The Emerging Darkness
by Michele Christopher
Welcome to the first issue of a new column here at FTTW: Imbibe. For lovers of fine alcohol products everywhere.
There are reasons I love fall. There's the atmosphere of fall, first and foremost, with darkness falling earlier and with the rain and wind and that distinct autumn chill. There are all the leaves blanketing the ground with their reds and golds and yellows, not to mention the way those same leaves swirl in the wind, crazed and chaotic. There are the holidays--Halloween and the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Back in my school days, there was the new school year, which I always found exciting for at least the first few weeks, before I realized I had to keep going to the classes even once the newness had worn off. Perhaps what I most love about fall is the state of mind I find myself in: contemplative, creatively inspired, and both hopeful and melancholic (if that makes any kind of sense).
There's another reason I love fall, though, which I came face to face with a few weeks ago in a grocery store.
I was doing some basic grocery shopping, wandering past the beer aisle, when a certain purple packaging caught my eye. I did a quick double take and diverted my path, stopping in front of a purple cardboard beer holder I had not seen for months. It read "Snow Plow." My heart soared.
I don't mean that to be hokey, nor do I mean it to be a joke or a throw away absurdity. No, I literally had a physical reaction to seeing this beer. My pulse increased, my breath shallowed, I suspect my pupils became dilated. My spirits were honestly lifted, as if I had just been told I won the lottery, or perhaps found God. My night, boring and mundane, was suddenly new and exciting, glittering, holding the promise of deeply satisfying libation.
Snow Plow is a winter seasonal milk stout made by Widmer and it is, as you may have guessed, one of my favorite brews. It's delicious. Rich and full, a mix of chocolate and coffee flavors, smooth but heavy with just the right amount of sweetness. It is everything I love about stouts and an embodiment of what I love about beer. It is satisfying on a level that few things are satisfying to me. It's the sort of beer that better helps me understand alcoholism.
Snow Plow's availability is also the embodiment of what I love about the beer scene during the fall and winter months. Once the temperature starts dropping and the rain returns, the IPAs and golden and amber ales and Belgian brews that dominate the market during the summer months (and throughout the entire year, if we're going to be honest here) suddenly shrink and fade, if ever so slightly, toward the background as darker beers begin to show up in heavier numbers. Not that the dark beers come to dominate, mind you, but they do become a bit more common. The stouts emerge, blinking and rubbing their eyes, offering you their heft and substance. The porters step forward, deep and dark, providing a more aggressive taste than those lighter ales can offer.
Whereas in the summer, I might find one or two porters and perhaps a couple stouts on the shelf at the local grocery store (one of those stouts being the ever-present Guinness) the choice broadens significantly in the winter. Everyone stops looking for the perfect light beer to accompany their barbecue and more people begin to see the benefit of something thick and heavy, weighing on the taste buds and making its presence known as an entity in and of itself, rather than as a means to wash down a burger.
Even in the fantastic dedicated beer shop that recently opened in my town, the stouts, porters, black ales and other dark beers were a significant minority during the summer months. Now that winter has rolled around, they're becoming more prevalant, offering me much better choice in my preferred beer categories. So along with the old standby of Snow Plow, I can knock back a St. Peter's Old-Style Porter or Cream Stout, or a Rogue Mocha Porter or Chocolate Stout, perhaps an Old Rasputin Imperial Stout. I can revel in a Shakespeare Stout and Samuel Smith Imperial Stout and sit back, fat and full and warm, my craving for a beer that's more like a meal completely and utterly satisfied.
Of course, it's not just the stores where the dark beers emerge. It's at the bars and brewpubs, of which there are so many here in the Portland area. This time of year, the taps are newly filled with special stouts and porters often not seen in the summer months. Whereas before there may have only been one or two dark beers--or, in the pubs with more limited taps, none at all--in the winter there are often multiples ones. In the summer, perhaps there's one standard stout. In the winter, suddenly there's the standard stout, a new seasonal stout, a new porter and perhaps still another porter or stout, this one on a nitro tap. It's a whole new world. A better world.
Thus, for the next few months, I'll be enjoying my beer even more than usual. No longer will I find myself at a restaurant, forced to settle for some mediocre amber ale like Fat Tire or Mirror Pond to accompany my food. No, now I'm at Red Robin washing down my burger with a Snow Plow, or grabbing a newly available nitro porter at McMenamins to go with my pizza. It's dark outside, it's cold, it's raining, but I'm warm, I'm full, I'm holding a pint of stout and I'm satisfied, so very satisfied.
It's fall, friends. It's the season of dark beer. Enjoy.
Joel, who likes to sing the Mr. Plow song when drunk, is also the author of FTTW's Lo-Fi column.
I miss the variety of good stouts and porters during the summer months as well... A big old burger and a porter put me into a fine mood and, luckily for me, one of our local breweries makes a fine porter year round. But Samuel Smiths Imperial Stout is about as close as man may come to perfection in a glass...
Posted by: thefinn | November 15, 2006 5:40 AM
Joel, I'm glad to see this. Thanks.
Up in Ontario, Canada (and most other places here) you can get all that stuff year round. If you go to this place:
I understand that Smithwick's isn't widely available in the U.S.... really unfortunate if that's still the case.
Posted by: Dan | November 15, 2006 7:38 AM
Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout is indeed a fantastic beer. In fact I'm craving one right now. Possibly not a great sign since it's only 10:45 in the morning here.
Dan, The Beer Store looks grand. I've heard of Smithwicks's and I'm pretty sure I've had it before--perhaps at this fantastic English pub in Portland that has something like a hundred beers available. Can't for the life of me specifically remember it, though. I'll see if I can track down a bottle.
Posted by: Joel Caris | November 15, 2006 1:50 PM