Historically, brewing naturally follows the changing of the seasons. And consumers follow the changing parade of seasonal beers. Arguably, winter seasonals are the most important of the year — robust and hearty, often-spicy brews that warm up the cold dark days and are perfect for holiday toasts and gift-giving.
Shedding Light on Dark
What kinds of beers are winter seasonals? They share a number of characteristics and include stouts, barleywines, Scotch ales and barrel-aged ales. “The Christmas and winter ales are those warm-you-to-your-toes kind of beers,” pronounces Wayne Crokus, manager at Steve’s Wine Beer Spirits, one of the chain’s three stores in Madison, Wis. This winter he will stock at least a couple dozen seasonals.
“The dark malty style of holiday beers represents the shorter, darker days and tells the consumer that winter is here and it’s a time to stay warm,” echoes Andy Tysler, VP of sales at Deschutes Brewery. That description fits the company’s winter warmer, Jubelale, which Deschutes has released for the past 27 years.
“Traditionally, our winter brews are full bodied and festively spiced using ingredients such as cinnamon and nutmeg,” explains Jim Koch, Samuel Adams’ founder. Boston Beer has brewed its Samuel Adams Winter Lager since 1989. It’s a rich bock beer brewed with ginger and cinnamon with a citrus note from orange peel. Other Boston Beer winter seasonals include White Christmas Ale, Old Fezziwig and Merry Maker (a gingerbread stout).
Of course, not all are brooding bruisers. Anheuser-Busch’s Shock Top brand offers an easy-drinking 4.3% ABV Shockolate Wheat, a Belgian-style ale, which gets festive creds from dark malts and aging with vanilla and cocoa beans. Goose Island’s entry is Ten Hills, a pale ale hopped with Perle, Cascade and Saaz. However, Goose Island’s Festivity Ale also fits the holiday profile with dark fruit-malt flavors and an ABV of 7.7%.
The Why of Winter
Why should retailers stock up on winter seasonals? The ales spice up shelves with variety, have a built-in audience, generate `impulse buys, and produce add-on sales during holiday merry-making.
“We get a lot of customers who come in looking for the festive beers,” says retailer Mark Sahara at the Charleston Beer Exchange in Charleston, S.C. “There is a lot of anticipation because they can only get those beers for a short period of time, so they stock up,” he explains.
“Winter seasonals are great for holiday occasions; they create impulse buys, and consumers are generally willing to try new beers,” says Dave Guender, VP of sales for SweetWater Brewing Co. Festive is the brewery’s winter warmer, an 8.6% ABV, strong ale brewed with a sleigh load of Centennial and Goulding hops, as well as cinnamon and mace.
“What better way for a retailer to increase their basket ring than with the incremental six-pack sale of a craft winter seasonal beer to go with the bottle of wine or bottle of spirits that the consumer buys during the winter season?” asks Tysler of Deschutes.
“Spending $20 on beer for a gift is not that big of a stretch for most consumers,” says Ed Bremer, owner of Heritage Liquor in Saint Paul, Minn. He says his store will typically feature a stack of 40 to 60 cases of seasonals, including a number of local beers such as Schell’s Snowstorm. “The number of seasonals available has grown dramatically over the past few years,” he says.
Pick of the Pack
With so many seasonals in the running, how do retailers select the right assortment for their clientele? Strategies vary.
“We tell the salesmen: we want whatever is new; just send it,” exclaims Raj Singh, a manager at JB’s Food & Bottleworks in Spokane, Wash. The small but packed supermarket carries seasonals for virtually every label it sells. “Seasonals sell pretty well for us,” Singh adds.
“We preorder our Christmas and winter beers in the summer, way back in June and July,” notes Bremer. Reviews, visits to breweries, tastings, customer requests and supplier recommendations all figure into his purchasing decisions. “I know which breweries make great beer year in and year out, across all the styles,” Bremer says. He will also take a chance on seven or eight new breweries, ordering a trial case from each. “We’ll crack open a bottle, taste among the staff, and see how our customers like it.”
“Consumers are looking for variety and new flavors from trusted breweries,” says Robin Ottaway, VP of sales for Brooklyn Brewery. People who enjoy year-round offerings from a brand will most likely try a seasonal as well. The brewery’s two entries are Brooklyn Winter Ale, a rich Scottish style weighing in at 6.1% ABV; and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, a high-octane (10%) imperial style that gets its robust chocolate character from three mashes of roasted malts.
The Charleston Beer Exchange relies heavily upon the palates of its staff when purchasing. “Among the four of us who work here, we’ve tried all of the breweries and beers on our wholesalers’ lists,” Sahara says. “We can make an educated estimation of how well the products will sell.”
“A portion of our purchasing decisions are driven by customer requests; partly we look for what’s new and exciting, what’s been getting good publicity and marketing,” says Crokus at Steve’s Wine Beer Spirits. The retailer also keeps tabs on which seasonals have sold well historically. “But we won’t sell a product just because it’s got a cool label or a lot of marketing behind it,” he adds. “The beer has to taste good. That’s the over-riding purchasing concern.”
Deck the Halls
Festivities start with the packaging. Bright and colorful labels evoking icons like sleds, Christmas trees and snowy scenes stand out on shelves. “Impactful packaging,” is how Guender at Sweetwater puts it. Many winter warmers get the impressive, 750-ml, wire-and-cork finish — fun to pop open at a party.
“We are fans of big beers in small formats because winter beers can reach 9% or more,” says Sahara. As an example he cites St. Bernardus Christmas Ale that is imported in 11.2-oz. bottles.
Many breweries release a seasonal variety six- or 12-pack over the holidays. SweetWater includes seasonals in its Tackle Box pack, for example. Cans are competing in the holiday market, too. Oskar Blues Brewery releases its Ten Fidy Imperial Stout in 12-oz. cans; the gigantic 10/5% beer is viscous chocolate-caramel, coffee stout amped with 65 IBUs of hops.
“More small brewers are packaging in bombers,” Crokus notes. At Steve’s, seasonals are grouped together on end caps and floor stacks. There is also a door of new release singles in the cooler to encourage trial. Crokus holds weekly in-store tastings, and tries to arrange food pairings as well.
Unlike most retailers, JB’s shelves seasonals right alongside the entire lineup; brands are in alphabetical order. “Our customers are used to the way we display the beers. Seasonals are easy to find and easy for us to locate,” says Singh.
Instead of advertising, at Heritage, Bremer sinks his merchandising dough into an annual event called Beer Geek Christmas. Over the years, the retailer has been cellaring big beers, some 300-400 cases, which will improve over time. One day a year, he pulls out some of those treasures, offering his lucky customers six-pack verticals of vintages. A bottle each, 2007-12 of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, or six vintages of Surly Darkness.
He sells the bottles at a small markup over the cellaring rate, a time-warp bargain. Food is served; it’s a party. “It’s a way to say thank you to my customers,” Bremer says. Beer Geek Christmas has people’s attention: The line begins outside his door at 4 am for the holiday sale.