The weather outside may be frightful, but the sales inside are delightful this time of year. As the holidays get underway, consumers are getting into the spirit and planning celebrations with family and friends.

At year’s end, sales of almost all categories of beverage alcohol rise. One category that has done especially well in recent years is holiday beer. Beer sales have traditionally seen a small spike at the end of the year. High-end domestic and imported beers in particular have done well in years past as consumers have traded up for holiday parties and gift-giving.holly

The micro craze added impetus to the trend by giving consumers a new crop of beers to choose from. Like imports, craft and specialty beers have given consumers something more unusual to try on special occasions, such as holiday celebrations.

“People tend to spend a little more that time of year to treat themselves and do something special for others,” said Tim McFall, director of marketing for Widmer Brothers Brewing.


“We’ve seen a spike for specialty beers overall during the holidays,” agreed David English, vice president of the Michelob brand at Anheuser-Busch.

Winter seasonals are yet another reason consumers should buy beer. Though growth of the craft beer segment slowed in the past year, seasonal sales are on the rise. According to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), seasonal beer sales volume was up nearly 37% in July 1998 versus the prior year. In some areas of the country, such as the Northwest where craft beers have a high share of market, seasonals are up as much as 44%.

Summer may be the season consumers quench their thirst more often with beer, but winter is when seasonal beers sell best, for a variety of reasons. Consumers’ tendency to trade up during the holidays is one. Gift-giving is another.

“A lot of different people who don’t normally buy craft beer will buy Christmas or winter beers as gifts or presents,” said Sandra Evans, Full Sail Brewing. “They’re really well received.”

“These beers are unique, special and only available this time of year,” English said. “That specialness ties very nicely to the time of year.”

Eagerly Anticipated6811B6

Holiday and winter beers are most eagerly anticipated by beer drinkers themselves. The special and limited nature of holiday beers makes them something consumers really look forward to each year. Part of the reason is holiday beers are so different from each other. They run the gamut from very drinkable lagers to dark, chewy, spiced ales.

“The holiday season is special,” said George Hancock, president of Pyramid Brewing Co. “It’s a more natural fit for seasonal beers. After winter, Octoberfest beers are probably the biggest sellers. But Octoberfest beers aren’t all that different from each other. It’s a style, after all.” Holiday beers, on the other hand, are brewed in a variety of styles, he said. For example, Pyramid’s Snow Cap, a strong ale, is completely different from Thomas Kemper Winterbrau, a lager, even though both are rich winter warmers.6811B5

The holiday season is a special time for brewers, too, because they get to brew something so different from their traditional beers. “One of the things we’ve enjoyed about seasonals is coming up with new recipes and having a creative outlet,” said Nelson Jay, marketing manager for Redhook Ale Brewery. “It’s a chance for our brewers to spread their wings and show off their creativity.”

Part of the fun for consumers is looking forward to old favorites that come out during the holidays. Even more exciting for some is the changing nature of winter beers from season to season. The recipe for Anchor Brewing’s Our Special Ale, for example, varies from year to year. Each new brew is highly sought after. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, Coors’ Winterfest and Redhook’s Winterhook also change slightly from year to year. Pyramid used to change the finishing hop each year in Snow Cap but has settled on the same recipe since the 1996 season.

Brewers also like making seasonals because it gives them something new to offer retailers and consumers. Packaging for seasonals draws more attention, too, since it is a change from the packaging on the brewers’ traditional, year-round brands.

Even as the craft category has slowed, seasonals are still growing because they offer consumers a safe way to try new products and continue to experiment.6811B1

“People have less of an appetite for risk-taking,” said a spokesperson for Mass Bay Brewing. “They’re more likely to try a seasonal from a brand they know and trust.”

“The specialty beer segment is changing,” agreed English. “It’s not on the same growth curve, so there is less random sampling and less experimentation. There is more loyalty to brands and styles, however. No question, there’s a market for specialty and seasonal beers as long as they’re from known entities.”

In years past, consumers picked up holiday beers out of curiosity or because of word-of-mouth. Brewers now are making sure that seasonal beers have the same kind of professional support their year-round brands have. As with any high-end beer, the best sales tool for seasonals is a well-educated sales staff.6811B3

“Retailers now are more interested in seeing seasonals that will perform for them,” Jay said. “They’ve been supportive because seasonals are viable products, but they have to move. We’re getting back to selling basic. We want to keep product knowledge high and product in the bottle good and fresh.”

Product knowledge isn’t the only thing brewers are offering retailers and wholesalers. Most are producing slick p-o-s materials along with special holiday packaging and other support. Good p-o-s helps legitimize retailer recommendations to consumers, said one brewer, and gives retailers the tools they need to help sell the product.

There are many other ways to sell holiday beers, too. Try some of these merchandising ideas out on your customers.

  • Holiday displays. Many holiday beers feature their own case cards, cut-case displays, banners, to list a few. Draw attention to the holiday beer brands you carry with these materials. Or create your own holiday beer combination display featuring a half dozen winter seasonals. Create a theme and run with it — presents (12-packs of holiday beer) under a trimmed tree or a winter wonderland with Frosty the Snowman keeping a few cases cold in the snow. Brewers and wholesalers can help with props and decorations. Redhook, for example, has a life-size rotating red chair lift this year for displays.
  • Impulse sales. A large percentage of holiday beer sales are impulse purchases. Stack holiday beers in places most likely to spur those impulses — near the cash register, in the deli area, in the food aisles, at the front of the store, in the wine aisles. Build small stacks of 12-packs, or put up bins with an assortment of single bottles.
  • Food pairings. Cross-merchandise holiday beers with food. Many brewers this year are offering recipe cards with their seasonal beers to give consumers ideas for holiday entertaining. Post food pairing ideas next to holiday beer displays. Place bottles of beer in the deli case next to featured holiday foods or party platters along with a recipe card. 6811B2
  • Variety packs. Since so many customers buy holiday beers as gifts or a take-along to holiday parties, make it easy for them to try a variety of styles. Some brewers are offering their own holiday variety packs. Michelob’s WinterBrew, in fact, is only available in Michelob’s holiday sampler pack, a 12-pack that features the entire line of Michelob specialty beers. Widmer also is offering a variety pack in “Holiday Fest” packaging. Many wholesalers can provide a holiday sampler pack that you can fill with your own selection of holiday beers.
  • Sampling. Where legal, sampling or tastings can really stir up interest in holiday beers. Give consumers a chance to taste a few of your holiday brews every weekend through the holidays, and you’ll convince many to trade up to a couple of 6-packs or a variety pack.
  • Gift baskets. In addition to variety 12-packs, consider packing holiday beers in gift baskets, boxes or crates. The packaging makes a more distinctive gift. Another idea is putting a few holiday beers into food baskets with cheese, summer sausage and crackers. Put together a holiday snack pack of beer and snack foods like nuts, pretzels or chips.6811B4
  • Giveaways. Attract attention to your seasonal beer display by offering a holiday sweepstakes or giveaway. Raffle off a toboggan, sled or ski trip. Many brewers offer wearables such as hats and sweatshirts, snowboards and other seasonal merchandise you can use as part of a holiday promotion. Others sponsor winter events. Redhook, for example, organizes an Amtrak trip from Seattle to Whitefish, MT, called the “Winterhook Express.” Consumers can buy a five-day travel package that includes rail fare, lodging and ski lift tickets. Redhook throws in additional events, such as beer tasting on the train after dinner and inner tube races at the ski area.

Holiday seasonals are a natural draw this time of year, and with a little creative merchandising, your sales will lift your spirits.

Michael Sherer is a Seattle-based writer and consultant specializing in beverages and foodservice.

Driving Santa

In addition to great seasonal beers, brewers also break out their responsible drinking messages during the holidays. It’s smart to remind your customers to appoint a designated driver when they attend holiday festivities.

There’s one holiday beer that even Santa Claus shouldn’t drink without a designated driver. Since 1980, Swiss brewer Hurlimann has been producing Samichlaus (“Santa Claus” in Swiss dialect), a brew that has set records as the world’s strongest lager. Brewed annually on St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6), the dark bock beer is lagered for 10 months until it is bottled for the next year’s celebration. The beer’s alcohol content registers between 11% to 13% by weight, 14% to 16% by volume.

Makin’ A List…

The holidays are more festive when the year’s crop of seasonal beers arrive. Here’s a partial list of holiday beers that may be available in your area.

  • Anchor Brewing, Our Special Ale. A spiced top-fermenting ale, different each year, available from Thanksgiving through Christmas.
  • Anheuser-Busch, Michelob WinterBrew. An all-malt lager with a slightly sweet profile. Available only in a holiday sampler pack from November to mid-January.
  • Boston Beer Co., Winter Lager. A dark bock beer with malted wheat, spiced with curacao, orange peel, cinnamon and fresh ginger, available from October to January.
  • Coors, Winterfest. A deep copper, all-malt ale, slightly different each year, available from November through January.
  • Full Sail, Wassail. A heavy, garnet-colored ale in the British “winter warmer” style, available from November to January. Full Sail also has a limited quantity of individually dated bottles of Old Boardhead barley wine available.
  • Grant’s, Winter Ale. A dark ale hopped with Mt. Hood hops, available from November until January.
  • Mass Bay, Harpoon Winter Warmer. A dark copper ale spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, available during the holidays.
  • McSorley’s, Wintertime Ale. A full-bodied copper-colored ale hopped with Irish ale hops and Kent Goldings, available in November and December.
  • Pete’s Brewing, Pete’s Winter Brew. An amber ale spiced with raspberry and nutmeg, available from October through February.
  • Pyramid Ales, Snow Cap. A strong, British-style winter warmer, available from November through January. Also available is Thomas Kemper Happy Cow Winterbrau, a rich, dark lager.
  • Redhook, Winterhook. A dark winter ale that varies from year to year to take advantage of available grains and hops. On the market from late October through January.
  • Sierra Nevada, Celebration Ale. A liberally hopped copper-colored ale that varies each year. Available through the holidays.
  • Widmer Brothers, Winternacht. An authentic German altbier that is top-fermented then cold conditioned, available from mid-October through December.

Holiday Tradition

No one knows the exact origins of holiday beers, but people around the world have been brewing beers to celebrate special events for centuries. In Germany, these beers became known as festbiers, the most famous of which is Oktoberfest beer.

In northern Europe, the Norse, Saxons, Danes and Angles celebrated the winter solstice as Yuletide. They brewed a stronger beer as a “warmer” for the cold winter holiday. When Pope Gregory sent Augustine to convert pagans in England to Christianity in the 6th Century, the Yuletide feasts were transformed into “Christ Mass.” The Yule beer tradition continued to thrive under the influence of the church. Common people believed the Yule would remain holy as long as the beer lasted, so Christmas ales were brewed to last the season.

The tradition died in the U.S. after World War II. In 1975, Anchor Brewing revived the tradition with its first batch of Our Special Ale. Each year’s Christmas brew is different, and each features a drawing of a tree on the label, the ancient symbol for the winter solstice.

“It’s been quite a thing for us,” said Anchor’s founder Fritz Maytag. “We thought of it as a gift to our customers. Of course we charged for it, and wanted to make money on it, but we wanted to have fun, too. We made 600 cases that first year, and my children and I drew the neck labels and pasted them on by hand.”

Since then, the holiday beer tradition has grown and flourished. Sierra Nevada introduced Celebration Ale in 1981. Widmer first brewed Winternacht for its customers in 1985. Coors, which brewed Winterfest for its employees for years, launched it nationally in 1986. That same year, Redhook introduced Winterhook. Many others have come since, to the delight of beer drinkers everywhere.


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