For as many inroads as beer has made against wine’s hegemony, there are still some areas where it seldom comes to mind. We’ve come to the point where food pairings with beer are more or less no big deal, but date night? Romance? Pssh. The phrase “wine for date night” gets over 35,000 Google hits; “beer for date night” lands a whopping nine.
Valentine’s Day, of course, isn’t just another date night. There’s a lot of focus paid to dessert. (I promise there’s no innuendo here.) Boxes of chocolates, candy hearts, chocolate-dipped strawberries — not that we can’t make any holiday about dessert, we’re America, dammit — but it’s a very sugary holiday.
So when we talk about sweet beers, and I mean very sweet beers, we’re usually talking about stouts and barleywines. Unless there’s some novelty adjunct addition like vanilla or chocolate or raspberries, the sweetness in big beers typically comes from unfermented sugars.
The traditional source for unfermentable sugars in a beer recipe is roasted or charred malts. Caramelized sugars can’t be broken down as easily as simpler sugars, and those unfermented sugars add not only sweetness but body and viscosity to the final product. Heavy viscosity is not usually a quality you want in a pale ale or pilsner, and that’s what gets us back to a lot of stouts and barleywines.
Big sweet beers get a bit of a bad rap, especially if they include gimmicky adjuncts, because it’s easier to fudge a poorly made beer by loading it up with palate distractions like an off-the-charts sweetness. Three Floyds’ Dark Lord is often a target of this type of scorn. The entire state of Florida gets dinged from some quarters for its love of syrupy adjunct beers; think Funky Buddha’s Last Snow (a coconut white chocolate coffee porter) or Angry Chair’s German Chocolate Cupcake Stout.
Maybe people are just being unfair to Florida. I mean, Toppling Goliath’s Mornin’ Delight is about as sweet as they come, opaque and loaded with maple — but from Iowa. Michigan’s Saugatuck Brewing makes a couple doozies; both Neapolitan Milk Stout and Blueberry Maple Stout are incredibly sweet but manage to be fun, easily acquired and, I think, less razzed by the geeks. Chicago burned through Haymarket’s 2017 batch of Clare’s Thirsty, a stunning draft-only barrel-aged raspberry imperial stout, in less than a day.
You don’t have to get in a ticket line or go whale hunting abroad to find a liquid version of a box of chocolates, though. Indeed, Vintage Brewing’s aptly named Bocks O’Chocolates just hit store shelves within the last week, and manages to deliver baker’s chocolate notes with a dark body that’s maybe only a little richer than bocks should be. It’s worth taking a chance on. Verona’s Hop Haus poured a raspberry version of its Brickhaus porter, called Brickhaus Sexy Style, at Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest; it so expertly nailed that Clare’s Thirsty-esque raspberry truffle flavor that it really should go on the regular Hop Haus rotation.
There are plenty of beers with little to no gimmickry that also deliver major sweetness. I actually found this year’s Cabin Fever from New Glarus to be excessively honeyed, but if you dig that (or are an actual bee), it may be for you. Single bottles of Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout may carry a hefty price tag, but its equally hefty palate and alcohol percentage bring the value closer to alignment with the cost.
But if money's no object for Valentine’s Day — or you want to show off, big spender — kick off your heels, loosen your tie, and open a single of one of Avery’s massive and massively sweet brews that tend to linger on store shelves, like Rumpkin or Pump[KY]n. Again, I swear, those aren’t innuendos.