair by the stove it is hardly what we really need at this time of the year.
The long-established Quebec Brewery St. Ambroise has been producing their oatmeal stout for almost 30 years. It hit the Ontario market about 20 years ago, and has been here ever since. Although it is a regular strength beer (5%) the St. Ambroise Oatmeal stout is thicker than more beers of that strength, thanks to the oatmeal. It is also has a pronounced flavor of licorice and a fair bit of bite. Best served cool but not cold, it is a good introduction to the world of stouts. St. Ambroise is readily available in Ontario at Beer store and the LCBO locations.
Also from Quebec, a leader in the second stage of craft brewing is a company called Dieu du Ciel (God in Heaven), and one of their stand out beers is a coffee stout called Peche Mortel (Mortal Sin)
Peche Mortel is an 9.5% beer, more than twice as strong as Guiness. The alcohol gives the beer a thick rich, luxuirous flavor, and the malt flavours and coffee flavours are right up front, but all of this balanced against smooth, creamy finish. In list of the world’s best beers, Peche Mortel is one of a few Canadian beers that tend to be mentioned, and is usually the highest ranked. In a site called the Dailymeal.com, which favours heavy beers in their list of the World top 50, ranking 26th. Considering that a number of the beers ranked higher are available only and the brewery where they are made, sometimes for one or two day a year, it is a pretty high ranking. It is sometimes available in Ontario, but quite common in better Depaneurs throughout Quebec.
Staying in Quebec for one more beer. Vache Folle Milk Stout is made by Brasserie Charlevoix. Milk Stouts are not brewed with whole milk. They are a category of stout that use lactose, the sugar from milk, as an ingredient. It adds a creaminess and a sweetness to the beer. Vache Folle is mellower than Peche Mortel, the flavours are less intense, although it just as strong (9%) and heavy. It is kind of beer’s answer to comfort food. Hard to find in Ontario, but again easy to find in Quebec.
As for Ontario stouts, there are a number of good ones. Beaus Brewery makes two versions of their Tom Green Milk Stout, the original version and a cherry version. Both are good although the cherry might be a bit better. It adds a bit of tartness to the sweet milk flavours. At 5.6% it is not as heavy as some other stouts, but it is still a comforting winter beverage, and you might even stay awake a bit longer after drinking one (or two). It is easy to find at the LCBO.
There are a number of other good Ontario stouts from some of the prolific Ontario craft brewers that are readily available. These include Shinniked Coffee Stout from Muskoka Brewery (available at the Beer Store) Coal Black Stout from Railway City (LCBO) and Wellington County Imperial Russian Stout (beer store) are good examples. The LCBO also carries some powerful Imperial Stouts from Ontario brewers, including Nickebrooks, Café del Bastardo.
The best stouts that I’ve had from Ontario come from three of the community breweries. The only way to get their beers is to order them online, which involved a delivery fee on top of their pretty high priced beer, or by visiting. Luckily one of them is in Kingston. Stone City always has their Ships in the Night Stout available. Purchased as a Growler, it costs about $15. Not a bad price for what amounts to a six pack of beer. Their premium stout is Juggernaut. It’s $9 for a 500ml. bottle, but it’s worth it. The other two breweries are in Toronto. Bellwoods brewery makes Hellwoods, a classic Imperial stout, and Three minutes to midnight, a cherry cocoa stout. Neither of them is always available, however. Blood Brothers Brewing makes Black Hand, a strong stout, and Balam, a very strong stout, and both are readily available online.
There you have it, a selection of stouts from far and near that will help you get through the winter, if you like rich, malty beer.
If not, there is always hot chocolate to fall back on.