Belgians, barleywines and barrels | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Belgians, barleywines and barrels

A rundown of boozy beers built for the cold

I love the cartoonishly drunk Santa at the beginning of Miracle on 34th Street. Slouching and slurring, he offers up a simple explanation for why he’s tanked the morning of the big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: “Well, it’s cold. A man's got to do something to keep warm.”

It’s a quote I think of often in the wintertime. Scientifically speaking, alcohol actually lowers your core body temperature, which is why drinking in extremely cold conditions is risky. But booze does trick you into feeling warmer by dilating your blood vessels and bringing more blood to your skin’s surface. And that warm and fuzzy feeling is enough for many of us to put away the pilsners and reach for something a bit boozier.

Aside from hot cocoa, few things taste better after a day in the snow than something strong and Belgian. While plenty of Belgian beers fit the bill, the dark strong ales are especially suited to the colder months. Despite ABVs that creep into the double digits, the sharp sting of alcohol is hidden by malty sweetness and fruity esters (those distinctive flavors produced by Belgian yeasts). Though some examples of this style are highly sought after and therefore quite rare, others are readily available. Try St. Bernardus Abt 12, a rich Belgian quad with lovely dark fruit notes, or Gulden Draak, a dark ale with touches of caramel.

Barleywines are beers, but they earn their name by being just as strong and complex as wine. The centuries-old style is a perfect wintertime sipper thanks to a rich maltiness, nuanced toffee and fruit notes, and high alcohol content (usually 8 to 12 percent). You’ll often see barleywines described as English or American: The American style tends to highlight hops. Barleywines are perfect candidates for aging, with flavors maturing and changing over the years. Keep an eye out for Hell With The Lid Off, the annual barleywine celebration that Kelly's Bar and Lounge holds at the end of every winter.

Speaking of aging, winter is the perfect time to dive into the world of barrel-aged beers. Though barrels have been part of the brewing process for centuries, the trend of aging beers in used whiskey barrels (or those of other spirits) is a relatively recent one. Many point to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, which debuted in 1992, as the first commercial example. 

Though brewers throw all sorts of beer into used barrels, high-gravity stouts and porters yield some of the best results. The rich coffee and chocolate notes pair beautifully with the vanilla and caramel of the barrels. While many barrel-aged beers are extremely rare, it’s easy to find some great (and local) options. East End, Roundabout, Voodoo and many other area breweries regularly release excellent barrel-aged offerings. Grab as many as you can find — after all, a man’s got to do something to keep warm.

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