Article By: Andy Crouch
With all of the sustained and even explosive growth craft beer has enjoyed over the last decade, perhaps no area has been more active than seasonal beer. Brewers have long understood the importance of appealing to the changing consumer drinking patterns that accompany shifting weather patterns, which fuels the active seasonal beer market. From the Boston Beer Company’s diverse seasonal portfolio all the way down to the local brewpub, craft brewers rely upon an ever-changing litany of brands to spice up their sales programs and continually spark the interest of consumers.
In distinguishing themselves from mainstream macro beers, early microbrewers tried adding extra hops to their beers, while others sought refuge in passive, ubiquitous Ambers. The American craft beer seasonal program, according to beer lore, started with Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing Company. Beginning with the brewery’s super hoppy Anchor Liberty Ale in 1975, considered the granddaddy of all American IPAs to follow, and continuing with Our Special Ale, Maytag and Anchor understood that consumers wanted a departure from their regular assortment of beers at different times during the year. As restaurants change their menus to reflect new seasonal fare, early craft brewers started delivering their own takes on the changing seasons.
Seasonal appeal has long been one of beer’s great selling points. For every change in the weather, from snow to sun, there a beer style stands ready to meet the occasion. After relinquishing the Hefeweizens and Kolsch beers of summer, shivering beer drinkers comfort their shivering souls in the frigid months of winter with dark, robust and hearty beers, including Doppelbocks, Barleywines and Imperial Stouts. The term Winter Warmer or Winter Ale frequently covers a wide range of different styles. While often less popular than the summer beers, these beers help fortify people and lift their spirits.
In recent years we’ve started seeing Octoberfest beers released in late July and August and summer beers appearing out of nowhere in the rainy days of April. Due in part to clamoring from retailers and wholesalers to get earlier access to specialty releases, the beer industry should take care to avoid losing some of the magic of the seasonality of these products, like advertising snowboarding vacations in July.
On- and off-premise retailers across Massachusetts have wide access to many excellent local and national winter beers from craft brewers, which has developed in large part due to the interest of the local market and the fickle New England weather. “As we live in New England, a geographical area that does actually have the benefit of seasons, what better way is there to celebrate the change of seasons than with beer?,” says Suzanne Schalow, General Manager of Cambridge Commons restaurant, which offers 3O taps, many of which rotate on a weekly basis. “And with the change of seasons, we are fortunate to be in an area that has access to so many seasonal offerings.”
“I think the winter beers do well as they are heartier, more complex, and help deal with cold New England winter days,” says Joe Santos, General Manager of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough. “This is our favorite time of the year as the beers tend to excite people more. Summer beers tend to be light and very easy drinking and winter beers excite the palate as more and more flavors come out as the beers tend to warm up.”
The diversity of winter beers also fuels their popularity. “Winter and holiday beers are our best selling seasonals of the year, followed by fall and Octoberfest beers, summer beers, and then spring beers bringing up the rear,” says Schalow. “We feel that people get excited for that first crisp night or that first snow fall, and with that, they want that soul warming brew, one that often times has a big, malty backbone, plenty of spice, maybe some hints of fruit, and some hops, to bring it all home.”
In preparing to sell the wide-range of winter beers available to them, retailers usually need to put some additional effort into hand-selling the lesser-known products. “The idea of a winter brew can be downright confusing because they come in all styles and varieties,” says Kate Baker, Co-Manager of Cambridge Common. “Part of the fun for us is explaining the differences to customers who are still learning about winter or holiday seasonals – they can be ales, warmers, lagers, fruity, or any combinations of the above – light, medium-bodied, dark, etc. It can be a lot to swallow.”
Retailers also suggest balancing your store’s offerings between the classic and popular staple brands along with higher price points and more quixotic selections. At the heart of any store’s winter beer catalog will likely be one of the industry’s best selling seasonals: “Our best selling winter is Sam Adams Winter Lager, without a doubt,” says Baker. “It’s a solid brew that has a good balance of the winter spices of cinnamon and ginger, but then a little splash of orange peel and hops, that bring it back to reality. People dig it, that’s for sure.” Santos of Julio’s Liquors concurs. “We have become a destination store over the years and really try our best to cater to both sides of the beer spectrum. You take your Sam Adams drinker who comes in every week and gets his case of Sam Adams Lager, he will come in and change it up to Sam Winter Ale or Harpoon Winter Ale.”
Considering the wide range of beers available, Santos advocates focusing on certain popular brands, especially those from New England. “Our approach to stocking seasonals is just simply to stock the favorites that everyone comes in year after year to buy, such as Sierra Nevada Celebration, Anchor Christmas, Harpoon Winter, Berkshire Holidale, Smuttynose Winter, St. Bernardus Christmas, as well as some of the more obscure ones such as beers from the Shelton Brothers portfolio – Bad Elf, Very Bad Elf, Reindeer’s Revenge, Lump of Coal, and many others,” says Santos. “You try to reach all types of buyers from your everyday Sam Adams drinker to your most knowledgeable hardcore beer connoisseur.” As a destination store, Santos knows that Julio’s also must cater to its beer geek clientele. “Your more hardcore beer fan will have plenty to choose from,” he says of his winter beer catalog.
Beer buyers also have their own favorites, which they offer to their inquiring customers. “Some of the ones we are really looking forward are Troegs Mad Elf as people have been waiting for this since the brand came into Massachusetts last year,” says Santos. “There is also a lot of talk about Ommegang Adoration as it’s brand new, as well as Alesmith Yulesmith, Rogue Santa’s Special Reserve, Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper, Corsendonk Christmas, and Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi.”
A few bars and package stores have also been actively stashing away select bottles of beer that they believe will improve with age. Joe Grotto, Beer Buyer and Manager, has spent the last few years entirely revamping the regular and seasonal beer offerings at Liquor World in Cambridge. Aside from stocking the classic winter staple brands, including Anchor Our Special Ale and Sierra Nevada Celebration, he also offers his customers the chance to buy some aged winter beers. In choosing what to sell, Grotto spends time considering whether particular offerings are capable of improving with the passage of time or whether they are best consumed fresh. Grotto will purchase certain brands, often those with higher alcohol contents or Belgian winter varieties such as St. Bernardus Christmas Ale and De Ranke Pere Noel, with the understanding that if consumers do not walk out the doors with his whole allotment, he’ll try again next year. “If I don’t sell through all of it, I know it’s cellarable and can be put out again the following year at a slightly higher price point,” Grotto says. “I know that when I grab these beers the following year, they’re not going to be dead. So the next year I’ll put a stack of vintage beers out.” Before selling the beer the following year, Grotto runs through a tasting of the cellar. “I’ll crack them to make sure they are improving instead of getting worse and then I’ll put up a sign listing the vintage and noting that they improve with age.”
With the great assortment of fantastic winter beer brands available, let’s take a look at some classics from around the country along with some local favorites. One of the first seasonal beers ever produced by an American craft brewery, Anchor’s Our Special Ale also was one of the first to spend time in the cellar. Some collections have vintages heading back to the 197Os, with most selections offering great complexity and character many years after their release. The specific recipe for this dark brownish-amber ale changes a bit every year but usually involves a strong earthy nose, a touch of pine and wood, along with rich malt character.
Vying to be Connecticut’s favorite brewer, the Thomas Hooker Brewing Company has experienced some changes in its career but its lineup remains strong. Its winter offering is the strong Imperial Porter, a deep garnet brown colored beer that is made with eight different malts and a mixture of German and American hops. The aromas and flavors play between dark fruits, mocha, dark chocolate, and a dry roasted nut quality.
Often referenced by beer enthusiasts when they talk about winter beers, the Mad Elf Holiday Ale from the Troegs Brewing Company is made with Pennsylvania honey, West Coast cherries, and a healthy sampling of chocolate malts. Potent at 11 percent alcohol by volume, the ruby red Mad Elf Holiday Ale releases aromas of fruit, subtle spices and Belgian candi sugar along with a warming alcohol level and a complex arrangement of caramel and dark malts.
Always a local favorite, Berkshire Brewing Company’s Raspberry Strong Ale is a strong fruit beer that will make you respect it. The Raspberry Strong Ale pours with a substantial, well-sustained, off-white head and smells strongly of raspberries and sharper acidic notes along with a mix of big malts, a sizable alcohol presence and a slightly mouth-puckering balance of sweet and tart notes from a half-pound of fresh raspberries per gallon of beer.
The Old Jubilation from the Avery Brewing Company continues the parade of stronger winter beers, arriving with 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. One of the elder offerings from the Colorado craft brewery, Old Jubilation is a striking and mature ale that starts deep ruby in color and is imbued with abiding character, running from baked apples and plums, to dry and chalky mocha and dark malt notes, along with touches of hazelnut. With no spices or dark fruits added, the deeply complex beer relies upon a mixture of dark and roasted malts assisted by the occasional hint of toffee and caramel.
Another cellar worthy offering, the Black Chocolate Stout from the Brooklyn Brewery offers an opaque black body and always exudes a cool, calm charm. The active nose produces a melody of mocha, chocolate and coffee notes, with the additions of hazelnut and a light alcohol warmth adding to the balance. Full-bodied in flavor, the alcohol level of 1O percent is slightly masked as the flavor pours layers of velvety dark chocolate, along with milk chocolate touches wrapped around mocha, with touches of bitterness in the finish.
One of the stalwarts of the Stone Brewing Company’s expansive portfolio of interesting beers, the Old Guardian Barleywine starts with a ruby-orange tint and gives off waves of sweet caramel and sugar covered grapefruit, mixed with doses of citrus and pine resin, and a calming alcohol fruit note. Much lighter in body and color than many winter beers, the Old Guardian makes up for it with the onslaught of bitter citrus hops followed by softer layers of potent caramel malt sugar, touches of roasted malt and hints of earthy earth hops.
With all of the fantastic offerings available to consumers, giving a hand to interested consumers on the sales floor is a tried and true formula when it comes to selling winter beers. “More and more people are getting used to the idea that there are not just Sierra Nevada, Harpoon and Sam Adams when it comes to winter beers,” says Grotto of Liquor World. “There are now bigger beers that might be a little more expensive but people are getting a lot more interested in them. There are folks who have had their ears to the ground for a while and now they know there is a lot of choice out there but they may need a little guidance.”