Despite sprawling through a desert that we all know can get really hot, Phoenix makes some great beers for drinking in what winter we get. I was reminded of this recently when I stopped into Helton Brewing Company for lunch. A waffle pressed into shape with hot pulled pork in the soft grid was great, and so was a flight of eight beers.
Brian Helton has the mojo of a veteran brewer. He has a lean frame and a beard cascading in gray and white streaks down to his chest, giving him the look of a traveling sage wandered out of the pages of Shakespeare and into our 21st-century world of internet and electric cars and stainless-steel fermentation vats. He has been making his Scotch ale, one of his better beers, just about the same way for 27 years.
“We did win a couple of medals with this one,” he says of his Scotch ale. “It’s all about the Golden Promise Malt, a malt indigenous to Scotland. What you’re doing is intensifying the flavor of the malt.”
If you catch him in the taproom of his Indian School Road brewery, Helton may explain that Scotch ales aren’t hoppy because Scotland is too cold for hops, and historically was too proud to source them from the hated English. He may shed light on how Scotch ale once tasted peaty, as fuel from the bogs was used to heat malt. His version is a dark copper color and nice and balanced, with a round and intricately sweet malty flavor concealing the brew’s 7 percent ABV.
Another Helton Brew for vanquishing what chills or bores you is the black IPA. Four kinds of hops lend their essences to the coffee-dark beer, but they aren’t what pulls your mind after a sip. That would be a textured, toasty world of chocolate, some fleeting caramelization, and good warmth. The alcohol isn’t shy. You feel it as heat in your mouth.
It took Helton a while to lasso what he wanted in his black IPA. The phantom he was chasing was planted in his memory by a Stone Brewing beer, Sublime, a beer no longer made. “I’ve been trying to chase that for eight years,” Helton says. “It’s all about that roast character.”
These two beers have what people look for in winter beer: body, creaminess, alcohol (which often manifests in your mouth as heat), and maybe spices, sweetness, and flavors like coffee or chocolate. Some fruit can be good as well, so long as it isn’t used in a runaway jammy way, and rather is incorporated as one of many parts in the beer’s symphonic balance. Exhibit A: Helton’s dry-hopped blueberry sour.
This is a hopped, hazy sour. Made with blueberries yet the color of grapefruit juice. And it’s great for winter.
The huge, bright flavors of sour beers are made for summer, lopping through the swelter like a katana through a watermelon. But a pair of hops bring this beer a little fresh bitterness, and the blueberry calls to mind a freshly-out-of-the-oven winter pie, appearing on a level no grander than that of the hops or tang, one piece but not the whole puzzle.
"We found a hop called Laurel hops,” Helton says. “Laurel hop has this very unique lemon flavor to it. So of course we're like that's perfect, blueberries and lemons go wonderful together. We wanted to dry hop it to accentuate that lemon flavor and the aromas coming from it."
Though not as beloved as his boysenberry sour, and though lower ABV than most of the sours Helton makes, his dry-hopped blueberry sour is one of the better sours in town.
Winter beer season peaks in Phoenix in early February with the annual Strong Beer Festival. With the aim of rolling out some bangers at the event, Helton, the other day, was brewing two new beers.
The first was an imperial stout made with oats, a thick brew that will likely come in at 12 percent. (When brewing, you can’t always predict the ABV with ironclad certainty.)
The second was an eisbock, a rare beer style that takes bock in a frosty new direction. "We've also got a cherry eisbock that we're doing,” Helton says. “An eisbock is a method of taking a beer that's a lager to start with. Right now, we're at about 11.5 percent alcohol. So we'll freeze some of the water out of it through a technique of leaving the gylcol on. It goes through a cold, cold lagering that really enhances the flavors."
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Helton plans to add two kinds of cherries at the end. He plans to age some eisbock (a collaboration with Irene's Tap Room) and imperial stout in whiskey barrels from Hamilton Distillery, and release the barrel-aged versions next winter.
When pushing his beer in new directions, Helton moves slowly, making just a few tinkerings from batch to batch. This is for ease of traceability, so he can see how his altered calculus re-shapes the final beer. Though he makes changes slowly and cautiously, Helton has inched his way to some singular winter brews, great for when you crave warming.
Helton Brewing Company. 2144 East Indian School Road; 602-730-2739.
Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.