Lots of little things change, all the time, but there are big cycles of change that affect everyone. Chief among these are the seasons. Whether you’re in the constant glory of southern California or the extremes of New England, where fall starts on a Tuesday and by Friday you’re hip-deep in snow, the changes of the seasons affect you and your business, if only because of the calendar. Make it a positive change this winter by boosting your bottom line with winter beers.
Winter gets a big help from the calendar and all those mall loudspeakers playing Christmas music. The season may not officially start until the solstice, but where I grew up in Pennsylvania, we figured it started around Thanksgiving, along with deer season.
That’s okay with John Clinger, partner in KClinger’s, a beer-centered blues bar in Hanover, PA. “We put them on in the beginning of November as they come in,” Clinger says. Clinger tries to get as many of the winter beers in kegs as possible to feed his 40-plus taplines, and keeps them on till they run out. That can be well into March. “It doesn’t slack off at all after Christmas,” Clinger says. “That’s where the popularity of the product comes through. Some people will try them once and then go back to their favorites, but there are a lot of people who will drink them as long as we carry them.”
WHAT IT IS
Let’s get some important things straight before we go further. What makes a beer a “winter beer?” Why are there winter beers? And how can you make money selling them?
Winter beers exist because, like with many other living products, beer-making traditionally changes with the season. Imagine there’s a big Beer Clock in the brewery. In spring, the beer hand points to bock, a potent tonic to get you over cabin fever. In summer, the clock strikes wheat, for the light, frisky beers that quench a hot day’s thirst. Fall sets off the Oktoberfest alarm for beers that are a little bigger to meet weather that’s a little cooler. Then it’s midnight on the Beer Clock: winter, and beers that suit this time of big meals, fireplaces, and freezing weather, big beers that you now have time to pay attention to.
Lawrence Miller, president and brewmaster at Otter Creek Brewing, Middleton, VT, explains it more prosaically, in terms of food. “We make a complete selection of seasonal beers,” he said, “for the same reason the food we make in the kitchen at our home varies. Pasta salad is not going to grace our Christmas table any more than our Summer Wheat beer would.” When roast beef is on the table, Miller graces it with Otter Creek’s A Winter’s Ale.
So brewers put on their mad scientist caps and dream up huge beers that are suited to this contemplative time: old ales, strong lagers, barleywines, and just plain strong beers. They give them names like WasSail (Full Sail), Winter Warmer (Harpoon), and Bigfoot (Sierra Nevada), and often wrap them in festive, sometimes whimsical packaging.
Belgian beer specialty importer VanBerg & DeWulf has made a tradition of bringing in special beers for the winter, with particular attention to the winter holidays. Importing partner Wendy Littlefield brings up the personal side of these beers, a very fervent aspect with some brewers and bar-owners.
“It’s a Belgian tradition,” she explained, “to make a slightly stronger version [of their regular beer] for their favorite customers, as a thank you.” She points out one beer in particular as an example: Avec les Bons Voeux de Saison Dupont. “The name means “with the best wishes” of the Dupont brewery,” she noted.
“And sometimes special packaging is done,” she added, “festive packaging, like the Duvel jeroboam.” a three- liter bottle of this strong, spicy Belgian golden ale, corked and caged, that makes a fantastic presentation. People love the way this bottle makes their table the center of attention. Be sure to offer to rinse it for them to take home, if that is legal in your state. I have some of these big boys on my shelves, and they make quite a conversation piece.
Packaging goes a long way towards selling these beers, particularly as other customers see them being served and ask for “what he’s having.” Belgian specialty beers, with their wine-bottle size and cork finish, are visually exciting for people anyway, and when they’re embellished with all the touches of the season, like the snow scene on labels of Scaldis Noel, they’re almost irresistible.
That’s the tricky part, getting your regulars to take that step up to the winter beers, which are often a bit more pricey as well as a bit more flavorful. Sometimes it can be as simple as displaying a bottle, or a seasonal taphandle: Wild Goose’s wintertime specialty Snow Goose comes with a distinctive goosehead taphandle that always piques curiosity.
Snow Goose is also one of those very few brands that have developed a reputation beyond the usual ‘beer geek’ circles. Sierra Nevada Celebration has, too, and people wait for it and savor it all across the country. Snow Goose builds that same kind of anticipation in the mid-Atlantic region, and Geary’s Hampshire Ale has it in New England.
David Geary, who is in his 13th year of brewing Hampshire Ale in Portland, ME, loves this brew. “It is an extraordinary beer,” he said. “It’s easy to make a strong beer, it’s hard to make one that’s this subtle. Some are clubs; this is an instrument. It’s inspired alchemy.”
It is good beer, but Geary the businessman recognizes it as a phenomenon. At 25% of brewery sales, it would be hard not to. “It has its own brand equity that is really the exception in this industry,” Geary noted. “When we go into taverns to sell the Hampshire on draft, the conversation goes like this: ‘Hampshire’s out.’ ‘Send it in.’ And that’s it.”
Alan Shapiro, brand manager at Seattle importer Merchant du Vin, sees his product, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome, as an easily approachable beer for the consumer and the retailer. “Winter Welcome seems to be a beer that can be a confidence-builder,” he said, “to get them in that next trade-up category. It also brings [the retailer] into the next category as a test, to see if you can actually get that higher bottle ring for your beer sales. The winter beers are easy to explain to customers: “It’s a big winter beer.” You don’t have to know about spontaneous fermentation or even ales vs. lagers.” That’s a plus for training waitstaff.
After all, why should the beer geeks have all the fun? Alaskan Winter Ale, from Alaskan Brewing in Juneau, is beautifully wintery, with its sweet, almost flowery aroma and flavor derived from spruce tips (don’t make a face: spruce tips are not piney, they’re sweet and delicate in flavor). Yet its deep golden color makes it less intimidating to people who might be put off by a big, robust, dark beer.
Alaskan marketing director Cindy Burchfield says that’s the plan. “We wanted it to be a beer people could enjoy more than one of,” she said. “Some big beers, or special beers like our Alaskan Smoked Porter, appeal to the beer enthusiast, but that’s a small group. The Alaskan Winter is a deep golden color, lighter in taste, and welcoming to the average drinker, and there’s still plenty of interest for the enthusiast.”
BridgePort Brewing’s been making beer in Portland, OR, for over 15 years, but until last year they didn’t sell a winter seasonal outside their own pub. Last year’s launch of Ebenezer Ale was so successful they brewed three times as much this year, says the brewery’s Paula Troyer. “Last year was a huge landmark for us,” she said, “being able to get out there in competition with the other beers.” Staying drinkable compared to some of those other beers was key to BridgePort’s strategy with Ebenezer. “A lot of holiday beers are big beers,” noted Troyer. “Seven, eight, or nine per cent. Ebenezer sits at 6.4%, so you could drink two of them.” Two sales are better than one any season of the year.
BIG AND BAD
You’ve also got the crowd that feels that winter beers should land on you with both feet. They’re looking for a beer with some real ooomph to it. Old Dominion delivers, in spades. Brewery president Jerry Bailey offers two winter beers: Winter Brew, an ever-changing label that’s a richly malty Scottish ale this year, and Millennium, a flat-out 10% headknocker. Bailey sees a niche for a truly big beer. “It’s for the cold weather,” he said, “sitting by the fire, to warm you up from the weather. And people are eating heartier meals with stronger flavors, so you need a beer to stand up to those foods, complement them, not be overwhelmed.” Big beer fans are out there, and you never know who they might be.
Okay, maybe there are some special winter beers you could try at your establishment. Why would you want to? Maybe you think you’re doing fine with what you have. Jeff Farrell, at Clark’s Ale House in Syracuse, NY, figures winter seasonals are a good idea. “Oh yeah, definitely a good idea.” he said enthusiastically. “Any beerlover looks forward to the seasonal beers, and winter beers are the best, they’re bigger, they’re better. If you’re going to try it, just get one and give it a shot.”
If you’re just picking one, you might want to try one of the nationally available Samuel Adams winter beers: Winter Lager or Cranberry Lambic. Brewer Jim Pericles has been sampling the Cranberry Lambic already, and says “It’s tasting real good this year.” The Winter Lager is lightly spiced, and a very popular beer, available right through to spring. Cult favorite Old Fezziwig is also out again this year, but only as part of the holiday mix 12-pack, so it might be hard to meet demand.
Pete’s Wicked Winter Brew is out again, sporting a dialed-back raspberry flavor with a hint of nutmeg. This has long been one of my favorite beers with turkey; for me, a drumstick with a glass of Pete’s Winter means the season has officially begun.
The other sure signs of the season that your customers might well already know are a pair of microbrewed perennials. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is a winter-time favorite, a zestily hopped ale that briskly wakes your tastebuds. Every bar I contacted for this piece noted it as a solid performer. The other is Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, a spiced wassail-type brew that changes every year. “My absolute favorite is the Anchor,” John Clinger said. “It’s God’s nectar to me.”
BEAT THE WINTER DRUM
You might want to try some promotions. Wendy Littlefield suggests you start in early November. “Feature different Christmas beers each week to get people used to coming in regularly to try these things out. And some of them do have signature glassware, which is fun if you can come try and get the glassware. Or a Twelve Days of Christmas promotion with twelve different Christmas beers; if you have all 12, you get a special gift.” She also came up with a way to thank your customers in the same spirit as the brewers. “You could perhaps sell the Christmas versions for the same price as the regular version as a thank you.”
Don’t be afraid to push these beers past Christmas, either, especially the winter-labeled ones. Greg Warwick, brand manager for Pete’s, sees an extended season. “People are still thinking winter into February,” he said. “It’s an enjoyment of wintertime, that time of year. One date that stands pretty clearly in people’s minds is Super Bowl, and products like these can live pretty solidly up through that.”
I’ll let Old Dominion’s Jerry Bailey have the last word on what selling winter beers really gets you. “What it gets you is beer excitement, and change. Selling [giant bewers’ standard beers] all year round is one thing, but if you have one or two seasonal beers rotating through, people will start to ask, hey, what’s new this season? It gives you a hook to talk to your customers.” Change is everywhere, and some change…is good.