Seasonal beers have been a powerful driver in the growth of the specialty beer sector, and winter and holiday seasonals arguably present the best examples of their appeal.
With their generally more robust character, higher alcohol levels and additions of spice or citrus, the winter seasonals offer the greatest contrast to “beer as usual.” A bock beer in spring or a fest beer in autumn may offer some variety to beer enthusiasts, but the arrival on the shelves of a limited-release imperial stout in December will have those enthusiasts lining up at the retailer’s door.
Virginia-based Devils Backbone Brewing Company has a comprehensive seasonal program, with a new beer rolling out monthly. Each brand is available for two to three months, meaning that three seasonals are generally available at all times, with the mix constantly shifting. The program capitalizes on the enthusiasm for novelty among many beer consumers.
The brewery also organizes its portfolio into brand families, with each family of beers appealing to a slightly different type of beer drinker or beer-drinking occasion. The company’s seasonal selections draw from those different brand families.
Three Devils Backbone beers will come to the market over the winter months. As brand manager Elizabeth Lipscomb explains, the first in the sequence is Kilt Flasher, a Scotch ale. “This is from our Trailblazer brand family; we like to say that those styles are ‘off the beaten path’,” she says. “They’re a little more elevated than you might see in our other brand families: higher alcohol, a little bit more complex flavors. They’re expanding that tasting adventure for the craft beer consumer. As they’re growing and looking for something different to try, we like to suggest they try our Trailblazer series.”
She describes Kilt Flasher as “a hearty Scottish ale with nice, rich, warming complexity, perfect for the onset of winter with these cooling months. It’s going to be rich brown in color with ruby highlights. The flavor profile is packed with toffee and toasted malt.”
The next beer in the seasonal line up is Ginger Brau, a ginger-flavored lager from the Daypack series brand family, all of which are canned, lower in alcohol, sessionable beers that “you can throw in your pack and head off to craft your adventures,” Lipscomb says. The lager is infused with three different types of ginger during the brewing process, which accentuates the traditional holiday spice and makes food-beer pairings easy.
The third beer, Dead Bear, is a member of the Peak series brand family. “They combine intensity, adventurous flavors, and usually special brewing techniques. We say that they are the pinnacle of our brewer’s art,” she adds. The imperial stout is draft only and available exclusively at on-premise accounts. However, Lipscombe hints that “consumers will be seeing a lot more of Dead Bear in 2017. We’re looking forward to bringing it out in 2017 and even having some interesting twists on the beer.”
Variety in a Box
When asked about favorite craft beer styles, a substantial number of consumers reply “variety,” referring not, of course, to a style, but to popular trend of including an assortment of beers in a single six- or twelve-pack. Retailers will know that variety packs proliferate during the holidays, ready for convenient entertaining.
Newport Storm Brewery in Newport, RI, includes four different beers in its “12 Sheets to the Wind Winter Variety Pack,” first released in 2014. The selection includes two year-round beers: Hurricane Amber Ale and India Point IPA. “Everyone loves to have Hurricane Amber Ale, our flagship. And IPA is everyone’s go-to favorite all year round, as well,” says Theresa Malafronte, PR and events coordinator for the brewery.
The pack also includes two different seasonal beers, both variations on the porter style. The Winter Porter can also be purchased separately. “Our Winter Porter is a little maltier; it’s the darkest beer in the line-up, brewed with dark chocolate and crystal malts, East Kent Golding hops for flavor, but no aroma hops, which allows the malt profile to come through,” she adds.
The final beer in the pack, a smoked porter, is only available in the seasonal variety pack. “It’s got that barbeque background of smoke and bacon that a lot of people crave during the winter,” Malafronte says. Smoked Porter is brewed with a portion of malt smoked over beechwood. Introduced in 2014, this is the newest beer in the collection.
This winter marks the third release of infRIngement (the name is capitalized to stress the ‘RI” of Rhode Island). This Russian imperial stout is aged in Thomas Tew rum barrels (from a distillery owned by the same company). “The beer was designed to have enough roasted bitterness and body to balance out the impacts of the sweetness from the barrel and the pickup of the remnants of rum,” Malafronte says. “infRIngement goes well beyond just throwing beer in a barrel. It was the destination after a four-year exploration into the realm of beer aging in rum barrels.”
The second special seasonal, Annual Release ‘16, is the 17th in this series since 2000. The new release is inspired by winter hot cocoa, with chocolate malt and cacao nibs contributing chocolate flavors, and vanilla and milk sugar evoking marshmallow flavor. The Annual Release series, “big beers that follow no set style,” come in wax-sealed and corked 750-ml bottles, a presentation that makes them attractive holiday gifts.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company is San Diego’s oldest microbrewery, the pioneer that launched a vibrant community of brewers. Interestingly, like Newport Storm, the Strauss winter seasonal is a smoked porter.
“We put out a holiday series, with a new release every year. They are complex, high alcohol, cellar-friendly beers, with names that put a San Diego spin on The Twelve Days of Christmas,” says Kiersten Winant, the company’s marketing coordinator. “For our seventh year we are releasing Seven Sharks a Circling. It’s an imperial smoked porter, brewed with a blend of caramel and smoked malts for bold flavors of chocolate and coffee and a little beach bonfire smokiness, as well. It will finish sweet and smooth.”
The 2011 beer in the series, Two Tortugas (a Belgian quad), developed a cult following and has been revived on a few occasions. It won’t reappear for this holiday season, but will come back for the brewery’s 20th anniversary.
Some fans—and some members of “the Karl team”—are faithfully collecting the entire seasonal sequence, year by year. “One of the original goals was to brew big beers that can be cellared and enjoyed in a vertical tasting at the end of the series,” Winant says. “The idea is each of these beers would improve with age in the hope that people will enjoy a bottle now and lay one down for later.”
Further north in Eugene, OR, Ninkasi Brewing Company brews Sleigh’r Winter Ale for the cool months. The style, a dark alt beer, is an unusual choice and one that may be unfamiliar to many American beer drinkers. Alt beer has its origins in Düsseldorf, and is one of a handful of styles that combines elements of both ale and lager brewing: a hybrid that is fermented with ale yeast, but then conditioned at cool temperatures in the manner of a lager.
The result is a beer that balances the fruity nature of an ale, with the crispness and smoothness of a lager. At 7.2% ABV, Sleigh’r is stronger than most alts.
“Sleigh’r has been on our seasonal lineup since 2009,” says Ali AAsum, communications director at Ninkasi. This winter seasonal features “layers of deeply toasted malt balanced by just enough hop bitterness to make it deceivingly drinkable.”
In addition to the alt beer, Ninkasi is brewing Noir, a coffee milk stout. “This is the second year we’ve released Noir. As a Special Release Series beer, it’s only around for four months of the year, September through December,” AAsum adds.
Commenting on Ninkasi’s approach to winter seasonals, AAsum says, “Instead of taking the route of seasonally-spiced beers, we play up the dark, warming complexities for the season by working with rich malts.”
Many breweries release their holiday seasonals with little fanfare, relying on the newness to attract customers. Others look to special packaging or large-format bottles to grab attention. Retailers know the appeal of simply shelving the holiday bounty together where customers can browse.
At Devil’s Backbone, the winter promotion efforts are more elaborate, focused not on winter beers, but on a holiday display program promoting the brewery’s three year-round beers from the brand family know as the Basecamp Favorites.
The goal of the holiday display program is to have consistent messaging across all channels: off-premise display and sampling, print advertising, social media and radio. “Within the brand target markets, wherever wholesalers and accounts are participating in the program, the consumer can in theory see the holiday display piece in a magazine when they open it, they can hear about it when they’re driving to the store, and they can see it in front of them when they’re actually in the store,” Lipscomb says.
One could be forgiven for thinking that this multi-pronged marketing approach is a result of AB InBev’s acquisition of Devil’s Backbone last April. But Lipscomb credits the brewery’s own in-house sales team. “This is actually the same campaign we ran last year for the holiday display program, so these are examples of what our marketing team has been putting together on our own. Our goal is to have this all-encompassing holiday message going to the consumer in as many channels as we can.”
Whether brewery promotional efforts are ambitious or modest, the winter and holiday seasonals give retailers ample opportunity to promote beer as refreshment, with meals, for entertaining or even for holiday gifts. The growing interest in fuller-flavored beer is easy to satisfy in short months of the year.
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.