Winters are for dark beers in Petaluma

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Winter is traditionally the season to break into dark beers likes stouts and porters for comfort through our short and blustery days. Dark, dry beers leave lingering roasty flavors, and often pair well with stews and soups in colder weather. But a few beers offer a different take on the usual bitter, opaque strong ales. German dunkels, black lagers, quads, milk stouts, and British browns can be surprisingly sweet, malty, or light. Not all, but some dark beers, actually have lower calories and less alcohol than a typical pale ale. (Guinness is practically a diet beer at only 4.25 percent ABV and about 125 calories per serving). Some are brewed to highlight the toasty, coffee flavors of roasted malt grain, while others are light bodied and delicate. Either way, dark beers come out of the cellar in winter months, making this a good chance to explore the underworld of new brews at Petaluma breweries, taphouses, and retailers.

Try a Baltic porter, a lagered (cold-fermented) dry beer that is light and effervescent despite its nearly carbon tone. We seek out D. Carnegie at Stockhome, a hard-to-find Swedish porter that pairs perfectly with seafood dishes like herring, cured salmon and caviar. Moonlight’s (Santa Rosa) Death and Taxes black lager is a local treat, often available at Taps, the Drawing Board and Aqus Café.

German dunkel, a Munich-malt brown lager, is lighter in body than most dark beers, and yields wonderful toasty, wheat flavors often complemented by chocolate or cereal notes. Look for Ayinger, Hacker-Pschorr and Weltenburger imports at BevMo or Bottle Barn.

German “black beer” or schwarzbier, another pilsner lager, uses dark malts to produce a bittersweet chocolate profile, roasty and clean, but still refreshingly drinkable. One of our favorites is Köstritzer, available at Chili Joe’s (and well-matched with Chili Joe’s spice-laden Santa Fe Carne Adovada). On the stronger side, doppelbocks carry a dried fruit character and fuller body. Traditional doppels have diabolic names like Salvator, Celebrator, Maximator and Optimator, and were considered by the monks that brewed them to be “liquid bread.” Dempsey’s offers a local version with its Lumanator.

Fort Point Brewing (San Francisco) ventures into the dark with malt-forward twists. Manzanita is a dark and spicy take on the German rauchbier, or “smoke beer,” highlighted with local smoked Manzanita wood. Butcher Crown Roadhouse recently served this seasonal beer on tap with the new restaurant’s Latin-inspired barbecue — a perfect match. Fort Point’s nitro Summer Porter is a creamy rendition of a heavyweight American porter, with light body and a pleasant, toasty aftertaste balanced with caramel grains. Fort Point also makes a gloriously copper-colored Westfalia altbier with grainy flavors complemented by prominently spicy Euro hops. Available in cans at Willibees, Charleys, Petaluma Market, and on tap at Brewster’s.

United Kingdom brews are known for malty, sweet styles like the low-alcohol British dark mild, or the more potent Scottish wee heavy - a classic “small-strong” beer that is as tasty as it is fun to say. In January, Taps Petaluma celebrates a Burns Supper (in honor of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet) with Scotch Broth (barley and beef stew paired with ale) and other winter delights. Last year’s take on the Burns fest introduced us to Traquair House Ale, a barrel-aged wee heavy with ruby notes and caramel richness that tops our list of unique brews. With hop flavoring barely there, this aged ale yields wonderful hazelnut flavors with an almost chewy, thick body. Do not pass up the chance to try a Belhaven, McEwan’s or Traquair House if you see it on a draught list at Taps or in the bottle at BevMo. (If you can’t wait for the Burns Supper, try these beers at home with aged gouda, stilton or blue cheese like Point Reyes Farmstead Bay Blue.)

A good, thick barrel-aged stout is always appropriate to warm your wintery bones, and Bourbon Country’s (Goose Island, Chicago) bourbon-barrel stout pours like syrup and packs a 14 percent ABV wallop of sweet, viscous flavor into a 17-ounce bottle. Available at BevMo and Costco (limited). Locally, Lagunitas offers the Willetized coffee stout aged in rye oak barrels. Also on the “warm” side with nearly 13 percent ABV, this ale gives off smoky, chocolate, French vanilla, and licorice notes. We also seek out Anderson Valley’s (Boonville) Wild Turkey Barrel Aged Stout where we can find it on tap, often available at McNear’s Saloon.

If you think dark beers are bitter and dry, the Belgian quad may change your view: this mahogany-colored, abbey ale is fruit-forward and well balanced with a decidedly hoppy finish. Lucky for us, Taps currently features the prototype St. Bernardus Abt 12, served in the perfect aroma-enhancing Belgian goblet.

If a traditional stout strikes your fancy, test out Dempsey’s dry Irish stout, HenHouse’s oyster stout and oatmeal porter, or Russian River’s (Santa Rosa) porter. If you can’t pry yourself away from a dark stout tradition this time of year, give these varieties a go: milk, oatmeal, or imperial stout. (Beer note: “imperial” is not beer for royalty, but generally means the ale carries two to three times the hop potency, or higher alcohol.)

We attribute our love for sweet beers generally to the milk stout, an ale brewed with lactose protein that produces dessert-like chocolate and espresso flavors. But specifically, it was Firestone Walker’s (Paso Robles) Merlin Nitro stout that turned us on to a new, favorite dark ale that pours out of a can like a Guinness cascade. Also try Lefthand’s (Fort Collins, Colorado) milk stout. 101 North offers the Naughty Aud Imperial stout, a molasses-y rich stout, available at Crocodile and the 101 North taphouse, and Dempsey’s pours a perfect Russian Imperial stout.

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