My ancestry is as clear as mud — specifically, the flat and indefensible terrain formerly occupied by land-owning Junkers in eastern Germany and the western half of what is now sovereign Poland. Rest assured, my people were the German workers hoeing endless rows, not the Bismarckian aristocrats in the manor house. My guess is that we were located closer to Berlin than Bialystock, because I’ve never had much of a taste for distilled spirits, of which vodka is most notorious in that part of the world.
Rather, as should be painfully obvious by now, beer is written into my genetic code. Wine’s a pleasant diversion, but my forbearers toiled in Europe’s grain, not grape, belt.
I habitually contend that in winter, subliminal cravings transport me back to the foodstuffs of long-forgotten places and times. The marvels of transportation and our massive American carbon footprint whisk salads, watermelon and the ingredients for gazpacho straight to me in bleak, frozen Indiana, but, baby, when it’s cold outside, my thoughts always turn to beets and potatoes, sauerkraut and coarse sausage, onions and garlic, and the occasional barrel of salted or pickled herring.
Cold-weather beers to match elemental foods are no longer hard to find. They’re muscular, challenging and best served cool, not cold. Some of them hail from the same northerly climes where my predecessors originated. Others are brewed in America, inspired by the classic European styles and adapted during the craft beer revolution.
Imperial Stout can be termed “thick as oil” without the slightest hint of exaggeration. It boasts intense, roasted barley flavors and bears the deepest, darkest, most enticing fruity esters. The jet-black liquid originated in Great Britain as the sturdiest, built-to-last export beverage for markets in Imperial Russia and Baltic ports along the way.
American craft brewers have elevated Imperial Stout into a high-gravity tableau for creativity: Bell’s Expedition Stout (Michigan), Stone Russian Imperial Stout (California), Great Divide Yeti (Colorado) and Three Floyds Dark Lord (Indiana) are examples.
As a maritime visitor, Imperial Stout spawned numerous local imitators along the shores of the blustery Baltic. At first, like other beers of the time, these were brewed using top-fermenting ale yeast. Later, when German bottom-fermenting (lager) brewing methods and technology spread throughout Europe, the same strong, dark beers continued to be brewed, but with malts, hops and bottom-fermenting yeasts that derived from the German, not the British, brewing ethos.
To my palate, the result is slightly different, but no less tasty. From Polish habitats, look for Okocim Porter and Zwiec Porter. From the United States, there’s Victory Baltic Thunder (Pennsylvania), Kick in the Baltic (BBC, Louisville) and Solidarity (NABC, New Albany).
Doppelbock is the answer to a question asked long ago by central European monks: How do we brew liquid bread to reduce hunger pangs while forsaking solid food during Lenten fasting? By Bavarian tradition, Doppelbocks bear an “ -ator” suffix (in honor of Paulaner’s pioneering Salvator) and are represented visually by a goat. They’re sweet, with a burnished brown color, a clean but complex malt flavor, and just enough hops for balance.
As I write, Browning’s Brewery has a delicious Doppelbock on tap. It has a twist: smoked malt (see below), which makes it all the more chewy and satisfactory with pork or chili. Doppelbocks from the Old World are easy to find, with my favorite being Celebrator, brewed by a smaller, family-owned brewery in Aying, near Munich.
I adore smoked lagers, especially the world-classic Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen from Bamberg, Germany. During the malting process, wet barley is dried by smoke rising from a beechwood fire (or alder, or peat, as the case may be), permeating the malt with smoky goodness. At one time, it is reasonable to imagine that all the beer styles discussed here today could have been made with a proportion of smoked malt.
Select one: Imperial Stout, Baltic Porter, Doppelbock or Rauchbier. Pour into glass mug. Slice a kosher dill pickle. Chop onions to garnish kippers that have been laid atop thick, dense rye bread. Consider topping the open-faced sandwich with a raw egg. Eat, drink and explore the primeval.
Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.