The Beers of Winter

Distinctive Packaging and Promotions

The arrival of the winter seasonals can jump-start the holiday season, like it or not, as customers start thinking of gifts and entertaining.

“I always look at winter warmers as the gift that brewers give their customers for being supportive throughout the year,” Morrison says. “They really pull out the stops: all those specialty ingredients aren’t cheap to come by.”

The extra ingredients and time invested justifies a higher price and special packaging. “Sometimes, we’ll get special holiday packaging in magnums or jeroboams (double magnums),” she adds. “There are nice holiday packs with a beer or two and maybe a couple of glasses. Those packages always do well, and of course we put them on the special shelf where people can ooh and ahh.”

Special packaging is more typical of imported winter beers, especially Belgian brands. Apart from unusual bottle sizes and labels, American brewers have been slow to adopt the habit. Kreston guesses this is a matter of history—the Christmas beer tradition is widespread in European brewing countries—or a matter of resources. “A major brand can come out with holiday packaging,” he says. “Victory can’t just make a thousand different packages. The budgets are a lot bigger for the bigger breweries. An Anheuser-Busch or a Miller has the extra marketing support, and they can change their packaging.”

Large bottles—some cork-finished—make a stylish statement and practically beg for a bow and a gift card. The wine-like 750-ml bottle remains a favorite for gift baskets. But Ciskey has spotted a shift in consumer packaging preferences, away from the 22-ounce “bombers” that emerged as a badge for the more expensive beers a few years back.

Lisa Morrison1
Lisa Morrison is the owner of Belmont Station in Portland, Oregon, which combines on- and off-premise alcohol sales in a single location.

“In general, the bomber is kind of dying as a format. I talk with the distributors about how we got caught off-guard on that. One day you looked up saw you had a lot of 22-ounce bottles that weren’t selling like they used to. Now beer drinkers are looking for a four-pack,” he says.

He thinks the love of novelty is prompting the change. “It’s as if beer drinkers have limited attention spans. They can’t drink a lot of one thing; they’ve got to try everything now.” At Yankee Wine, they even break up the four-packs, giving consumers the chance to sample as wide a range of winter seasonals as possible.

He also sees cans gaining in popularity, even for specialty beers for which a can would have once seemed déclassé. When craft in cans made their debut, a 10% imperial black IPA in a can was a punchline. This year, it’s the returning winter seasonal from well-regarded Surly Brewing Company.

JULIE JOHNSON was for many years the co-owner and editor of All About Beer Magazine. She has been writing about craft beer for over twenty years. She lives in North Carolina, where she was instrumental in the Pop the Cap campaign that modernized the state’s beer laws.