It has been a mild winter in Champaign–Urbana. Average temperatures have been 4°F to 6°F above normal, and record highs have been broken four times since the solstice in December. But winter storms remind us that, yes, it’s still February, and that sometimes having a strong drink to warm our insides is just as necessary as having fireplaces and blankets to warm our outsides.
A winter beer is not a single style of itself but usually refers to a malty beer that is higher in alcohol than an everyday selection. They tend to be dark in color — think coffee and molasses — to match the ever-present darkness in the depths of the season. They are flavorful with complex tasting notes that sometimes defy description. Hops take a backseat to roasty, sweet, and stone fruit flavors. Some may have nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice to give a characteristic holiday feel. Russian imperial stout and barleywines are archetypal winter beers, but less-intense stouts, porters, and wheat beers may also be appropriate for cold weather. These are not lawnmower or tailgating beers; they are meant to be sipped slowly with friends huddled together for lively conversation.
The days are lengthening now as we make our steady march toward milder temperatures, sunnier weather, and evenings outside with the lighter beers of spring. But winter is here for several more weeks, so use that as an excuse to find a strong local beer to warm up with.The breweries around town all have a style or two on tap that fall in this category. Let’s take a look.
Second Brefist is a self-evident name for this strong ale that Triptych brewed in collaboration with Lil Beaver Brewery in Bloomington. A quick sniff gives away the secret: maple syrup is the star of the show. A longer smell will make you wish you had a plate of pancakes to pour it on. The first sip contributes pronounced coffee flavors and a hint of bourbon sweetness to the mix, but the maple syrup stays at the forefront throughout the glass. Lactose adds a bit of silkiness and cuts the intensity of the syrup. At 10.1% ABV, Second Brefist packs a punch but doesn’t come off as boozy. It is not overly sweet, but those who prefer bitter beers will find the four-ounce pour to be more than enough.
The other winter beer on tap in the Savoy taproom is the Weizenbock. Bock beers are traditional German bottom-fermenting beers, stronger, maltier, and darker than other German lagers. They are historically seasonal beers, brewed for late winter and early spring festivals since the 1600s. Weizenbocks are versions of this style made for winter, brewed with wheat in addition to the barley to make it like a more potent hefeweizen or dunkelweizen. Triptych’s version is a hazy, caramel-colored brew. The yeast adds strong banana aromas and flavors while the bitterness of the hops comes almost as an afterthought. Hefeweizen lovers will love this warming beer. Hefeweizen haters should steer clear.
1703 Woodfield Dr
M-W 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Th 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
F-Sa noon to 11 p.m.
Su noon to 8 p.m.
Riggs Beer Company
Riggs has five seasonal options currently, the largest selection in C-U’s brewery scene. Two are true winter beers while the others are perhaps winter-adjacent. Like its crosstown cousin, Riggs has a Weizenbock on the menu. Their version is unmistakably related to a hefeweizen, but the banana notes are slightly less pronounced. The beer is not as cloudy, suggesting wheat makes up a smaller portion of the grain bill. The taste profile is more Bock than Weizenbier; darkness wins out over other flavors in this version.
The barleywine is the biggest beer on Riggs’s menu. Barleywines are true winter warmers, ranging in alcohol from 6% to 12%. Riggs’s version clocks in at 8.9% ABV, falling right in the middle of the style guidelines. It is a deep copper color, smelling and tasting quite like cherries and toffee. There is plenty of residual sweetness in the glass, but it is never cloying. Many barleywines can overpower the palate; this one does not, coming off balanced and easy to enjoy.
The Imperial Pale Lager is the German-inspired brewer’s answer to the Imperial Pale Ale. For winter, a Black IPL is on the tap list. The nose is clean with roasty coffee notes, reminiscent of a strong porter rather than a crisp lager. Its 7.3% ABV warms slightly as drinkers get to the bottom of the vessel. A firm bitterness from the hops arrives at the end after working through the toasty breadiness of the drink. The Black IPL is easy to select as a favorite of the group.
Finally, the schwarzbier is one of those that could be a winter beer given some of its qualities, but it is not as alcoholic as the others. The name is an accurate — if literal —descriptor for this selection. (Schwarzbier is German for “black beer.”) Visual and olfactory contributions are what make this beer unique; strong roast and subtle smoke aromas complement the opaque color. If you closed your eyes, you might not be able to tell you were drinking something different than a pilsner or another clean-tasting lager.
Riggs Beer Company
1901 S High Cross Rd
Th + F 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Sa noon to 10 p.m.
Su noon to 8 p.m.
The Blind Pig Brewery
The Blind Pig Brewery is always good for a few unique options that can’t be found anywhere else in town, and their winter beer selection is no different. At the bottom of the menu, but at the top of the list, is the 10th Anniversary Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. This is one with which to settle in for a long night. The beverage is viscous with aromas and initial flavors of molasses, chocolate, and freshly-baked bread. After some time, brown sugar, vanilla, and caramel emerge — some of which come from the whiskey barrels that housed the beer for ten months prior to kegging. 10th Anniversary is fermented with a Norwegian Kveik yeast, a traditional European yeast that is very forgiving of high-alcohol beers. It should impart a recognizable funk that saisons and other farmhouse beers are known for. If you were looking for it, you might find it underneath all the layers, but the beer’s complexity makes it hard to isolate. Many barrel-aged beers can taste hot and boozy, but not so with this one. It lets you know it is powerful (15% ABV) but in an enjoyable way.
Jalapeños can be harvested until the first frost so while not a typical winter beer, the Samburro Chili Ale, which features the spicy pepper, definitely fits in the season. The beer begins with a pungent smoke on the nose that should serve as a warning to the palate. Spice warms all the way down with each sip, lingering longer than expected from the menu’s description of a “hint of spicy heat.” Because the pepper is so pronounced, it is difficult to find other flavors in the beer. Set pHAZErs to Stun, a hazy IPA, serves as a good chaser to relieve the heat from the tongue.
The Blind Pig Brewery
120 N Neil St
3 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily
25 O’Clock Brewing Company
On the night I visited 25 O’Clock Brewing Company, an Australian Shepherd puppy stood at the bar ahead of me in the line to order. He demanded not beer but treats and belly rubs, and could not understand why I didn’t reward him with food after he twice sat politely for me. (I didn’t have any.) Once he and his owners received what they were waiting for, they padded over to the corner of the tasting room where a television played a video of a log burning in a fireplace on loop. Both dog and people settled in for a cozy evening. The faux fireplace projected only imagined heat; I had to keep my winter coat on because the actual temperature in the taproom was cold.
All this is to say that sometimes winter and winter beer are what you make of them. There was nothing on the tap list at the brewery that would qualify as a true winter beer, but the porter came closest. It was on the lighter side of the style (4.9% ABV) with a subtle roast character and a less-pronounced malty sweet character. Hints of cocoa nibs hit the palate first, while gingerbread flavors pop out as the beer gets to room temperature. Underlying the grains are a hint of piney bitterness from the hops. Overall it was a good choice while wishing the projected flames could somehow emit warmth.
25 O’Clock Brewing Company
208 W Griggs St
W – F 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Sa 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.