Seasonal Beer: What does it mean?

In Vermont, you get used to the changing of the seasons. Some people say that we even have a fifth season up here: mud season. Along with the changing weather, we have hunting seasons, fishing seasons, and, perhaps best of all, beer seasons.

In spring we get hoppy, medium-bodied ales that give us hope that the cold will end soon. In summer we enjoy light, crisp beers that go down smooth and easy and pair well with a day at the beach. As the leaves start to turn and the weather grows colder, we get into the fall season with pumpkin, Oktoberfest, and generally maltier beverages. Then when winter rolls in once more we go back to the darker, heavy beers that warm and fill us up for those bitter nights.

Having the year-round brews is nice because you can always get that one beer you’re craving any time. However, it is great having this seasonal variety as it creates an ever changing beer market and when seasonal beers release, there is a sense of excitement over the semi-exclusivity of the beer. Only having it for a limited time makes the beer special.

But what makes the beer seasonal? Who or what defines these seasons? I decided to get in contact with a few people from the industry to try and find out what seasonal really means. I heard back from Drew Vetere, a media specialist at Otter Creek Brewing, and Kurt Staudler, the executive director of the Vermont Brewer’s Association.

What Makes a Beer Seasonal?

Vetere – “We try to develop recipes that will jive with people’s seasonal palate shift. Being from Vermont, the seasons are part of our culture – and it’s reflected in our beers.”

Staudler – “Most seasonal beers are either done for special occasions or with freshly harvested ingredients…Wheat beers tend to be a summer offering along with lighter lagers. During the dead of winter look for beers with higher alcohol by volume.”

These ideas definitely corresponds to summer seasonals like Long Trail’s Mostly Cloudy and Magic Hat’s new Stealin’ Time. Those two beers are good examples of lighter, more drinkable brews. Some winter beers that resemble the idea of higher ABV are Magic Hat’s Snow Roller (6.5% ABV) and Long Trail’s Sick Day IPA (6.8% ABV). While they are not malt-monsters or exceedingly high on ABV, these two beers have a warming element to them.

Do Seasons Really Guide the Release of Beer?

Vetere – “There’s definitely some discrepancy and misalignment with the release schedules, but it’s dictated by some of the big industry players and if we don’t follow suit, we miss out on shelf space. That’s the nature of the industry. Our answer has been to create beers that transcend seasons – that can be enjoyed as if they’re year-round, but are only available on a rotating quarterly schedule.”

Staudler – “For the most part they do, but it is always good business to be the first to market with a beloved style. What you are talking about is mostly a trend followed by the bigger craft breweries. I think you’ll find that smaller breweries will stick to the weather as their guide for seasonal beers.”

Both responses lead me to believe that while brewers create recipes with certain seasonal palates and ingredients in mind, in order to compete they need to release before those seasons start. Shelf space and taps are at a premium, especially in Vermont, and in order to be successful you need to be either first to market or close behind the brewery who is. This has caused a shift from pumpkin beers being released in October to being released in the mid-to-late summer. I would compare this to the Christmas Creep, or the sale of Christmas themed items getting earlier and earlier each year. Brewers want and need to stay competitive.

Are There Any Other Factors That Make a Beer Seasonal Vs. Year-Round?

Vetere – “In the past we have jumped the gun with seasonal releases where, if something has a couple great seasons, we push it into the year-round lineup. That model has had mixed results, so we are being more diligent with how we treat these beers. To me, there’s something exciting about these releases. When Kind Ryed hits, it’s time to wax the skis. Citra Mantra means we’ve almost made it through winter while Fresh Slice signals the warm days to come. There’s an aura to these brews, and our team of brewers have killed it on the development of these recipes – creating a personality and vibe surrounding each brew.”

Staudler – “As always it is the whim of the brewer. Some brewers will have a marzen on year round – If I were a brew pub owner it would be a year-round beer at my place. However, most brewers will trot out their favorite seasonal just once a year to keep them special.”

Brewers like to keep some of their beers special. Those beers will fill the ranks of seasonal while other favorites will be made into year-round brews. Seasonal beers are meant to make you think of something or feel a certain way, sort of a taste memory. I know that whenever I drink a pumpkin beer, I think of going through the woods on a nice fall day with orange leaves all around, while a wheat beer makes me think of swimming at the beach.

 

While there are some qualities in certain styles that make them more palatable during a particular season, there is no hard and fast rule for what makes beer seasonal. One brewer may release a stout only in the winter while another will keep it as a year-round staple. This is not a bad thing, though, as it really does create a pleasant diversity in the market. While I may not want to drink that stout throughout the year, there will come a day when I am craving a malty, dark beverage and I will know exactly where to go.

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