Every year, as the number of pages in the calendar gets scarce and we move headlong into “’tis the season” territory, I get a little contemplative about the seasons—more specifically, about the limited-time brews that correspond with those seasons. And the upcoming winter/holiday seasonals are among the ones I anticipate most eagerly. What’s not to love about chewy, malty, baking-spicy brews whose big, bold mouthfeel almost makes consumers wonder why they’re not served with knives and forks?
Chefs and beverage directors have a blast tailoring menus to promote season-specific dishes—whether it’s the stews and roasts of colder months or the salads and grilled meats of hotter, sultrier days.
In centuries past, the fact that certain beers were available only during certain seasons was a matter of necessity. Ingredient availability, production, and storage were all at the mercy of temperature shifts.
But in this age of climate control, modern logistics, and refrigeration technology, consumers can enjoy any beer style they want at any point in the year they want. And yet, for the sake of tradition or because of capacity limits for brewery production, they’re available only within limited seasonal windows.
Classic German styles like Berliner Weisse and gose have gained traction among U.S. brewers and drinkers, but a substantial majority of those are available as summer seasonals—substantial, but not absolute. Some against-the-grain brewers are bold enough to release Berliner Weisse selections in January. But for the most part, restaurant guests who crave the gently wild tartness of a Berliner Weisse or the moderate salinity of a gose with their meal in December are generally going to be out of luck (unless the establishment has a few bottles or a keg left over from five months ago, which is a problem in itself).
Adam Dulye, the executive chef for the Brewers Association (ba)—the trade group representing U.S. craft brewers—says keeping such emerging styles within their traditional seasons could translate to a missed opportunity. “Berliner Weisses and goses are great beers for palate cleansing and also for starting a meal off—and yes, they have definite year-round potential,” says Dulye, who’s the culinary force behind BA food-focused events like Savor and the Paired pavilion at the Great American Beer Festival. “But what it comes down to is just production and quantity—most breweries don’t have the capacity to produce all of those year-round.”
Seasonal flexibility may apply to more refreshing beers of the wheat-based ilk, but probably not so much with the boozier brews of winter, right? Well, yes and no.
Dulye points out that while consumers typically seek out lighter brews when the weather gets hot, those barrel-aged, full-bodied roasty beers can have a place at the summer dining table.
They tend to work quite well with barbecue—the sweetness and roasted notes match similar characteristics in the sauces and the meats. The beers are also good accompaniments for warm-weather desserts, like ice cream, gelato, or custard.
“When you do it with cold [desserts] like that, it brings the heat and the booziness of the beer down, and it becomes pretty doable,” Dulye explains. “But the people who are running out to do that are few and far between.”
It’s still a fairly tough sell to make a 12 percent ABV barrel-aged stout sound appealing to guests when it’s 95 degrees out. That and the fact that those styles, more often than not, are packaged in 22-ounce “bomber” and 750-ml cork-finished bottles, assuming it’s not available on draft. Whichever member of a dinner party wants to order a boozy beer must convince at least one or two others to share.
They’re much more attractive as small, 2-ounce or 4-ounce pours.
“I think that certain styles are in demand year-round and not to provide them is foolish; you want to strike a balance,” says David Kravitz, beverage director at Corner Table Restaurants. The Smith, the group’s casual brasserie with an extensive, seasonally changing beer list, now boasts four locations in New York City with another planned for Washington, D.C.
On one hand, Kravitz says, it’s imperative that the beer list, like the food menu, changes with the season. On the other, it’s also important to have some beers around—if available—that may traditionally be considered incongruous. A Belgian-style witbier, for instance, may be more closely associated with summer, but it’s become such a popular style that producers brew it year-round. It’s a reliable, lighter option, even in the winter.
There is, of course, the notion of too much of a good thing. If certain popular seasonals were available year-round, it’s likely they would lose their special-ness. People who get a kick out of the holiday season are bummed when it’s over and January rolls around—but that doesn’t mean they’d be happier if it lasted all year.
Restaurants that put considerable effort into their beer programs and offer well-curated, rapidly rotating selections, benefit greatly from the heightened buzz as beer lovers count down to the drop dates of their favorite seasonals.
New York’s Café D’Alsace, part of the city’s Tour de France restaurant group, has witnessed that dynamic play out each year in the decade-plus that the Alsatian-inspired eatery has offered one of the most eclectic beer lists in New York City.
“I think the two most successful [types of] seasonal beers are the ones that come with the most drastic weather changes,” observes Café D’Alsace beer and wine sommelier Watson Brown. “For winter beers, you get the excitement of the holidays while you’re celebrating this really crappy weather.”
For many, the appearance on the menu of Deschutes Brewery’s latest iteration of its annual Jubelale, or Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, or 21st Amendment’s Fireside Chat is what officially inaugurates the festive season.
Eventually, though, the chill starts to overstay its welcome. “In spring,” says Brown, “there’s so much excitement in the air, in terms of winter finally being over.”
Typically, as the days get brighter, so do the flavors in spring; roasty, chocolatey high-ABV beers start to make way for citrusy, fruity expressions of more moderate strength. “And people are starting to eat lighter, so they want a lighter beer,” Brown says.
So, despite the fact that it’s easy enough to make a case that virtually any beer style has a right to be on the table at virtually any time of year, the fleeting appearance of the most-prized seasonals will remain the norm, mostly for the sake of tradition. But it’s also a matter of freshness, both literally and figuratively.
“The beers that are becoming more popular in a season are lining up more with the foods that are happening in that season,” says Dulye. “The paths that beer and food are on are just one lane next to each other, and they’re syncing up really nicely right now. It’s playing a massive role in what [chefs] are doing right now because when we have that connection and pairing, it’s a lot easier to sell and move that beer.”
It’s hard to argue with that logic. Still, if you’re looking for me in the next month, I’ll be the one vainly poring over the menu in search of my beloved Berliner Weisse.