Winter is Coming is a mixed 6-pack of beers from Leeds brewery Northern Monk. Northern Star is a fruity, caramel biscuit porter and Norse Star a vanilla, Amaretto-spiked imperial stout. Heathen is the odd one out; a hazey NEIPA among the dark beers. Heathen is suitable for vegans but contains gluten; both Northern Star and Norse Star contain gluten and milk.
A bitter wind whistles through the streets. Frosty leaves crackle underfoot. Forget coming – if you ask me, winter has very much arrived already.
As the world outside turns cold and wet, there are few things nicer than a rich, malty, dark beer to ward off the chill. Once again, I’m lured in by a Northern Monk selection box: Winter is Coming, a mix of their freshest porter, stout, and a NEIPA thrown in for good measure.
I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this beer is doing here. With a name like Winter is Coming, the chocolate porter and vanilla imperial stout come as expected. What I’m not expecting is a hazey juice bomb.
Heathen is a New England IPA, brewed with wheat and oats to give it a soft, pillowy mouthfeel. It pours pale orange, not a million miles off from the colour on the can. Immediately the wheat and oat additions are obvious from the extreme opacity, as you’d expect from a thick, extra pulpy orange juice. The head is pure white and thick, hanging around for several minutes as I fiddle with my camera settings.
Heathen’s aroma is all fruit: orange, pineapple, mango. There’s more of the same on the palate, tied up in a thick, chewy, pillowy mouthfeel. The resin notes promised on the label fail to materialise, at least for me.
This is not a complex beer. It tastes like I’m drinking a tropical fruit smoothie, though at 7.2% it’ll get me drunk a lot faster than waiting for fermentation to start in my pineapple juice.
Honestly, this beer is a bit of an also-ran for me. I sniffed out this box with my stout snout. A hazey NEIPA doesn’t really fit – it’s not a traditional winter style, nor is anything about it especially seasonal. The best I can stretch to is that this could be the platonic ideal of NEIPA, at least as I understand it.
We move onto the main event. Northern Star is a chocolate, caramel biscuit porter. Just reading that description makes me feel warm and toasty inside.
Not just caramel and biscuit, mind, but caramel biscuit. As well as the usual suspects hanging around in the ingredients list (milk, chocolate, caramel, vanilla) we also have actual biscuits in the mix. Which particular brand of biscuit Northern Monk has used remains a mystery.
Someday I’ll come up with a better way to describe these beers than “looks like a stout”, but to be honest, it Northern Star does look a bit like a stout. It’s dark and opaque with a loose, tan head. On the nose I’m getting caramel and vanilla. No biscuit yet, but certainly a lot of creamy lactose sweetness. There’s also the barest hint of chocolate.
It’s very sweet indeed on the palate, with masses of lactose. There’s berry sweetness too, which comes as something of a surprise: blackcurrant, especially. It’s like someone’s mixed Ribena into their hot chocolate. Of course there’s caramel in here too: soft like you’d expect from a Twix, rather than the darker, toastier caramel flavour you’d find in a Lotus Biscoff.
Northern Star has a very thick, creamy mouthfeel, almost soapy in consistency. That coats the tongue and hangs around, which means the finish is more about the texture than the flavours – though there’s a little vanilla there too.
The sweetness is a lot. While I’m enjoying the first few sips, I’m secretly glad this comes in a 330ml can as I’m not sure I could handle vast quantities of it. The currant, berry notes are an interesting twist though, putting this halfway between a more traditional cake stout and the fruit-laden Breakfast Club. This isn’t a session beer, far from it, but it’s a beer I’d quite like to come back to.
With the highest ABV (9.0%) and arguably the prettiest label, my expectations are high as I crack open my can of Norse Star. A collaboration between Northern Monk and Norwegian brewers Lervig, I’m expecting a delicious cocktail of chocolate and Amaretto from this vanilla, cacao and almond imperial stout.
The ingredients list incorporates vanilla essence, chocolate essence and almond essence – essentially, lot of essences. While I’m less familiar with the other two, vanilla essence is often pretty processed and can taste artificial when compared to purer, more expensive vanilla extract. Hopefully there’s enough going on in this beer to mask any of those artificial notes.
Northern Monk bills this beer as a “twist” on Northern Star (above) and there are certainly some similarities: they’re both dark beers, both spiked with a range of sweet goodies you’d normally expect to find in a patisserie. However, the Norse Star bills itself as an imperial stout, rather than a porter and the adjuncts are different this time, with almond substituting for biscuits.
It looks different too: while they’re both stouty, Norse Star boasts a thicker, tighter head more like toffee in colour than the Bailey’s floating atop the porter. There’s more chocolate on the aroma, more vanilla, and plenty of dark, slightly bitter malt notes. It also smells very sweet: my palate is primed for cake.
Nutty, Amaretto sweetness leads on the palate. Vanilla follows, with a touch of sourness that helps to cut through a thick, gloopy mouthfeel. I find myself craving the berry, curranty flavours of Northern Star that are lacking in its Norwegian cousin; this is more bitter, darker, with a very slight hint of charcoal. It’s not nearly as sweet as I’d first expected: while there’s a lot of lactose sweetness around to start, there’s enough dark chocolate bitterness to counteract that as it coats the palate.
It’s pretty good. Is it as good as the Northern Star though? While the Norse takes me on a journey from sweet to bitter, it doesn’t offer the berry complexity I enjoyed so much in the Northern. The almond flavour is nice, but somehow it doesn’t feel integrated with the rest of the beer: it’s like someone’s spiked my beer with Amaretto rather than having it emerge organically. This twist is good and I’ll certainly be looking for more from Lervig, but for now, the original has the edge.
Northern Monk’s Winter is Coming contains two each of Heathen, Northern Star and Norse Star. At £21.50, that works out at an average of £3.58 per beer – arguably very good value. Things start to look a little pricier when you factor in postage and packaging, but £4.58 is still less than I’d pay for a beer in most pubs in London.
Would I order this pack again? Sadly I can’t, since it’s currently not available on the Northern Monk shop – presumably they share my pedantry about winter having come already. But even if it were available, I’m not sure I’d order this particular mix again: the Heathen doesn’t really fit alongside two strong, punchy, dark beers. It’s definitely worth a try if you see Winter return to the webshop, but don’t feel too sad if you missed out on this occasion.