The beers of winter
As the days grow short and darkness descends across the land, a beer drinker’s thoughts turn from the pilsners and pale ales of summer to something more substantial: a beer to stick to the ribs and beat back the winter chill.
Join us, then, as we take a walk on the dark side with the biggest and best ales available on the peninsula to help tackle another long Korean winter.
Magpie made an immediate splash on the Gyeongnidan scene when it opened two years back, wowing customers with a super-simple menu of just two ales: a pale and a porter. While by no means a heavyweight compared to some of the monsters on this list, the porter nevertheless hits the spot for a punter in need of something dark, roasty and delicious. Chocolate and coffee notes are all there, with a smooth finish that ensures this beer can be enjoyed by the pint-full. If you’re new to the work of darker beers, make Magpie your first stop on the path to the dark side.
WHERE TO GET IT: Magpie Brewing Co. in Gyeongnidan
Huyghe Brewery Delirium Christmas
The Huyghe Brewery in Belgium has been producing their renowned beers since before World War I. Delirium Tremens, their most famous offering, is considered by many to be the best beer in the world. Delirium Christmas is the wintertime version of the brew, and we’re lucky enough to have access to it at Reilly’s Taphouse in Itaewon. Delirium Christmas is a deep red color, with flavors of dark cherry, chocolate, cane sugar and spices. It pours with a light white head (added bonus: at Reilly’s you can drink the beer out of a special glass decorated with pink elephants). At 10 percent alcohol by volume, this is a very strong beer. But you wouldn’t know it from the taste; the beer is sweet, smooth and complex, and lacks a strong alcohol aftertaste.
Whereas most of the beers on this list are available year-round, Delirium Christmas is a seasonal offering. You can only get a bottle during the cold months, which might be why its price is significantly higher than that of many other beers on this list. Think of it as buying an experience more so than a drink.
WHERE TO GET IT: Reilly’s Taphouse in Itaewon
Theakston Old Peculier
Next stop on our winter beer journey is peculiar indeed. Brewed by Theakston Brewery in the North of England, Old Peculier has a toasty malt nose with some dark fruits — think plum and fig — bringing thoughts of Christmas straight to mind. Tasting reveals a lighter-bodied dark ale with medium, soft carbonation — something of a British interpretation of a Belgian quad (we’ll get to that later). As you work through it, the malt character takes center stage, bringing a toffee sweetness that would never work in summer. But in the depths of winter, it’s just the thing to warm you through.
WHERE TO GET IT: Shinsegae Department Store
Craftworks Seoraksan Oatmeal Stout
No winter beer lineup would be complete without an oatmeal stout in the ranks, and thanks to Craftworks Taphouse we have a quality example of the style for us right here in the ROK. The beer starts with a slim cream head that isn’t going anywhere and a rich, creamy body — both courtesy of proteins from the oatmeal the beer is brewed with. The nose is lovely, with grain and smoke in the glass, never overpowering but instead on point to deliver just the right amount of toasted goodness. Though the style of the beer may lack a certain amount of body and alcohol (just 4.5 percent), Craftworks has made a wise choice here: Seoraksan Oatmeal Stout is absolutely sessionable. It’s smooth and inviting, and won’t scare off newcomers to the world of stouts.
WHERE TO GET IT: Craftworks locations around Seoul (Gyeongnidan, Gangnam, Jung-gu and Pangyo)
Belhaven Wee Heavy
If you’ve ever wondered what a malt is, exactly, or what it tastes like, this wee heavy is your ale to try. Brewed by the iconic Belhaven Brewery of Scotland, this beer is a flag-bearer for the style. Starting with a medium head, you’ll notice its malt character immediately — as will everyone else in a 3-meter radius. When served at a proper (cellar) temperature, some might dismiss the flavor as simply sweet or even cloying, but, given time for the palate to adjust, a world of flavor opens up to the drinker. Still, if you are worried about the malt being too overpowering, just pop the cap off straight out of the fridge and watch the beer evolve as it warms. If you’re still worried about taking the leap to the malt side, start with Belhaven’s Scottish Ale — it’s a darker, more hoppy cousin of the Wee Heavy and will give you an idea of what these styles of beer are all about.
WHERE TO GET IT: Han’s Store in Itaewon
Green Flash Double Stout - 8.8% 45IBU
What is there to say about Green Flash Double Stout? Well, it’s not your father’s Guinness. This San Diego-born brew starts jet black in color, crowned with a cream head. The nose is exactly what you’re looking for when you reach for a bottle labeled double stout: huge coffee and cocoa character, with all the roasty, toasty goodness you could hope for. These flavors are delivered in spades on first taste and the mouthfeel is simply divine — one of the best textures you’ll ever get off a beer less than 10 percent alcohol. Basically, what we have in this Green Flash offering is an archetype of what a double stout is meant to be. If you enjoy espresso or dark chocolate in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to give this beer a shot.
WHERE TO GET IT: Beer O’Clock in Sinchon
Anderson Valley Winter Solstice
The other truly seasonal brew on this list, Winter Solstice, is exactly what you might imagine a winter beer to be. Winter Solstice is classified as a “winter warmer.” Winter warmers are – surprise – usually seasonal winter beers, and are typically dark and malty, with low hoppiness and spice. Anderson Valley’s offering fits the criteria. It’s a deep amber color, with a light head. It tastes of chewing tobacco, brown bread, raisins and caramel. It’s sweet in a toasted marshmallow sort of way, and has a hint of spice. Troy Zitzelsberger, the head brewer at Reilly’s, said it reminded him of fruitcake, so if the idea of a sweeter beer sounds unappealing to you, do steer clear. Anderson Valley Brewing Company was part of the first wave of microbreweries in the United States, and has led the wave of American microbrews emanating from the country ever since. This is another strong beer, with 6.9 percent alcohol by volume. Drinking out of the no-frills Anderson Valley pint glass, Winter Solstice is a beer that just feels right for a cold, snowy night.
WHERE TO GET IT: Reilly’s Taphouse in Itaewon
There are few brews that garner more love from beervangelists than Westmalle. One of the small number of authentic Trappist breweries, Westmalle produces two quintessential Belgian styles that are available in Korea: the tripel and dubbel. In both cases you start with a prodigious head on the beer, a byproduct of Westmalle’s distinctive yeast strain. The nose on the dubbel is a complex melody of toasted sugar and dark fruits, full of esters and complex aromas that are the hallmark of quality Belgian brewing. As the beer is bottle-conditioned, with C02 being produced naturally by yeast residing in the bottle, the mouthfeel is light, creamy and delicious. More flavors of raisin, fig, chocolate and burnt sugar are there for the taking, making this a classic winter ale and a wonderful introduction to the world of Belgian brewing.
WHERE TO GET IT: Nuba in Hongdae
State-owned Weihenstephan is the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world, with confirmed records dating to 1040 and historical reference reaching back even further. Like Schneider & Sohn (below), Weihenstephan is most famous for its work with wheat beers, but the Korbinian is an essential addition to a winter lineup. The style is dubbed a “doppelbock” (yes, a “double goat” for German speakers out there) and it smashes expectations of what a lager is meant to be. Flavors of malted milk, caramel and clover are foremost, with a warming alcohol presence that brings the beer right where it needs to be. Sip slowly, beer enthusiasts, for the 7.4 percent alcohol here goes down a little too smoothly.
WHERE TO GET IT: Thirsty Monk in Gangnam
Schneider & Sohn - Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock
Essentially responsible for preserving wheat beer brewing in Germany virtually single-handedly, it’s hard to overestimate how influential Schneider & Sohn are in weissbier/hefeweizen (wheat beer) circles. We are fortunate enough to have their Tap 7 original here in Korea, but hefeweizen itself is really a beer that only comes into its own during the summer months. For the darker months of winter, Schneider & Sohn have another offering for us: Eisbock. By freezing the beer and removing the ice that forms, the brewer fortifies the beer, raising the beer to new levels of intensity (and alcohol!).
This beer has a staggering nose of clove, banana, bread, wheat and booze. High carbonation works to lighten the body of an otherwise heavy beer. There are very strong alcohol phenols on first taste, and the raisin, plum and almond are reminiscent of good-quality rum. The heat of the alcohol does begin to wear off as you work through the bottle, but all the same be warned: This is not a beer for the faint of heart. Beer geeks only need apply.
WHERE TO GET IT: Imported primarily by E-Mart, so check your local store.
St. Bernardus Abt 12
The most revered of all Trappist ales is Westvleteren 12, a Belgian “quadrupel.” But this is not that beer. Fortunately for us residents of Korea, many beer geeks also rate St. Bernardus Abt 12 as superior to the famed Westvleteren. So what is all the fuss about? In short, this style of beer is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Belgian brewing. Clocking in at 10 percent alcohol (not that you’d ever know it), flavors of brown bread, caramel, figs, clove and tobacco dominate. This is quite simply one of the most complex brews around. There are few places in town doing this beer properly – and it’s expensive – but if you want to plumb the incredible depths of the Belgian brewing tradition, this beer is an essential stop on your quest.
WHERE TO GET IT: Nuba in Hongdae
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