‘Tis the Seasonal Beer!

Hi everyone! So, I sent out a call for guest posts for NaNo, and then got so sucked into life that I failed to get them up. They’re really good, so I was not going to miss sharing with you all, even if November is over. I’m starting here, with my friend Russ Chibe’s thoughts on seasonal beers and what places a specific beer within a specific season. Russ is a member of HOPS! homebrew club, a lawyer who does both products liability litigation and brewery consulting, and writes about beer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and over at his personal blog, Chibebräu.

Will 2014 be known as the year that we hit peak pumpkin? I suppose you can’t truly identify a peak until it’s passed, but I will note that this year even I brewed a pumpkin beer, and I can count the number of pumpkin beers I like on two fingers.

This annual onslaught of pumpkin beers got me thinking about the seasonality of beer in general. Food is, for the most part, seasonal because of when it’s actually available (or so I assume; I’m not a farmer, chef or Modern Farmer columnist). But generally speaking availability is not an issue for beer. Both barley and hops are dried and stored for months, and modern refrigeration means seasonal weather isn’t an issue.

Nonetheless, lots of beer-drinkers and beer-brewers have notions about what you’re supposed to drink at certain times of the year. Conventional wisdom goes something like this: light beers, low-alcohol beers and wheat beers are for the summer. Dark beers, high-alcohol beers and spiced beers are for the winter. The transitional seasons are a little less clear. You’ve got Maibocks in the spring, and pumpkin beers, Oktoberfests and “harvest ales” in the fall. I suppose if the weather is the driving factor in defining seasonal tastes, it makes sense that spring and fall would be less defined.

Now some people don’t care what season it is when choosing a beer. Others find themselves preferring a Hefeweizen in the summer and a Wee Heavy in the winter. And still others form an angry mob the second they learn that their local bottle shop dared to sell an Oktoberfest beer in early August or a Summer Shandy in February1.

So where do these notions of seasonality come from? I’m not a historian and I’m not a scientist (well, I used to be a meteorologist but we never studied the weather’s impact on drinking; maybe if we did I’d still be a meteorologist). That being said, I DO drink and brew a lot of beer and in my observation there are a few different factors that help form our definition of seasonal brews. I decided to look a little closer at various seasonal beers and try to break down the specific factors that seem to define seasonality. Here’s what I discovered.

Seasonal flavors/ingredients

Okay, this is probably the most obvious, and applies most commonly to fall and winter beers. Pumpkins are harvested in the fall. We carve pumpkins in October and bake them into pies in November. It makes sense that pumpkin beers (or beers with pumpkin spices) such as Dogfish Head Punkin and Southern Tier Pumking would be brewed then. For a change of pace, check out Lakefront’s Imperial Pumpkin–the alcohol heat combines with the wood from brandy barrels to give it an almost sawdust-like finish that’s actually pretty awesome.

Winter beers likewise often have spices found in holiday cooking; Great Lakes Christmas Ale, for example, is brewed with cinnamon and ginger. You’ll also see summer beers brewed with fruits like strawberry and watermelon (though for whatever reason it seems those are more likely to be brewed at your local brewpub than by a production brewery). I’m guessing most beer drinkers have recognized this factor subconsciously if not consciously.

More recently, harvest ales have become a thing (driven in part, I suspect, by a desire to put out a fall beer that, unlike Oktoberfests, does not require the time and energy that a lager does). While not a defined style (neither the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) nor the Brewers Association recognize it), harvest ales are often wet-hopped (using freshly-picked hops right after they’ve been harvested) or otherwise take advantage of the fall’s hop harvest. Two Brothers Heavy Handed and Lagunitas Born Yesterday are two local examples.

So particularly as brewers continue to take a culinary approach to beer, working with unique flavors and ingredients, we’ll continue to see certain seasonal beers that incorporate seasonal ingredients.

Seasonal weather

This is probably the second most obvious. In the winter, when it’s cold outside, you want something hearty and warming. With this in mind, many holiday beers are stronger and maltier. Indeed, that’s generally the defining character of the English winter warmer, a style which IS recognized by the BJCP and is best represented by Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. Likewise, Bock season in northern Bavaria is November, and having spent a rainy November week in Bamberg I can tell you a dark, malty Bockbier like New Glarus Uff-Da does the trick.

Conversely, when it’s hot and thirsty you want something light and refreshing, hence your pilsners, kölsches, wheat beers and blonde ales in the summer. Lately there’s been a bit of a craft pilsner revival with offerings like Firestone Walker Pivo Pils, Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils, and Three Floyds Jinx-Proof (a personal favorite). I think it’s somewhat debatable whether a stronger beer actually warms you up, but certainly having a lower alcohol beer in the hot summer months means you can spend a hot afternoon in the backyard drinking without passing out by dinnertime.

There’s one thing to keep in mind that’s less obvious, though. Heavy, malty ales should generally be consumed at (relatively) warmer temperatures. There’s a lot of nuance there that’s lost if you’re serving, say, a barleywine at 40°F. Even hop-forward American-style ales can be thrown out of balance when served too cold. Light lagers, on the other hand, are brewed at colder temps and meant to be consumed at colder temps (though NOT near-freezing; sorry, Coors). So as much as I’m not a huge fan of the term “lawnmower beer,” it makes sense that lighter lagers and ales are associated with summer.

Historical seasonal limitations

There are further factors which are distinct from the seasonal issues discussed above because they’re historical explanations that have nothing to do with the weather/flavors of the season. For example, Doppelbocks were consumed by monks during Lent because they were fasting at that time and beer didn’t count as part of the fast. Likewise, Oktoberfest beers were consumed in October because a lack of refrigeration meant beer couldn’t be brewed during the summer, and the stronger Oktoberfest beers were the only ones that could last through the summer into the fall.

The Germans aren’t the only ones who developed historic seasonal beers. The Belgians have their Biere de Mars, though to be honest I haven’t had much luck figuring out where the style came from or what defines it2. I will say that New Belgium’s Biere de Mars was one of my favorite seasonal beers when I lived out in Fort Collins.

What I find interesting about historical beers like Oktoberfest is that they’re great examples of a flavor becoming associated with a season not because there’s a tangible connection (such as seasonal ingredients or appropriate serving temperatures) but rather because people just became accustomed to it. It’s like associating the flavor of marshmallow peeps with Easter: the only connection is that you’ve eaten them at Easter EVERY SINGLE YEAR and so it becomes almost Pavlovian. That’s the main reason I crave Maibocks in the spring and Oktoberfests in the fall, and it seems odd drinking them at other times.

Just because

Now this last point brings me to the final factor, which I’m dubbing “just because.” Now that may seem like a lame catch-all, but hear me out. There IS a reason, and it’s because at some point somebody decided the style goes with a season, and that connection has survived even if the reason behind it has been lost. I would argue the main example of this is light(-colored) beer being for summer and dark(-colored) beer being for winter.

See, here’s the thing… I’m pretty sure the whole reason people think of dark beers as winter beers is because there’s this misconception that dark beer is “heavy.” You hear it all the time about Guinness. Guinness is lower in both alcohol and calories than Budweiser, but people still swear it’s a heavy beer that gets them drunk faster. It’s just not true.

So why do people think that? Maybe it’s because Guinness is carbonated with nitrogen which gives it more mouthfeel. Maybe it’s because Guinness is the first non-lager lots of Bud/Miller/Coors folks drink and the presence of actual flavor throws them off. Or maybe it’s because they’ve heard their buddies pass along the myth of Guinness being heavy. Maybe it’s all those things.

But the bottom line is there’s nothing inherently heavy or warming about dark beer. A good Schwarzbier like Metropolitan’s seasonal Magnetron is incredibly light and drinkable. Ditto a good British mild ale like Revolution’s Working Man Mild. I would argue that from a sensory point of view, there’s no reason one color should be preferred to another during a given season. However, for whatever reason our culture has evolved to hold such a notion (it’s worth noting that neither Magnetron nor Working Man is brewed in the summer). Hell, I once saw a Weight Watcher’s commercial aimed at men that explicitly stated dark beer is higher in calories when it’s simply not true. It’s just an idea that won’t go away.

So, when looking at various seasonal beers, those were the common threads I found running through them. If there’s something you think I missed, I’d love to hear about it. Ultimately, I will always subscribe to the theory of “drink what you like,” but it never hurts to think a little deeper about what you’re gonna order. Maybe it’ll lead you to try something you wouldn’t have tried otherwise, and that’s never a bad thing.*

*Okay, RARELY a bad thing. I’ll admit there are a couple beers I wish I had never tried.

1 Natasha here: I completely complain online, a lot, about pumpkin beers hitting the shelf before September. It drives me bonkers and I’m not sure why.

2 Natasha here: If you are curious about the Bier de Mars style, I found the book, Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition by Phil Markowski a good start. The first half of the book is dedicated to the style, and has some recommendations. It’s definitely interesting, though a bit depressing as it describes beer styles disappearing. Please note that the Amazon link here is an affiliate link, which means I get a tiny percentage if you buy the linked items or other things via Amazon after clicking. Your purchase price won’t change. And if you do smile.amazon for charity, they stack (and I’ve pre-linked to smile for you). Still without changing your purchase price.