PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's just fine when spicy, fruity and even hoppy beers mark the occasion as special holiday offerings, but there's a warm spot in many beer lovers' hearts for the more potent versions of porters and stouts that appear around this time of year.
Just as a good pumpkin ale or fall seasonal serve as markers of the first cold days, a great, strong stout or porter can serve as a staple of the holiday season -- or even one down the road if it has enough alcohol content to age. If you're wondering how to tell a porter from a stout, we have some news for you: It basically depends on what the brewer names it.
Arthur Guinness caused this confusion when his recipe for Extra Superior Porter eventually became Guinness Stout. True porters didn't return until the initial American craft beer boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the only distinction coming from judges at beer competitions. They insist stouts are darker, use roasted barley and use less water than porters, but even that's open to interpretation.
Brewers and beers experts have never come to much agreement on the topic and are convinced it's just a matter of naming convention. Writer Adrienne So did a far better job summing it up last year for now-defunct industry magazine Beer West, but drinkers looking for a dark, lovely example of either style shouldn't trouble themselves with minutiae.
That's just time you could better spend enjoying those beers. In the interest of expediting the holiday cheer, and building on last year's offerings, here are just 10 examples of stouts and porters that are a perfect fit for the cold months ahead:
Alcohol by volume: 10% ABV
In the late '90s, this was our introduction to the Russian Imperial Stout style -- so named because it was made exclusively for Catherine the Great. If you're new to heavier stouts, it's a great starting point.
Once packaged in six-packs before Brooklyn settled on a more manageable four, Black Chocolate Stout is packed densely with three different mashes of American two-row pale malt, caramel malt, malted wheat and a blend of American roasted malts and barley. Don't let the small, 12-ounce package fool you: This is one big, 320-calorie beer. Approach with caution.
Alcohol by volume: 7% ABV
This Marshall, Mich., brewer has five beers in its holiday stout series, but there's a special place in our hearts for their November release.
They call it a cream stout, but this sweet style is more commonly known as a milk stout because it uses lactose in the brewing process. That lactose serves as the base sugar and leaves behind more sweetness than standard sugar does once the yeast gets through with it. The result is a pleasant, easy drinking beer that makes a great dessert or complement to other holiday treats.
Yes, cookies and milk stout are a great combination that we can't suggest to you enough. If you can still get your hands on some of Dark Horse's Too Cream, we'd suggest experimenting for yourself.
Alcohol by volume: 15% to 17% ABV
This Boulder, Colo., brew is the biggest, baddest stout on our list, and the red foil seal on its 12-ounce bottle and demon on its label should provide fair warning.
Black as coal with the taste and feel of a liqueur, this has all the flavor of a tawny port combined with some of the stronger stouts on the market. Avery equates it to "chocolate-covered cherries with flavors of rum-soaked caramelized dark fruits and a double espresso finish," but we basically get lots of chocolate, lots of coffee and a whole lot of bitter warmth.
If you see a holiday dessert table stocked with deep, dark chocolate, fruitcake or tiramisu, we'd suggest adding a bottle of this for the mix and settling in for some warm, wintry decadence.
Alcohol by volume: 8.3% ABV
Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Founders' special-edition Canadian Breakfast Stout trades like a commodity in years it is released. Its KBS bourbon stout won't last long when it returns for a month in April.
Original-recipe Breakfast Stout, however, is a big favorite and seemed to be in more plentiful supply last year, when its run went from September to February. This year, Founders is cutting that run short so it can push its Imperial Stout from January through March.
That's a shame, as its combination of flaked oats, bitter and imported chocolates and Sumatra and Kona coffee mellows it out and gives it a smooth, milkshake taste that just takes hold of the palate and lingers there all winter. The four-packs weren't hard to find back in November, when we found cases of them at a Whole Foods Market outlet in Wilmington, Del., and we've still seen it on tap lists in New York City.
The reason we made it the only repeat entry on our list from last year's lineup, though, is that we know it can get tough to find once the holidays roll around. Our advice now is as it was then: If you see it, grab it.
Alcohol by volume: 7.5% ABV
These folks in Greensboro, Vt., have given holiday revelers lots to rejoice about in recent years, but this winter seasonal is particularly worth celebrating.
Hill Farmstead and its Vermont neighbor The Alchemist have been redefining Northeast beer with such brews as the Alchemist's formidable Heady Topper imperial IPA and beers including Edward Pale Ale, Abner Double IPA and Ephraim Imperial Pale Ale.
Hill Farmstead founder Shaun Hill's lone nod to the season, however, is a blend of his education as a brewer in Denmark, his travels through Europe visiting breweries and absorbing local flavors and his years as a philosophy student. Twilight of the Idols takes its name from the 1889 Frederick Nietzsche book of the same name. Perhaps best known for its line "From life's school of war: What does not kill me makes me stronger," Twilight of the Idols decries cultural nihilism, decadence and weakness in favor of vitality and lust for life.
It also makes for a lush winter porter when that "decadence" is embodied by coffee and cinnamon and aged over vanilla beans. If that doesn't awaken one's love of nature and the sensory world, few other beers will.
Alcohol by volume: 8.8%
There was a time the 16-ounce tallboy can meant that you were drinking the cheapest, most plentiful bit of swill the lower shelves of the bodega refrigerators had to offer. Cavatica Stout doesn't remember that time and doesn't take many train commutes home in a paper bag.
Sharing its name with a black barn spider, this concoction is a complex blend of chocolate, caramel, coffee and toffee that cuts right through the damp chill of its native Astoria, Ore. It's big, burly beer that packs a bit more of a wallop that its packaging would suggest. We recommend getting cozy and letting this little spider weave its delicious web.
Alcohol by volume: 9% ABV
Once known as Emmett's Imperial Stout, this bruiser from Cleveland was renamed for the 2003 Northeast blackout and given a moniker more suited to its darkened disposition.
Laden with two-row, Crystal 77, black malt and roasted barley, this deep, rich Russian Imperial Stout gets a little extra kick from its Northern Brewer hops. Those little buds come through just a bit in the finish, but don't get in the way of malt that makes this a much smoother drink than it should be for its alcohol content. It's a warmer, but it's also a slow burn.
Alcohol by volume: 10%
If your standard holiday poison usually comes in the form of mulled wine or eggnog, Port Brewing has just the beer to convert you.
This San Diego County brewer and its sister brewery Lost Abbey turn out great high-potency beers, and this 10% alcohol by volume is no exception. Port loads up Santa's Little Helper with nine kinds of malts, four kinds of hops, brown sugar, Belgian chocolate, espresso and lots of roasted and black barley to give it a smooth flavor with a fiery finish.
Port's been brewing Santa's Little Helper since 1997, so there's a bit of holiday tradition behind it. Just because it's familiar, though, doesn't mean it's altogether friendly. Nothing kicks off a warm winter's nap quite like taking this beer too quickly.
Alcohol by volume: 6%
You may have heard that Three Floyds has Russian Imperial Stout that brings people to its Muenster, Ind., brewery one weekend each April just for a chance to get their hands on it.
This isn't that beer. You can actually get this one fairly easily. This dark, roasty porter is a distant relative of the brewery's flagship Alpha King pale ale, and you can taste it in the hefty dose of hops.
The holiday spices mask the citrusy hop aroma a bit, but it's apparent after the first sip and fights continuously with the mellower chocolate and coffee flavors of the porter. English chocolate malt and Mexican sugar are apparent in Alpha Klaus' sweet finish and 7.5% ABV, but fans of maltier holiday beers should probably get in the gift-giving mood and hand this off to a hop-loving friend.
Alcohol by volume: 11.1%
While we're on the subject of hops, let's head to Ontario, Ore., and a brewery that has absolutely no problem dumping a ton of them into an imperial stout.
Black Flag still has eight malts giving it a motor-oil complexion, but it's also teeming with Warrior, Chinook, Columbus and Cascade hops. How teeming, you ask? The standard measure for bitterness -- the International Bitterness Unit -- usually tops out at 100. Beer Valley considers this a "100+," and the floral, citrusy elements of it certainly suggest they tried their best to get it there. They could have just made a dark IPA. We're glad they didn't.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.
>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.
>To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.