During the cold, dark months of winter it's often the beer powerhouses that dominate our affection most. Founders Breakfast Stout, New Holland Dragon's Milk, Arcadia Shipwreck Porter—the list goes on, and for good reason. With higher ABVs, deliciously warming overtones, and occasional echoes from the bourbon barrel or coffee pot, no other beers are better suited for cold weather than the aforementioned. (Did I mention the higher ABVs?)
But the fact is that for this beer fan the heavyweights sometimes pack too much punch. I like a beer with dinner, and I like to drink more than one. While I will always appreciate the merits of an well-made RIS or barrel-aged barley wine, when selecting a beer to accompany my meal, these days I'm more likely to pick one that is, well, less a meal in and of itself.
So to what do I turn in the cold of January, at dinnertime, when that voice inside me begins to whisper, stout, stout, stout? Enter North Coast Old No. 38, a medium-bodied, extremely well-balanced beer with enough complexity and flavor to satisfy any cold-weather craving.
The Beer, Reviewed
According to the website of California-based North Coast Brewing Co., Old No. 38 is a "Dublin dry stout...with the toasted character and coffee notes of dark malts and roasted barley." The great beer writer Michael Jackson called it "a wonderful ale" and "possibly the best stout made in America" (source). Moreover, in Randy Mosher's book Tasting Beer, the author lists Old No. 38 among the finest examples in the category of the Irish Dry Stout (163). Not bad for a beer that has its traditional origin overseas.
To my taste Old No. 38 is on the dry side and very clean, replete with flavors typically associated with chewier, sweeter beers—rich chocolate up front and in the nose, cocoa powder and coffee in the finish (which lingers wonderfully by the way). In fact, it's these flavors combined with the near total absence of residual sweetness that appeals to me most. I could drink two or three Old No. 38s and not feel overburdened by the weight.
Conversely, the bitterness of the roasted barley is not overdone. Far from it. The moderate "roastiness" of this beer functions as the backbone, giving structure to the caramel creaminess intimated by the darker malts. Overall it's a supremely balanced stout, chocolatey and rich without being sweet, roasty without too much bitterness, satisfying without feeling like you finished off an entire chocolate cake.
Relatively diminutive in body but otherwise full of flavor, Old No. 38 strikes me as a good match for a big hamburger with all the fixings. In particular, the beer's pleasant chocolatey overtones will really sing when combined with the salt of regular or sweet potato French fries (more and more common in restaurants these days). Malt vinegar for dipping in place of ketchup might even emphasize the effect.
North Coast Old No. 38 is available all year-round at Siciliano's ($1.89/12oz). It checks in at 5.5% ABV and 53 IBUs. The official style is Dublin or Irish Dry Stout,
depending on the source.