These are dark and unforgiving times. The sky is leaden. The light is weak. Unless you happen to be an Internal Revenue Service agent working on commission, winter can be a real downer.
The other day when I was feeling lower than a snake in a wagon rut, I picked up my spirits by calling a few area brewers and finding out what new beers they are offering during the dark months.
For the most part, the brewers said "heavy and big." I found that response warm and comforting.
Up in Frederick, Steve Nordahl, brew master of Frederick Brewing Company, said he was putting the finishing touches on Steeple Stout, a beer he described as "big, heavy, dark and made with 10 percent rye."
Nordahl said he made a small batch of the stout last winter, but it had been served only on draft in taverns. This year's version is being bottled and should be in liquor stores in about three weeks, he said. Ordinarily the stout would not be released until a few days before St. Patrick's Day, March 17, which Nordahl described as "the next real good beer-drinking holiday after Christmas."
But this year the stout will hit the streets of Maryland a few weeks earlier because Nordahl's boss, Kevin Brannon, the president of the brewery, is turning 40 in early February, and Nordahl wanted to have the beer ready in time for the staff birthday party.
Jim Lutz said a key to happiness in the dark season was to find a good, dark beer. Lutz, who heads up the Wild Goose Brewery in Cambridge, said the brewery was making its chocolate-flavored Snow Goose beer until the end of February. It started making the beer before Christmas. When you find a good winter warmer, Lutz said, you stick with it. On a similar note, Oxford Brewing in Linthicum, said it was sticking with its Piccadilly Porter, as its brew for the dark season.
In Baltimore, Marc Tewey said he had been coping with winter by experimenting with formulas for beers at his Brimstone Brewery. The results of his experiments should arrive in bars in the next few weeks, he said.
"When it is dark and cold outside, you need dark and cold beer," Tewey said, who added that he liked to make "bizarre beers."
One his most potent creations, called Brimstone BIG, was made, he said, "with a ton of hops, a ton of crystal malt." He said it was fermented in a barrel that sat for a time in Tewey's brewery office in East Baltimore.
"We weren't sure what it would taste like," Tewey said. "But it turned out to be great." The few barrels of Brimstone BIG will be on tap in the next few weeks at Racer's Cafe in Parkville and the Last Chance Saloon in Columbia, he said.
At Oliver Breweries Ltd., in the Wharf Rat pub on Pratt Street, Bill Oliver said a good way to while away the winter was to stir up a sense of history and to sip three strong brews. The first brew was a black raspberry ale which Oliver has dubbed "Framboise Noire." The second was a dark, roasted Pilchard porter, named after the Pilchard, one of England's oldest pubs.
And the third was a Scottish ale, which Oliver serves every Jan. 24, in honor of the birthday of 19th-century figure Harry Gilmor. The son of Scottish immigrants, Gilmor wreaked havoc in the Civil War as a Confederate raider. Later, as commissioner of police in Baltimore, he was instrumental in stopping the railway strike riots in the 1880s at Camden Yards, Oliver said.
Every year on Gilmor's birthday Oliver and some friends visit Gilmor's grave in Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery. Then the group returns to the Wharf Rat, Oliver said, and toasts Gilmor.
Baltimore Brewing Company will issue a "surprise winter beer" this Friday. I learned this last week by going to the brewery and sucking down a few brews. That is all I learned.
Monday night I drank another surprise beer at Sisson's restaurant in South Baltimore. The brewer, John Ellis, described the beer as a white, Belgian-style beer, with flavors of coriander and oranges.
It was served at a surprise party for Hugh Sisson, who is leaving his family's restaurant and microbrewery to start a bigger, local, brewing operation called Clipper City. Ellis will continue to brew the beers served at the South Baltimore restaurant. Sisson said he plans to bottle a lager, an ale and four seasonal beers.
He hopes to have the Clipper City brewery running by summer, when we can once again stand outside in the light and drink beer.