Beer brewing has followed the natural agricultural rhythm of the seasons for centuries. Even with today’s modern brewing techniques, producers still offer periodic releases to fit the time of year.
As the time for lemon-spiked summer wheat beers transitions to Oktoberfest and pumpkin beer and then onto spicy Christmas and hearty winter ales, operators can add needed variety to their regular tap line-ups and tie in seasonal promotions.
“Seasonals attract the thrill seekers, the craft beer aficionados,” says Anthony Games, beverage director for Rock & Brews, a nine-unit restaurant and entertainment concept based in El Segundo, CA.
But those specialty brews appeal to all types of beer drinkers and sell exceptionally well at the restaurants, he says. “A novice can come in not knowing what they want to drink and a seasonal is an easy option,” notes Games.
“I think everyone likes to try the seasonals,” concurs Catherine Reed, the general manager at O’Connor’s Restaurant & Bar, a 350-seat family establishment in Worcester, MA. She rotates those beers on three or four lines of the 30 beer taps; draft prices range from $5.25 to $6.50.
Sam Adams’ seasonals make a regular appearance at O’Connor’s, as do more local breweries such as Berkshire Brewing’s Coffeehouse Porter and Wormtown Brewery’s “Wintah” Ale. “Darker beers in darker months; we match our beer selection to the weather,” Reed says.
Heavy rotation, anticipation
At the Independent Ale House in Rapid City, SD, “part of my business strategy is that I heavily rotate; that’s a draw for my customers,” says proprietor Justin Henrichsen. “Seasonals give me extra beer to rotate.”
Half a dozen of Independent Ale House’s 40 lines are devoted to seasonal beers; drafts are priced about $5 a pint. “Many brewers don’t do a lot of small batch,” Henrichsen says. “Instead, they do seasonals, and that allows us to get some of the new fun and exciting beers.”
Just as winter follows autumn, brewery releases herald the season, generating anticipation among consumers. “Seasonals build expectations; customers come in looking for those beers,” says Robbie Connell, who coordinates the brewmasters for the four Humperdinks Restaurant & Brew Pubs and is the general manager at the Arlington, TX, location.
The Dallas-based company’s winter seasonal this year is a Ginger Porter; plus each location’s brewmaster develops a unique beer for the season. Some brewers make the same beer every winter, such as the perennially popular Strongman, says Connell, while others tweak the recipe every year. “People come in to ask, ‘When is Strongman coming out? I can’t wait.’”
The anticipation surrounding seasonal brews can be strong, agrees Henrichsen. “A lot of my customers know it’s that time of the year, and come in looking for their favorite beer—the one they can only drink once a year.”
He cites Mountain Standard Black IPA from Fort Collins, CO-based Odell Brewing as a much-sought-after example. To tap into that eagerness, Independent Ale House often hosts informal pay-as-you-go parties to debut some highly allocated seasonal releases.
Big and bold, hearty and heavy
“Seasonal beers are now some of the top-selling styles in the U.S. The rotational nature of seasonal beers delivers variety not only to the drinker, but also to the retailer,” points out Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company. The company was among the first craft brewers to introduce seasonals; its winter selections now include Sam Adams White Christmas Ale, Merry Maker and Old Fezziwig.
Christmas and winter ales are big beers, huge in malty, hoppy flavors and generally higher in alcohol content. The grain bill used to ferment these behemoths, as well as the costly spices and other exotic ingredients used, mean they are pricier to produce. Operators often make allowances in price and serving sizes for winter ales.
“Which characteristics make for a good winter seasonal is subjective, of course,” says Robin Ottaway, vice president of sales for the Brooklyn Brewery. “But, generally, winter beers are stronger flavored, more malt-forward and higher alcohol.”
Both of the brewery’s perennial winter releases fit that description: the malty Scottish-style Brooklyn Winter Ale and the imperial Black Chocolate Stout weighing in at 10% ABV.
“Seasonals are usually a bit more expensive, more costly to brew because they use more malt, grain and hops,” notes Connell. Humperdinks charges more for those bigger, maltier beers—maybe $4 to $4.25 a pint vs. about $3.50 for a standard beer. “There is more interest and demand from customers for those beers, and we can get the price for them.”
At Rock & Brews, “we tend to bring in the avant-garde, off-kilter seasonals; winter beers usually have huge malt bills, exotic ingredients and are aged in bourbon barrels,” Games says. “They cost more, and we do have to charge a bit more for them.”
The restaurants boast 52 tap lines and 100 craft bottles, which are digitally displayed on the “megatron,” six to nine screens scattered through the restaurants. “From anywhere they’re sitting, guests can see all the beers we have, and the list can be updated in real time, which allows us to switch out kegs in mid shift,” says Games.
Prices vary from location to location, but the sweet spot for Rock & Brews is $6 to $8 per pint. Big brews are generally served in 8-oz. pours, in a Belgian tulip glass, that allows for proper head retention. Customers are willing to shell out $7 to $8 for the smaller pour, says the beverage director, because they are hard-to-come-by, sought-after beers.
“I wouldn’t serve a 10% [ABV] beer in a pint glass. That’s irresponsible as a bartender,” says Henrichsen. At Independent Ale House, the type of glassware depends upon the style of the beer as well as the alcohol content. He cites 7% to 8% as the cut-off point mandating a smaller pour.
At O’Conner’s, a 12-oz. pour is standard for the higher ABV and generally more-expensive winter beers. “During the holiday, people are willing to spend a bit more, and we can offer a few of the more-expensive big beers,” notes Reed. But after Christmas people are more concerned about their spending, and they are drinking more sessionable beers, she adds.
The limited-time seasonal offerings are an ideal way to change up in-house promotions and generate excitement during the often slow months in the dead of winter.
“Every year at Rock & Brews, we do a Holiday Ale Fest when we bring in about 15 holiday beers, both local and from around the world,” says Games, including one of his favorites, Dead Santa from Cismontane Brewery. The fest is promoted via social media and an in-house list describing the malty brews.
This past season, the restaurants celebrated the Twelve Days of KISSmas (two of Rock & Brews’ founding partners are Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of the band KISS). Like a sudsy Advent holiday calendar, a different beer was featured every day for 12 days, building interest and anticipation.
On other promotional fronts, Rock & Brews holds Pint Nights every Wednesday, a pay-as-you-go affair spotlighting a brewery through half a dozen brews and swag like keychains and T-shirts. The restaurants host monthly beer dinners—a four-course meal with pairings.
The company’s annual craft beer fest attracts a couple hundred or more attendees at each restaurant for a craft brew panel discussion, a chance to interact with brewmaster and, of course, beer. The previous year featured a circus theme, complete with a dunk tank and a high striker game.
“Our Christmas party season is one of the busiest times of the year,” says Reed at O’Connor’s. The dinner menus suggest beer as well as wine pairings with the food. The draft list changes weekly, and is posted on BeerMenus.com as well as on Facebook and the restaurant’s web page.
Independent Ale House celebrates a number of events around the seasons such as coordinating with Rapid City’s annual Pumpkin Fest, loading up the draft taps with a variety of squash-based beers. One of the most successful has been holiday promotions is Black Friday. On the day after Thanksgiving, the bar opens at 7 a.m. to succor exhausted shoppers who stormed the stores at 3a.m. and are ready for a beer.
Humperdinks promotes its seasonals with table tents and regular email blasts. Tapping events, which debut new beers, are held on Thursdays, with a meet-and-greet with the brewmasters. And the brewpub chain conducts not one but two guest reward programs.
The 25,000 member MVP Diners Club alerts guests via email to events such as ticketed beer dinners and buy one—get one offers. The Mug Club, on the other hand, is aimed at beer lovers, with about 300 participants. For an annual fee of $25, Mug Club members get a 26-oz. mug and a discounted price of $3.50 and $2.50 on Wednesdays for all beers. Mug Clubbers also receive a 10% discount on food checks (15% on Wednesdays for the member and five other guests), plus 25% off all keg purchases from the brewery.
Turn, Turn, Turn
As winter mellows into spring, new seasonal selections appear as do more opportunities to promote them. Humperdinks brewmasters are already thinking ahead to Maibocks and other spring brews.
“I think people like their beers to be in season,” says Reed at O’Connor’s. “When the days start warming up again, it’s time to tap a beer that’s relevant to the weather.”
For more, see Brewers Rushing Out the Seasonals.
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who brews his own seasonal beers