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As Cure for Winter’s Blues, Flathead Breweries Pour Winter Brews

Winter beers tend to be darker and stronger, but not all breweries follow the same approach

By Mike Kordenbrock
A sample of SunRift Beer Company’s Supernova Trippel, a winter seasonal in progress at the SunRift brew house in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon distillery

Across the Flathead Valley, breweries are rolling out an array of winter seasonal beers aimed at patrons bracing for a season in which holiday festivities often proceed against the backdrop of snow, cold and slate-gray skies.

For Raymond Dickinson, the craft brewing industry’s seasonal turn toward heavier, more malt-driven beers with a higher alcohol content is reflective of the way in which cold, snowy days elevate certain tendencies to the top of people’s minds and and the forefront of their appetites.

“As you kind of plunge into the winter months, it’s kind of natural for us to feel comforted either by warmth or by feeling full or satisfied in our gut,” said Dickinson, the owner of Brix Bottleshop, a downtown Kalispell business specializing in the sale of canned and bottled craft beer and wine.

“In the middle of July or August when it’s 90 degrees outside, you’re not going to drink a 12-plus-percent alcohol maple syrup beer,” Dickinson added. At Brix, among his seasonal offerings from breweries outside Montana are Bourbon Barrel Quad ales from Boulevard Brewing, and its Maple Mood Imperial Stout. He’s also selling North Coast Brewing Company’s Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin XX Russian Imperial Stout, and 2020 and 2021 vintages of Fremont Brewing Company’s B-Bomb Barrel-aged Imperial Winter Ale.

SunRift Beer Company’s Head Brewer Justin Olson with a sample of the Supernova Trippel, a winter seasonal in progress at the SunRift brew house in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon distillery

Darin Fisher, the owner and brewer at Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls, sees seasonal winter beers as something that “should have a strength and complexity worth sipping and contemplating.”

“Spices and herbs are appropriate, but blends of spices and herbs should be subtle enough that you can’t pick out a specific high spice note,” Fisher said. “Winter beers don’t have to be strong, but I really enjoy beers in the 7% to 12% ABV (alcohol by volume) range that are suitable for sipping in front of a fire, or sharing with friends with a warm, savory meal.”

Right now, Backslope has its “Festivale” winter warmer on tap. The dark amber beer is brewed with spices and herbs including orange peel, rosemary and juniper berries.

Backslope also plans this winter to release the 2021 vintage of its “Opulence” Kriek-style sour beer made with local cherries. The brewery’s sours are produced through a roughly 18-month process. Backslope will also release a pair of Belgian ales, including “Felix’s Parting Gift,” which is the last beer made by a German exchange brewer who returned home earlier this year. It’s a 10% ABV golden ale made with local honey, chamomile and purple bergamot. The “Bear Skin Rug,” a Belgian Quad due out soon, is aged in whiskey barrels for over a year and comes out to 12% ABV. It’s served in a six-ounce pour due to its strength.

At SunRift Beer Company in Kalispell, winter seasonals are a chance to get more experimental and have fun with recipes, compared to the summertime, when more time is spent trying to maintain supplies of flagship beers.

 One of SunRift’s signature winter beers is its “Supernova” Belgian tripel, which is made with 135 pounds of local honey (head brewer Justin Olson and assistant brewer and general manager Luther Manasco extracted the honey from dozens of mason jars) and then cold-conditioned for three months, before its release on Super Bowl weekend. It doesn’t have the heavier feel of some other winter beers, despite its 9.4% ABV. Right now, the beer is still in a large metal beer fermentation tank. The tank is kept at a cold temperature, which allows the yeast particulate in the beer to more easily drift to the tank’s conical bottom. Olson will occasionally remove the sediment from the tank to maintain the beer’s flavor quality. The end result will be a clear, golden beer.

 “It’s not a chugging beer either. It’s a sipping beer,” Olson said. 

SunRift Beer Company’s Head Brewer Justin Olson pours a sample of the Supernova Trippel, a winter seasonal in progress at the SunRift brew house in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon distillery

Manasco added that Belgian yeast tends to allow fruit ester compounds involved in the brewing process to take on spice-like flavors.

The “Supernova” release weekend tradition is an homage to owner Craig Koontz’s love of football. Koontz’s brewery typically celebrates the start of the college football season with the release of another beer dedicated to his Arizona State Sun Devils.

SunRift’s lineup of current and upcoming seasonals includes the Campfire Scotch Ale, the Kraken Black IPA, and a yet-to-be-named oat coffee stout, infused with coffee from Glacier Perks in Lakeside.

At Bias Brewing, the winter seasonal lineup is anchored by the Crooked Cookie Stout, which is an 8.5% ABV imperial stout. Head brewer Christina Beisel describes it as “very malt forward, with strong chocolate and biscuit malt flavors.” The beer is spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, and raisins, and the hops add “pine and stone fruit flavors and aroma,” according to Beisel.

Beisel said the brewery’s winter seasonal releases usually have a theme. Their pumpkin beer comes out around Thanksgiving, the cookie stout is more of a Christmas beer, and their “Unbirthday Brut IPA” is a New Year’s beer, which she described as clean, dry, and effervescent like a bottle of champagne, where the hops are front and center, the bitterness is low, and drinkers will taste grape and peach flavors.

Over at Sacred Waters Brewing Company, Head Brewer Seth Orr and his brewing assistants have been working on a range of beers, some of which, like the Dark Waters Chocolate Stout, are already on tap. The stout is made with rolled oats and chocolate malt, along with cocoa nibs and dark chocolate that are incorporated during brewing for a smooth, deceptively light feeling 6.3% ABV beer. The brewery also has its Sacred Bohemian Lager on top, which is brewed with Montana grown barley and hops. Another winter offering at Sacred Waters is the Papa Squatch barrel-aged imperial stout. The Papa Squatch is aged seven months with cocoa nibs and vanilla beans in whiskey barrels from Whistling Andy Distilling. There are also plans to continue rotating products of the brewery’s sour beer program throughout the winter. Right now patrons can order a Sacred Prickly Pear Gose, which comes in at 6% ABV, and can offer a reprieve for those who want to try something outside the more typical winter beer offerings.

Flathead Lake Brewing Company in Bigfork also has some winter seasonals on the market, including the Captain Black Perle, a Baltic porter aged in a Whistling Andy Distilling rye whiskey oak cask. The beer draws its name from the Perle hops that go into it. The brewery also has a 369′ Stout on the market. The beer’s name is a nod to the depth of Flathead Lake. The best place to find Flathead Lake Brewing beers right now is at grocery stores, or on tap at bars, restaurants and other businesses in the valley. The brewery is still operational, and able to fulfill keg orders, but the pub house portion of the business is closed and under repair after a burst pipe last week flooded the kitchen and damaged other parts of the building. Updates on repairs can be found on the Flathead Lake Brewing Facebook page or at www.flatheadlakebrewing.com.

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