Drinking Imperial Stout in Summer…

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A few months back I wrote a column bemoaning the creeping extension of seasonal beers into months of the year where they previously were unseen. I suggested that such stealthy seasonality might result in the lessening of the excitement that surrounds these timed release offerings. I still agree with that opinion. But over recent months, I’ve spent some time contemplating seasonal beers and thought it time to address my other take on the issue: in the modern age, seasonal beers are just weird.

As the story has been told from beer historians, both professional and amateur, seasonal beers developed from both need (the lack of refrigeration) and practice (religious and political events). And while I can certainly appreciate the genesis of Bock beer and Octoberfest styles, it’s a true curiosity that in the United States, a country largely divorced from these religious, historical, and political traditions, that American brewers have chosen to adopt and preserve these ancient brewing rituals. And in the absence of technological obstacles, such as sufficient cooling resources, it’s more than a touch peculiar that we can’t enjoy year-round examples of many classic beer styles, some of which are lager beers.

Beyond this curiosity, I have personally experienced an unusual pattern of response to the changing of the seasons. As the weather turns chilly, I, like all good beer geeks, dash out and fill my fridge with a wide array of soul soothing dark beers, ranging from Baltic Porters to Imperial Stouts. That’s when strange things start to happen. I find myself quietly sneaking out of the house to meet up with some old friends, including zesty German Pilseners, sharply hoppy India Pale Ales, and airy, fragrant Kolsch beers. Like long neglected family members, cast aside for the acquaintances of work, these beers quietly weep on the shelves of my fridge. The condition only gets more pronounced as the cold lingers, finally arriving at a point that I can’t even bring myself to consider opening a classic winter seasonal beer.

As the clouds pass and the snow gives way to the first sprouts of a green spring, the process repeats itself. I head out and buy the few Bock beers and other seasonal releases that I can find. With my stock full again, my mind quickly returns to those long-languishing dark beers. As spring develops, I think about their plight, having survived winter’s frigid temperatures, virtually abandoned and uncared for. It takes until about the first warm day in May for my interest to be piqued by what I missed the previous season and within a few weeks, these patient winter vessels are all emptied.

When this cycle repeats itself throughout the summer and fall, I begin to think that somehow my internal seasonal beer clock has become disrupted, in a kind of seasonal affective drinking disorder, but in reverse. And then I start to question the entire idea of seasonal beers and come to fully appreciate the pleas of ardent beer enthusiasts who want to sip cool Octoberfests in the budding warmth of June, Imperial Stouts in humid August, and Hefeweizens in chilly January. I also wonder about whether the seasonality of these products has adversely impacted the development of many lager styles in the United States, as the few examples of such seasonal beers are only available in limited quantities and restricted times during the year. And while I fully understand and appreciate how important that seasonal beers have become to craft brewers in a business sense, I think that the further we get away from the origins and traditions giving rise to the creation of such timed offerings, the more I question the absence of a good Marzen when I want one.

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The End Of The Year: A Time To Express Less Cynical Thoughts…

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With fire-colored leaves gently falling from the sky and intensely fresh and cooling breezes cascading, autumn is the season many people secretly long to enjoy. Despite the inevitable and unavoidable promise of a chilly future, the atmospheric changes of scenery often more than make up for what follows. It also doesn’t hurt that the changing landscape is accompanied by a much anticipated bevy of seasonal beers, from soul-soothing Octoberfests to insanely popular Pumpkin ales.

As I have been accused from time to time of being too critical of the craft beer world, I thought, at this contemplative time of the year, that I’d take a few moments and reflect upon some of the things I am thankful for when it comes to the beer world. From modest, ambitious, and even naïve origins, the beer industry has seen incredible changes in the short life-span of better beer. And we can never take for granted the bounty of incredible flavors, aromas, and textures that talented and passionate professionals, everyone involved from grain to glass, have made available to us.

I am most thankful for simplicity. In an era of bigness, from hops to barrels and alcohol, the surprising complexity of what appear the most simple keeps me coming back for more. Whether it be single hop or malt beers, these singularly expressive offerings acutely capture the essence of their carefully chosen ingredients, demonstrating a clear beauty that can often be lost in more complicated yet less complex attempts.

I was also very pleased to see craft brewers venturing into the world of lager beer. Often a good barometer of what is happening in the industry as a large, this year’s Great American Beer Festival played host to a sizable increase in German and Czech-style pilsener beers. While plenty of Double IPA’s filled the floor, strongly hopped yet artfully crafted pilseners matched their presence. It’s a guilty pleasure to watch craft brewers branch out from the alemonopoly and extend an olive branch to this long-neglected wing of the beer family. I hope to see these creative folks draw greater inspiration from many of the less-represented lager styles at next year’s festival. Maybe craft beer drinkers will someday respond in kind and end lager discrimination forever.

Thanks should also be given to the enterprising craft brewers who took a giant risk in putting their flavorful offerings into the once-dreaded coffin of good taste that was the aluminum can. Starting slowly with a handful of breweries across the country, from the New England Brewing Company to the 21st Amendment, with Oskar Blues and others in-between, this was a sizable gamble that paid off big. An excellent receptacle for protecting delicate craft beer, cans have long stood as an icon of mega-beer. By donning the uniform of big beer, craft brewers have shifted the paradigm and demonstrated that great beer can come in many forms.

After more than two decades of brewing top-notch craft beer, I am also pleased that the Boston Beer Company doesn’t just seem content to brew hundreds of thousands of barrels of its flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager and popular summer seasonals, such as its Summer Ale. Despite its success and growth, Boston Beer has never lost the urge and passion to innovate and the brewery continues to engage in an eclectic assortment of projects that push the brewing envelope, perhaps long after they became a financially good idea to do so.

And finally, like Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family praying for Old Mister Scrooge, I wish the best for the big brewers, who continue to brew and release new beers, even with their varying degrees of success. It is a testament to the growing strength of the craft beer industry that these breweries have been driven to improve the flavor profiles of their products, even if many beer enthusiasts continue to dislike their efforts. But with the benefit of places like the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field and the AC Golden Brewing Company, we can see glimpses of how different the future might really be for beer.

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The Winter Wonderland Of Beers…

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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.?

–Article appeared in November 2009 issue of Beverage Business Magazine.

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WWFD: What Would Fritz Do? (about the slow death of seasonal beer)…

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It’s in light-hearted moments with a beautiful, brimming pint in front of me that my thoughts turn to days when things were not nearly so cheerful for flavorful beer lovers. In those dark days, which largely passed before my legal drinking age, things were grim. With the tales of our beer elders ringing in my head, I picture a Orwellian world where brewers painted with only a single, bleak color, one in which a fizzy yellow monotony reigned until craft brewers, as in Apple’s classic 1984 parody ad, threw their mash rakes through the glass ceiling of low expectations.

In distinguishing themselves from mainstream, macro beers, early microbrewers tried all sorts of ideas. Some added extra hops to their beers, while others sought refuge in passive, ubiquitous ambers. According to beer lore at this point, one of the earliest craft brewers, Fritz Maytag, initiated the program of releasing specialty beers into the market at different times during the year. Starting with his super hoppy Anchor Liberty Ale in 1975, the grandfather of all American IPA’s to follow, and continuing with his paradigm shattering Our Special Ale, Maytag and the Anchor Brewing staff appreciated that consumers would be interested in experiencing a departure from their regularly scheduled beers. Like a restaurant changing its menu to reflect new seasonally appropriate fare, early craft brewers offered their own products designed to suit the seasons. With deep roots in European brewing history, the seasonal brewing practice was often the result of necessity, such as when brewers produced heartier beers to sustain themselves when brewing wasn’t possible or in honor of religious and political occasions.

As with the changing of leaves for Vermonters and the first snow fall for Minnesotans, beer enthusiasts often greet today’s seasonal beers as just another event in a calendar year. And while some of these beers spark quick flurries of excitement upon initial release, beer snobs spend more time lamenting perceived recipe changes from year to year than celebrating their good fortune in having such a rotating selection of diverse beers. Despite this attitude, seasonal beers remain one of the most potent tools in the craft brewer’s marketing arsenal. While other alcohol producers are stuck with constant, year-round products, ingenious craft brewers get to inject more enthusiasm into their customer bases every couple months. Beyond the beer geeks, the general public’s excitement over the release of Summer and Pumpkin beers isn’t something craft brewers should take for granted, especially as such sales now constitute the fastest growing segment of the craft beer marketplace.

Accordingly, brewers should take care not to slay the golden egg giving goose. As with the presidential campaigning cycle, the seasonal beer release calendar starts earlier and earlier every year. Where cooling Octoberfest beers once only appeared in early to mid September, we now start hearing about them amidst August’s summer heat and Summer beers seemingly appear out of nowhere in the rainy, dreary days of early April. As distributors and retailers clamor to get earlier access to these specialty releases, some of the magic of their seasonality starts to fade, like the appeal of a ski vacation in July. Just as brewers take care in the naming of their seasonal beers—try selling a Christmas Ale come New Year’s Day—they should also take care in respecting the role of the seasonal beer. And while many beer enthusiasts would love to get their hands on a malty Octoberfest in May, such ubiquity takes away from the special nature of these releases.

Craft brewers should always remember the role seasonal beers have played in expanding their customer bases and their bottom lines. For craft brewers tempted to focus their attention on high priced, limited edition beers that appeal to a tiny fraction of beer lovers, it’s telling that the original craft brewer, Anchor Brewing, has not embraced the high alcohol and hop bomb craze. These days, craft brewers might do well to inquire, WWFD: what would Fritz do?

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