Brewers have always tailored their beer recipes to suit the season, our changing menus, the availability of ingredients and the behavior of the brewing process at different ambient temperatures. In another century, it wasn’t surprising to have light beers in the summer and rich, potent brews in the winter – that was the logical convergence of all those factors.
Refrigeration, consistent ingredients, and changing public taste made possible the dominance of a single beer style. First in the U.S., then across the world, the American pale lager style swept aside traditional beer diversity. Seasonal beers were reduced to a quirky custom preserved by a few heritage breweries.
It took America’s small craft brewers to reintroduce these seasonal specials to a wider audience. In 1975, Anchor Brewing Company debuted the first modern American winter beer, Our Special Ale, packaged in a large bottle, decorated with a different tree on the label and brewed with different spices every year since. Sierra Nevada followed a few years later with a sharply contrasting beer, Celebration Ale, originally an early American IPA that in recent years has morphed into a fresh-hop ale. Nowadays, it’s a rare brewery that doesn’t offer something to mark the end of the year.
The winter beers may have revived the seasonal beer practice. But for many breweries, winter beers are followed throughout the year by a succession of time-limited beers that are eagerly anticipated by beer lovers. Indeed, seasonal beers rank just behind IPAs as craft consumers’ favorite beer “styles,” despite not being styles at all.
Seasonal beers account for about 14% of craft beer sales, which is roughly half that of the top-selling IPA style, and more than the next two candidates, “variety” (like seasonal, not a style at all) and pale ale. Despite a slight downturn in seasonal numbers in recent years, the category’s number-two rank is solid.
At Boston Beer, where the flagship is a lager rather than an IPA, Jennifer Glanville, brewer and brewery manager, confirms the importance of the seasonal portfolio. “In addition to Boston Lager, our seasonal styles such as OctoberFest, Summer Ale, Winter Lager and Cold Snap are our best-selling styles. They are extremely important to us and also help to get new drinkers to try our other beer styles,” she notes. “Beer lovers anticipate their release year after year, so when the season changes they have a perfect beer to enjoy during those months.”
Brett Joyce, the second-generation president of Rogue Ales in Oregon, sees seasonals as a way to manage the demand for variety. “Seasonals are clearly important. I think what has changed a little bit is that the SKUmageddon—or whatever you want to call the proliferation of products and SKUs and breweries—puts more pressure on us to justify why a product exists,” he explains. In a crowded marketplace, brewers are wise to think hard about what a new beer offers to a wholesaler or retailer.
“I think this pressure opens up the opportunity for more seasonals, because having lots of SKUs that are available year-round is getting trickier,” he says. “But I think the wholesaler, retailer and consumer are looking more than ever for new/fun/fresh, and that ties in nicely to seasonal.”
At New Belgium in Colorado, seasonals have never been a significant part of the mix, with only two available during the year. The brewery’s unusual offerings (Belgian and sour beers) seemed to promise variety enough.
PR Director Bryan Simpson sees the softening of the seasonal market and the need for a fresh approach. “Sales for traditional seasonal release beers are actually slowing as a lot of folks have been moving on, which is true in other categories as well,” he says. While the consumer is moving away from traditional seasonal flavors (see pumpkin beer), we actually had amazing success with our Atomic Pumpkin this year, which brought in atypical ingredients like habanero and cinnamon.”
The Seasonal Calendar
What is a source of surprise and novelty for the consumer requires careful preparation by the brewery, and advance notice to distributors and retailers. With a short sales window for each new beer, recipe selection, execution and roll-out are critical.
The same elements that shaped the brewing calendar a century ago influence the programming of seasonal beers today. There are styles long associated with celebrations (Oktoberfest), activities (summer radler), the annual brewing cycle (saison), or religious observance (doppelbock).
Brewers at Boston Beer strive to “brew beers that they feel reflect the essence of each season.” The company’s nano-brewery explores ways to innovate and still be faithful to the feel of the season. So, while the brewery’s number one OctoberFest is a classic märzen, other seasonals have incorporated trending ingredients such as maple or rye.
New Belgium also relies on a pilot brewery to test new recipes. Simpson says, “We have a 10-barrel pilot system and several brewers who are focused on innovation beers—they produce close to 200 brews per year. They will look at seasonal ingredients, market trends, hop varietals and whatever happens to be inspiring to them at the moment. Sometimes we go against type, like with Accumulation (a white IPA that was released as a winter beer).
Breweries work hard to alert distributors and retailers about what to expect, by sharing the annual schedule with partner distributors then unveiling the beers one at a time to consumers. Glanville says of the Boston Beer program, “The timing for when we release our beers is very consistent with other seasonal items at retail—traditionally they are available just prior to the season and we generally see the beers sell out before the end of the season.” The company produces over a dozen seasonal beers each year.
Once wholesalers know what to expect over the course of the year, Rogue Ales approaches each beer on a “case-by-case” basis. “We have to work hard to be disciplined,” Joyce says. “You don’t just have a marketing template plan that you apply to everything. With every product, you have to stop and ask ‘What makes Santa’s [Private Reserve] unique and interesting?’ Santa’s is different from, say, Dead Guy Ale at Halloween.”
Rogue’s highly detailed annual calendar is posted on its website, useful for any fan who hopes to keep track of the sheer number of new releases. “I think we have 29 unique products for next year, so 29 times we have to stop and ask: why? What is there about this product that is different, that can be marketed in different, fun ways?”
The ideal for many breweries, not always realized, is that retailers should always have one of the company’s seasonals on the shelf. Timing is tricky. When a seasonal beer is explicitly tied to a particular holiday, it lends itself to specific promotion possibilities (think of the identifiable imagery associated with Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day), compared with the more generic themes connected with a summer beer or a winter warmer. But the disadvantage is that the appeal fades quickly once the holiday has past, like Halloween candy on November 1.
Some breweries maximize sales of time-limited beers by rushing them to market in advance of the season. Retailers complain about the apparent races between breweries to deliver the first beer of the season to reach the shelves. Glanville acknowledges the challenges.
“The timing for brewing and releasing our seasonal beers isn’t as simple as matching dates to a calendar. Delivery dates for all of our seasonal styles have a lot to do with when the previous seasonal sells out. Our deliveries generally start before the actual season starts, and timing might vary market to market.”
Rogue, by contrast, practices a kind of brinksmanship. “We try to keep it logical,” Joyce says. As an example, he points to their pumpkin beer, a style notorious among consumers for its premature appearance in the market, which necessitates the use of extract or canned purée.
“Our trick is that we have our own farm with a pumpkin patch, and we have to literally wait until the pumpkins are ready to harvest,” he says. “We are at the whim of Mother Nature, staring at real pumpkins turning from green to orange.”
Seasonal vs Special Release
Many breweries produce both seasonal beers and special release or limited availability beers. While both may be brewed with a particular time of year in mind, the former are generally as widely available as the company’s flagship beers. The latter tend to be limited not just in time, but in quantity, geographic availability and general appeal. The rarity seems to attach greater cachet to them. The most eagerly sought-after limited-release beers, such as Three Floyds Dark Lord or Foothills Sexual Chocolate, inspire launch parties and long lines at the brewery door.
New Belgium, with only two seasonal beers, offers specialty release beers, wood beers, sour beers and collaborations throughout the year. Rogue now operates a cooperage, Rolling Thunder Barrel Works, and will release restricted amounts of barrel-aged beers. “The whole grain-to-glass, barrel-to-beer concept,” Joyce says, “is not something that needs to be available 12 months a year.”
Boston Beer also distinguishes its seasonals and its family of specialty beers (the most famous and expensive of which is the rare Utopias), which are all positioned for a more sophisticated consumer. Special release beers are the experiments that appeal to the beer geek buyer, and are clearly meant in many cases to attract attention out of proportion to their volume.
It is the seasonal beers that support the brewery bottom line in harness with the year-round regulars. They push the taste boundaries just enough to pique interest, but not enough to alienate the regular consumer. Given beer shoppers’ infatuation with what’s new on the shelves, seasonals are a dependable source of variety, generating renewed interest every month or so. As such, they make an important contribution to annual sales for all three tiers.
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.