Our favourite beer styles for winter Part 1

While the sun keeps on shining in a determinedly cheerful fashion here in Sydney, we are equally determined to get stuck into our favourite winter brews and few extra 24 degree plus days isn't going to deter us. So settle back by the open fire (with your thongs still on) and let us tell you about our favourite cold weather beers. In Part 1 we wax poetic about the Extra Special Bitter and the American Red Ale. In Part 2 things will get even more interesting. And hopefully we'll be wearing jumpers by then. So you'll just have to come back for that. 

Extra Special Bitter or Strong Bitter

What is it?

If you were just going off the name, you’d probably think you were in for some kind of palate-pinching bitterness bomb. But note, it’s extra special, not extra bitter. So what you’re really in for is a treat.

The Extra Special Bitter (ESB) is a classic English-style pale ale though you’ll find they pour slightly darker than pale – deep gold and copper. When it’s done well, an ESB should offer a beautifully balanced combination of caramel malt, hop bitterness and aromatic esters. The malt sweetness of an ESB is generally toasty and rich and a little bit fruity. Sure, the hop character is pronounced, but it is rounded out by the malt and by the fruity aromatics and flavour of the yeast strains used in this style. English hop styles are the preferred ingredient – think East Kent Goldings, Target, Challenger – though non British brewers are playing with all kinds of combinations to interesting effect. Carbonation is generally restrained in this full-bodied style and there’s no need to drink it at icy cold temperatures as they will just mask your enjoyment of the interplay between the different but complementary elements.

What to eat with your Extra Special Bitter

A good ESB with a moderate ABV can be the perfect sessionable for a late afternoon BBQ on a crisp autumn day. If you’re a bit over chops and steaks, try it with pork or be game and try some game. If you’re not up for a big meal, then a cheese platter will do nicely and you can take your pick – brie or parmesan, swiss or asiago.

Cam’s favourite Extra Special Bitters

We recently included Napoleone’s ESB in one of our beer boxes and weren’t surprised at how well it was received. Lots of toffee in the flavour, a little chocolate, and a fresh hoppy bitterness. Just the brew to enjoy as the weather turns a little more, well, English.

For a slightly more new world take on the style, we like the Hargreaves Hill ESB which has the hop bitterness cut through that nutty, caramel malt backbone a little more emphatically while still remaining true to the style. Good stuff.

American Red Ale

What is it?

While red ales have a strong British history – think Irish reds, Scottish ales, and even brown English ales – it’s the distinctly American, and perhaps even more specifically, West Coast, version of the red ale that we are really getting stuck into this season.

The American red ale is emphatically malty in flavour and, of course, in colour. While the distinction between ambers and reds is becoming increasingly tricky to define, generally a red is ruddier than an amber and lighter than a brown. The expertise involved in malt selection will be apparent straight away when you see that gloriously ruby hue. Crystal and caramel malts give the amber ale those sweet notes that can range in flavour from toffee, caramel, toasty or fruity or a combination of all. The chocolatey, roasted malts are less prevalent as they tend to produce a darker, browner brew.

You might be thinking at this point that it’s all sounding rather familiar and not so unlike our friend the ESB, above. Sure, while the malt profile can a notable similarity, the American red ale has the distinctly US character of being robustly hopped. The strong malt backbone means that the red ale can not only accommodate but really showcase some serious hop intent without it becoming a different style of beer altogether. Look out for the classic US style hops that produce the wonderfully citric, piney aromatics and flavours that we associate with West Coast beers. The combination of that rich, caramelised malt body and the fresh, dry, bitter hop finish makes for a satisfying beer-drinking experience.

What to eat with your American Red Ale

Like the ESB, the malt driven character of the red ale makes it a great pairing with barbecued meats, especially game meats. Or mix it up a little by having a red ale with your next Chinese meal and enjoy the way sweet and savory, like hoisin, complements the malt and hop combination of the ale. The hop bitterness helps cut through the richness so that heavier meals are lightened, not weighed down even further.

Cam’s favourite Red Ale

Labelled an amber ale, but darker and with enough of those red ale characteristics to cross the line, we’ll take the Sutton Hoo from NZ’s Townshend Brewery with its biscuity, caramel malt and tangy, bitter fruit hops with a chunk of cheddar and a cosy fireside. 

Join us next week for Part 2 of our favourite winter brews special. In the meantime, get yourself an ESB and an American Red Ale and think wintery thoughts.

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