With the recent release of the half-year numbers by the Brewers Association, it is clear that craft beer continues to boom. Breweries large and small are expanding at rapid clips and distributors clamor and compete for new brands. Of all the success stories in the craft beer annals, perhaps none is bigger than the sales juggernaut that is seasonal beer.
Once a simple if whimsical paean to the traditional brewing seasons, which were often compelled by temperature, religious observances and political rituals, the modern day seasonal beer program has grown into a nearly unmatchable opportunity for brewers to offer a diverse range of eclectic beers. Starting with malty, rich and sustaining maibocks in the spring to lighter, thirst quenching summer ales, and on through the onslaught of pumpkin based autumnal beers, consumers love having beers to match the changing seasons.
Heading into the colder months, the seasonal brewing program takes on a very different look from that of the rest of the sales seasons. Instead of focusing on a single, identifiable style or flavor profile, brewers let loose a torrent of creative ales and lager, from lightly spiced ales to big, foreboding dark beers.
The winter holidays bring the promises of gifts and renewal as we celebrate the end of one year and the start of the next. The fall of snow and promise of warm nights by the fireplace also brings the widest array of craft beer curiosities. For those in the beer trade, however, the late fall and winter sales seasons bring myriad challenges as well as opportunities. Beer no longer flies off the shelves, as in summer, and the wider selection of brands requires a careful eye towards which beers will sell and which will sit. As with the fear Cinderella faced, beer retailers also worry not about pumpkins (except not having enough pumpkin ale) but about their stocks of winter ales turning to stale, forgotten discards come the first of January.
Keen to help their retailer partners, brewers have become smarter in their planning and execution of this challenging season. Near gone are the days where brewers brewed Christmas ales, those sorry souls whose holiday cheer and salability disappeared on December 26. These holiday and winter beers are also showing up on store shelves much earlier than in previous years. Come Labor Day, the autumn beer season is already set to go. By November, your winter beer dance card better start to fill up in the seven week run to Christmas. The selling season has also been extended by the simple use of Winter in the beer names, as with Smuttynose’s popular and malty Winter Ale.
Brewers have also started to appreciate that brewing a winter beer need not mean loading the kettle or conditioning tank with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. The overpowering dark ales of the past, many of which seemed to be brewed on the Island of Misfit Brewers, have largely been replaced win more contemplative and balanced offerings. One of the confounding, all-encompassing styles, the Winter Warmer designation generally focuses on complex, malt forward flavors that help fortify consumers against late season nights. The label has been generously applied to styles as diverse as spiced beers, sometimes called Wassails, to Old Ales and Barleywines, and many in-between. While some beer geeks disagree about whether distinctions truly exist between Old Ales and Barleywines, beers of the Winter Warmer style include these malty beers whose alcohol levels usually do not hit the boozy Barleywine stratosphere. With colors ranging from dullish red to deep brown, these strong ales possess deep, sweet malty notes including caramel, molasses, treacle, and toffee, and when aged take on some pleasant, nutty oxidized notes. Light herbal spicing may be present in Wassails and these beers possess a dose of fruit esters in the aromas and bodies. Malty sweet with a mix of light alcohol heat throughout, Winter Warmers are well-attenuated and finish dry.
The winter seasonal beer program does not stop with the winter warmer designation – Barleywines, strong Porters and Imperial Stouts usually also fit the bill. Here is an in-depth look at some of the season’s most interesting winter offerings.
Thomas Hooker Brewing Company
Pouring with a deep garnet brown color and topped with a wheat brown fluffy head, Thomas Hooker’s version of the style is an impressive spectacle. Produced with eight different malts and a mixture of German and American hops, the aroma plays between dark fruits, mocha coffee, dark and milk chocolate, and a dry roasted nut quality. Fermented with lager yeast, the flavor is smooth yet nuanced, with a complex array of powdered chocolate, roasted malts with a smoky touch, along with a solid earthy bitterness from the hops. The Imperial Porter finishes dry from the black patent malt inclusion yet remains quite drinkable throughout.
OLD GUARDIAN BARLEYWINE
Stone Brewing Company
A definite king in Stone’s mile-wide portfolio of challenging beers, Old Guardian starts with a ruby-orange tint that cascades into a craggy beige head, giving off huge waves of sweet caramel and sugar covered grapefruit, doses of citrus and pine resin, and a calming alcohol fruit note. After a few swirls, the flavor corresponds with a resounding smack of bitter citrus hops followed by softer layers of potent caramel malt sugar, a touch of roasted malt and a bit of earth from the hops. Upon its initial release, this bruiser is not for the faint of heart but after a few months of rest, it awakens with a friendlier countenance. As both personalities appeal, it all depends upon which fellow you want to spend the evening with.
HAMPSHIRE SPECIAL ALE
DL Geary’s Brewing Company
The brewers famously joked that this beer was only brewed “when the weather sucks”, Geary’s now offers the superb Hampshire Special Ale on a year-round basis. Brewed with classic English pale, crystal and chocolate malts and a touch of American Cascade and Mt. Hood hops, along with traditional East Kent Golding hops, the Hampshire draws ruby brown in color with a tight wad of dense foam and is packed with toasted malt character along with a touch of butter. The beer’s toasted malt flavors and warming alcohol notes help balance a light fruitiness along with mildly grainy malt notes. Beer lovers throughout New England remain quite happy to no longer have to wait for junky winter weather to enjoy this offering.
OUR SPECIAL ALE
Anchor Brewing Company
San Francisco, California
The pioneer of seasonal brewers and seasonal beers, Anchor’s Our Special Ale was also one of the first American beers to be actively cellared by beer enthusiasts. Vintages go back to the 197Os, with most maintaining great complexity and character long after their release. The specific recipe for this dark brownish-amber ale changes a touch from year to year but usually involves a strong earthy nose, touches of pine and wood, along with deep, dark malt character. The profile often touches upon darker flavors mixed with some mild and changing spice quality an evened out but decidedly piney and evergreen taste component. Consumers can be encouraged to stash a bottle or two away for future enjoyment and to see how the beer develops and evolves.
Avery Brewing Company
One of the oldest offerings from this rapidly evolving and creative craft brewer, Old Jubilation strikes a mature note in a lineup often dominated by wonderfully quirky and strong brews. With its deep ruby color and intense tan, moussy foam peak, this winter strong ale is imbued with abiding character, running the gamut from baked apples, raisins and plums, to chalky and mocha dry dark malts, along with hazelnut. With no spices added, the deeply complex ale mainly continues without the aid of the dark fruits, instead relying upon an attention grabbing mélange of dark and roasted malts assisted by the occasional trace of toffee and caramel. Definitely a beer to take your time over, Old Jubilation brings great holiday cheer to its fans.
Pouring with a dense, bright and slightly burnished caramel color and a rich wallop of ivory foam, Jubelale is a strikingly attractive Winter Warmer. Nearly defining the style as applied in America, the strong winter offering starts with a delicate and well-choreographed dance of caramel and dark roasted malts that usher in a very light Christmas spice character followed by another wash of clean toffee malt and the faintest hints of warming alcohol. Similar in construction, the medium-body well-balances its sweeter caramel tones with its mildly earthy and spicy hop ripples, all for a dry and slightly bitter finish.
Beyond the seasonal beer programs offered by craft brewers, the winter sales season also provides enterprising retailers with an opportunity to push brands and styles that often get overlooked during the rest of the year. Perhaps it is the chill in the air or a slowing of the spirit, but some consumers who would otherwise avoid darker beers tend to open their minds and mouths to the roastier side of life. Many breweries carry stouts and porters that too frequently get left behind. A product of 18th century London, the origins of the Porter style have led to countless pub debates. When consumers shrug and say that they do not enjoy dark beer, Porter usually gets tossed under the bus along with stout. Yet these same individuals rely upon coffee and its roasted fortitude to get through long days. Having all but died out in its country of origin by the mid 2Oth century, American and British craft brewers have since helped resurrect the moribund style, which celebrates dark, roasted and rich flavors.
Mayflower Brewing Company
An incredibly popular niche offering from this upstart brewery that is sure to please both novice drinkers and beer geeks alike. Pouring dark brown to ruby amber in color, Mayflower’s Porter possesses an aroma that is slightly British in origin, with light coffee notes and deep European malts. Medium bodied and very drinkable, almost like a cross between a Dunkel and a Porter, with an airy quality, a touch of sweeter malt, all resulting in a light mocha coffee finish. Very dry throughout, Mayflower Porter is made with a touch of peat malt for a hint of smokiness that aids drinkability.
LONDON STYLE PORTER
Geary’s Brewing Company
One of the oldest American craft breweries, Geary’s Brewing has been producing quality English-style ales since 1986, when it was the thirteenth craft brewery to open. In addition to its excellent winter warmer, the brewery has faithfully recreated a classic English Porter with this big brown colored beer with soft carbonation and a brownish head. The aroma exhibits a great deal of character from the Ringwood house yeast, with a slight acidic tang and creaminess. The medium bodied porter starts with a light malt entrée but slowly, casually fades into a drawn out game in which multiple levels of dark roasted bitterness appear one at a time. Light malt sweetness from English two-row pale and crystal malts helps balance out the pleasant, dry bitterness from the black and chocolate malts. A very English Porter, the dryness adds a layer of complexity not found in many other American made porters.
Smuttynose Brewing Company
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Without question, Smuttynose brews one of the most audaciously and richly flavored porters available. Nearly jet black in color, allowing little to no color at the edges, the aptly named Robust Porter informs you from the pour that it means business. Far from a weak-kneed version of the style, the aroma is strongly of cold coffee, deeply roasted malt and expensive dark chocolate with light earthy notes. With its medium body, the porter starts with a touch of sweetness that tempts you near but then smacks your palate by an onslaught of deep, dark roasted malts and a long, drawn out earthy and roasted bitter finish. Light powdered chocolate and black coffee notes soften the bitterness. Smuttynose’s version is the quintessential Porter; unreserved and aggressive but not overbearing.