Special winter beers are an acquired taste, and it’s up to you to help your customers make the acquisition.
The winter is historically a slow time for beer sales. It’s not the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer or the mug-swinging excitement of Oktoberfest, it doesn’t even have the anticipatory rush of spring fever. It’s winter, and even in the warmer parts of the country things are duller and drabber and colder; in places like the Northeast, the Midwest and the Rockies, customers are probably much more interested in a warming mug of Irish coffee.
How can you boost winter beer sales? Be different! There are beers breweed especially for this time of year, including some of the best beers put out by microbreweries and foreign breweries. There are plenty of customers who will happily pay a little extra for something fun, something big, something seasonal.
Christmas beers (which frequently are available throughout the winter months) are traditionally a holiday “thank you” from a brewery to its loyal customers. They can take many forms, though most often it is a bigger, more flavorful beer. This might be a special one-off brew of some big beer like barleywine or doublebock, or a stronger, bolder, ever-so-much-more-so version of a flagship beer.
But can these beers sell after Christmas? And how can you sell beers that you only expect to stock for a few months? We’ve checked with some folks who sell truckloads of these seasonal specialties, and here’s what they say.
WAY UP NORTH
Someone like Bill Opinsky, managing partner at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Ale House in Anchorage, knows winter beers; he sells them almost half the year. “It’s winter for quite a while here,” he understates. “I order a lot of the popular ones and sell them until April.” Humpy’s will have these special winter beers on 20 of their 44 taps in December.
Bill’s partner James Maurer explained why Humpy’s customers go overboard on winter beers. “When the winter beers start coming out,” he said, “people get excited. These beers are stronger, hoppier; they have more character. They have more varieties. It’s a favorite time of year for beer lovers, mine in particular. The winter beers sell themselves.”
That’s true even in the other big state, Texas. Beer-enthusiast and bartender Shelly Herring at The Ginger Man in Dallas sees it every year. “Generally the customers know what the beers are,” she said. “The names of the beers kind of sell themselves.” People sure do get sold; Herring said her customers start asking her around early November if the winter beers are in yet.
Be aware, that kind of calendar-conscious clientele may take years to develop. PJ McMenamin, owner of McMenamin’s Tavern in Philadelphia, knows it. “I’ve spent the last 5 years educating people,” PJ said. “My big thing is sample, sample, sample. When I get a new customer I start talking to them: ‘What do you like?’ I’ve got 17 taps, so I have some of almost every taste on. It’s worked; now in November they come in looking for the winter beers. It’s conditioning, like ringing that damn bell when lunch is ready.”
That may sound like waiting a long time for a pay-off, but winter beers are high-margin and big ticket items at the time of year when a customer is most likely to spend a little more, on others or themselves. “It’s a new year,” or “I’ve worked hard all last year,” or “I’ve got that bonus in my pocket” are all reasons people use to pay a premium for something special.
Richard Osenburg sells a lot of winter beers such as Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout around this time of year at his Racers Café in Baltimore. “Everybody gets excited,” he said. “It’s a good Christmas present; it’s something different that starts in November and runs through January. That’s when people are looking for gifts!”
Jeff Walewski has built a good business in winter beers at the Sharp Edge, in Pittsburgh, and has seen 30% annual growth in their sales over the last few years. Some of that is an expansion of the number of people who buy them. “Before it was the beer lovers who would try them,” he said. “Now people’s taste buds are more adventurous in general. If you like Belgian beers, there’s a good chance you’ll like winter beers. They’re heavier, higher in alcohol, like a lot of the Belgians.”
But what if the only Belgian your customers know about is Jean Claude Van Damme? That’s the real rub here. Can you sell these beers at your place of business, without the developed base of eager beer customers that are the life-blood of these specialized beer bars?
“It depends somewhat on the kind of place you have,” said Jeff Broadman, general manager at Redbones, in Boston. “If you’ve got a working class, Bud and Miller tavern, you probably won’t be able to sell these beers. But otherwise it’s definitely worth your while. The bar has been raised. The customer has been exposed to better products, and the beer culture in the U.S. has improved. You have to offer the customer choices, especially in a fine place.”
Ray Deter, who’s planned the beer success of New York City’s d.b.a., agrees with Broadman, to an extent. “Looking at them from a sales angle,” he explained, “you’re not carrying them to make a big profit. You’re carrying them because your customers expect them, and they should.” But Deter doesn’t see a lot of money to be made on higher prices on low volume. “There’s a premium price on these things, but you don’t make a lot on them. They’re works of art. They’re not like other beers, and they have to be appreciated that way.
“Take Scaldis Noel,” he said. “Scaldis is a big powerful Belgian barleywine, and Scaldis Noel is just more so. It’s not for slugging down with your buddies, it’s more like port. Beers like that are not big sellers, people won’t drink them all night. They’ll split one and then go to something lighter.”
There are a few negatives to selling these beers. Rick Schessler owns the Archer Ale House in Bellingham, WA. He does a nice business in his 60-seat taproom and goes through 2 half-barrels of Sierra Nevada Celebration a week during peak winter beer season. But you won’t find any spiced winter beers at the Archer. “I don’t like serving spice beers,” says Schessler, “because I don’t like having to change my lines!” The winter beers that are spiced will thoroughly permeate plastic tap lines, to the point where they really may need to be replaced.
The other thing everyone worries about is December 26th. In some establishments, sales of Christmas beers in particular and winter beers in general will die after Christmas, though you may be able to push them through to New Year’s Eve. Jeff Walewski doesn’t even wait that long. “It gets tough about 5 days before Christmas,” he said, “so those beers start coming off the 18th. I plan to run out at that time. I hate to do that, but if I don’t sell it, I’m stuck with it.” Ray Deter compares it to show business: “Always leave them wanting more. I’d rather leave them a little disappointed than have a bunch of beer left over.”
But depending on where you are, that’s not necessarily so. Some bars are able to keep selling some of these beers until the approach of Spring. Cold weather is essential to selling through March; if you’re in someplace like Miami, this strategy probably won’t work for you. But you can hedge your bets by carefully checking the names of the beers. If “Christmas” or “Holiday” are in there, order more carefully. But many breweries are learning the game and now cast these as “winter””beers instead.
“You want to move the Christmas beers pretty quickly,”agreed Redbones’ Boardman. “But the winter beers do better, even later.”
Laura Blasingame, owner of Chicago’s trail-blazing Map Room, thinks of these beers as two different kinds of seasonals. “If it’s something like the Anchor Christmas,” she explained, “I try really hard to sell it all by December 25th. I don’t like selling them after the date if they say it on the label. But the ‘winter’ seasonals still sell. It’s still cold weather.”
Dave Evans, whose Great Lost Bear in Portland, ME, named one of the top 10 spots in the U.S. to have a winter beer, mentioned one celebrated winter beer that actually comes out after Christmas: Sierra Nevada’s big hoppy barleywine, Bigfoot. “There are people who come in just for Bigfoot,” he said. “We don’t push it, it’s an acquired taste. But people come in and drink it every night while we have it. They’ll turn their friends on to it.”
You could even try the “Winter in Summer” approach used by Osenburg at Racer’s and Opinsky at Humpy’s. “We do a ‘Christmas in July’ event,” said Osenburg. “We put back 6 or 7 kegs of winter beers for that. Only some of the beers will hold up that long. We know which ones everyone loves.”
Opinsky holds back beers for the same kind of event. “I lay down a lot of them in kegs and bottles,” he says. “We set the [Alaskan Brewing] Smoked Porter down till springtime anyway, it really needs five or six months to get right.”
If “laying down” beer sounds more like wine than beer talk to you, that’s appropriate to these beers. Bill Opinsky again: “People who like big hairy cabernets also like these winter beers.” It stands to reason. These beers are big, complex, and have plenty of interesting and different flavors and aromas.
Chris Black, proprietor of the Falling Rock taproom in Denver, says that’s a good reason to look at these winter seasonals. “Your menu changes when the weather changes, right?” he asks. “Holiday fare is bigger, more complex, more spices. Your wine list will probably change with the menu. Well, beer translates the same way. You need heavier stuff with more flavor to match with that kind of food. These beers also add some excitement to your list, they keep it from getting static.”
Don’t pass up this chance to put some pizzazz in that same-old-stuff beer list you’ve got. These winter beers are fun, different, and can be a big hit. You’ll be selling them for the same reason the brewers do; it’s a nice way to mark the season and say “Thanks!” to your customers with something a little special.
Lew Bryson is managing editor of Malt Advocate and writes about beer for many publications.
Another common type of holiday beer is spiced ale. The grandfather of American holiday beers is Anchor’s Christmas Ale (actually labeled as “Our Special Ale”). This heavily spiced brown ale has been brewed by the San Francisco microbrewery pioneer every winter for the past 25 years. Every year there is a different tree on the label, every year the spices are different. Anchor president Fritz Maytag has made a point of insisting on secrecy about those spices, and many a pleasant beer-loving hour has been spent speculating on what might be in a year’s batch: orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, spruce…
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is almost as old, a bigger, hoppier version of the brewery’s flagship Pale Ale. Ever since 1982, the good people in Chico, CA, have been crafting this heavily hopped ale with its friendly label of a snow-covered mountain cabin. This beer is nearly identical every year, an almost crushingly crisp hop accent, tenuously supported by a raft of mouth-filling crystal malt. It varies only with the individual characteristics of the year’s hop harvest, almost like a vintage wine.
Each area has its favorites, new and old, and they are as diverse as the huge number of breweries that have sprung up in America in the past 20 years. Strong ales, mighty bocks, spiced beers, pumpkin beers, even beers made to be served hot; you can find them all in winter. Nearly all also sport some type of special packaging to distinguish them from their everyday bretheren, anywhere from labels sporting geese in Santa hats to festive boxed gift sets of embossed tin.
Everyone’s seen these beers, but maybe you’ve wondered if they really sell. Talk to the people who know them best, better than the brewers who make them. Specialty beer bars across the country sell tons of these beers, and it’s not necessarily all over after December 26.