Winter beverages that warm us from the inside out are one of the hottest draws for restaurants. From the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest, restaurants will be brewing up excitement with seasonal craft beers and cocktails that warm not only through the alcohol in them, but also through the warm temperature at which they’re served.
According to market research company SymphonyIRI Group of Chicago, seasonal ales account for 18 percent of craft beer’s dollar sales—the largest category. And research from the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado, shows that the bulk of seasonal craft beers appear in the winter.
Winter beers are popular because they bring feelings of nostalgia, says Marty Kotis, owner of Darryl’s Wood Fired Grill in Greensboro, North Carolina. “They trigger an emotional response,” he explains. “People are also looking for the spices they’d find in a fruit cake around the holidays, as well as something heartier.”
Styles to watch for during winter are porters, stouts, dark ales, and barley wines. And most winter beers are hearty, higher in alcohol, thick, and warming. Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, says winter ales “are often spiced beers that bring to mind a fruit cake or the like. And they tie very well into the season, including flavors that are in foods at that time of year.”
Kotis serves Cold Mountain Winter Ale, a spiced brown ale from Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville, North Carolina. He also pours Bell’s Christmas Ale
during these months, as well as Scotch ales and bourbon barrel–aged ales. He serves them from December through March on tap, and usually devotes three or four of his 20 taps to wintry beers. He also has eight to 10 bottled winter beers that are a mixture of local, national, and imported brands.
Limited offerings help profits
Winter beers boost sales, Kotis explains, because they’re new and only available for a limited time. He focuses as much as possible on local beers and charges $4.50 for a draft that costs him $1.50.
Maryland’s DuClaw Brewing Co., which operates three full-service restaurants plus a location in Baltimore’s BWI airport, offers three seasonal winter ales annually. Retribution, an imperial stout that’s aged for six months in bourbon barrels, is brewed every year. Devil’s Milk, a barley wine with intense malt and hop flavors and high alcohol (10–11 percent) is the winner of the company’s homebrew contest and varies slightly from year to year. Last year it was a chocolate peanut butter porter, and this year it will be a chocolate chipotle stout, which has a little heat from the chipotle and a little smokiness.
“The flavors of these beers are heavier so they fit better during the winter,” says DuClaw owner Dave Benfield. “And the higher alcohol and intense flavor fits during the colder weather.”
Plus, he says, craft beer lovers are more aware than ever of which brewery is bringing out which product. “They know the regular seasonal beers we release, and even when it comes to our new winter beers, the word spreads quickly,” he says.
Paul Berger, co-owner of Wicked Awesome Snacks restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, agrees. “People who enjoy craft beers are looking to see what the different breweries are doing at different times,” he says. “And a lot of breweries do different packaging, which is fun.”
DuClaw bottles winter beers, too, “and we want the packaging to match the beer but we don’t use seasonal imagery like elves, candy canes, or reindeer,” Benfield says. “To us, it is more about the beer than the season. These types of beers just become a bit more enjoyable because of the colder weather.”
But Berger says his customers enjoy the wintry bottles. “We have several customers who collect labels and bottle caps,” he says.
New beers draw customers
Having winter beers on the menu at Wicked Awesome Snacks means craft beer devotees visit more frequently during those months, Berger says. His restaurant carries 45 to 50 anchor beers, plus a selection of 15 to 20 that rotate. In general, all beers are around the same price—$5 for a standard bottle of craft beer and $9 for a 22-ounce beer. Customers may look forward to the winter beers, but bringing them in with a little fanfare each year also helps.
The DuClaw restaurants provide plenty of promotion throughout the year for their coming beers. The company sends messages to the 16,000 people on its email list so they know which draft beers are being served. And the restaurants broadcast a video, similar to a movie trailer, on a TV screen over the bar about 10 minutes before the beer goes on tap. The videos, which are also available on YouTube, are usually humorous, Benfield says. “They’re meant to entertain the guests; they’re funny, because when you come out to a bar, you want to have fun.”
Additionally, the restaurants celebrate seasonal beers with giveaways—a seasonal beer-logoed T-shirt and a glass—to anyone who prints out the redemption code from an email and brings it in. “Those products are free marketing for the beer,” Benfield says.
Berger hosts a variety of seasonal beer nights at Wicked Awesome Snacks leading into the winter. This year he’ll run a Guy Fawkes Night in November and promote it with seasonal and British beers.
Winter beers also pair well with the foods we eat at this time of year, says Herz of the Brewers Association. Berger agrees, noting they go well with dishes such as pumpkin risotto, turkey meatballs, and cinnamon-spiced desserts.
“We also cook with seasonal beers on a regular basis,” says Berger. “For example, I am sure we’ll make ribs that are braised in a seasonal beer.”
People eat and drink more heavily in the winter, says Kotis of Darryl’s Wood-Fired Grill. “People are indulging themselves. Plus some of the flavor profiles, like eggnog, remind them of the holidays.”
Hot cocktails for cold days
But beer isn’t all that consumers are looking to drink after they’ve walked through stiff winds and snowy sidewalks. Many restaurants serve heated cocktails, ranging from traditional hot drinks to new combinations.
In the traditional camp is The Golden Beetle in Seattle, which serves a mulled wine cocktail. The base of the cocktail is a mulled wine syrup created by bar manager Andy McClellan. It contains sugar, cinnamon, star anise (or anise seed or fennel), whole cloves, whole allspice, and dried orange peel. Sometimes juniper berries are added. The Golden Beetle runs this cocktail every year for the holidays, but never after the New Year.
“It’s pretty easy to whip up a big batch,” McClellan says, and another advantage is that it allows the restaurant to use wine that might be past its prime or wine that the restaurant has discontinued.
In fact, almost any wine would work, though he wouldn’t use something like an Italian Barolo. “We mostly use Spanish wine like Tempranillo, or a California Cab works great,” he says.
Costs on The Golden Beetle’s mulled wine are low “because it’s a way for us to use a wine we wouldn’t sell,” McClellan says. “It’s a recycling method instead of pouring the wine away.” A 6-ounce pour for the mulled wine cocktail costs the customer $6, and the restaurant’s cost is 20 percent.
McClellan makes the mulled wine in a big pot and then stores it in thermoses, which keep it hot for six hours. The Golden Beetle serves the drink in snifters because “when you smell, you really get that spiced hot aroma and it enhances the experience as opposed to drinking out of a mug,” McClellan says.
A tequila hot toddy and a chili-spiked Mexican hot cocoa are two hot drinks served at Richard Sandoval’s Zengo in New York City. The former contains Sauza Hornitos Anejo, Grand Marnier, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juice, cinnamon sticks, and agave nectar. The hot cocoa’s ingredients are spiced hot chocolate, steamed milk, Patron Anejo, Patron XO, house-made ancho chili marshmallow, and fresh whipped cream. The drinks run from the end of October through early February and peak during the holidays, says Courtenay Greenleaf, the restaurant’s “tequila librarian.”
Hot cocktails aren’t something most people are craving when they come to a restaurant, she adds, so these drinks are typically sold through suggestion. They’re featured on the dessert list and are talked up by servers. “This opens [guests’] minds. Some people are so set in their ways.”
Both are almost exclusively drunk after dinner, typically to accompany dessert instead of to replace it. And who’s drinking them? Women mostly, Greenleaf says. “I feel like they are there to explore and experiment.”
The drinks cost $13 (the toddy) and $14 (the hot cocoa) for a 7-ounce pour served in a traditional Irish coffee mug.
Spices evoke nostalgia
Foreign Cinema in San Francisco serves up a Clockwork Orange Cocktail between November and March “when the spices and flavors become appealing,” says bar manager Bryan Ranere.
The name of the cocktail, he says, “is fun and it’s a bit of a joke because the book and movie are a cold dystopian affair and the drink is quite warming.” The warmth of the drink comes from Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, Grand Marnier, house-made holiday bitters, and orange peel. Introduced last year, the Clockwork Orange will return every winter.
“We were looking for something that would be a little bit different from winter cocktails, but reminiscent of a hot toddy,” Ranere says. “The bourbon is aged in oak so it’s powerful. There’s only a little sugar in it, and the Grand Marnier gives it a nice orange finish. The holiday bitters are something we make in house with a secret house blend including cinnamon, cardamom, and clove, which evoke a certain time of year.”
The drink, he adds, “is an immediate comfort—it’s warm in your hands and warms you from the inside, too. There’s also the charred oak, the spices, and the deep orange flavor from the liqueur. I think there’s a calming agent to it.”
As with Zengo’s hot cocktail, the Clockwork Orange is largely an after-dinner drink, but “it depends on the nip in the air. Sometimes the first drink somebody wants when they come in is one that will warm them and help them feel relaxed,” Ranere says. But personally, he likes “to think of it as a drink for sitting by the fireplace at the end of a great meal.”
Winter drinks work in restaurants on many levels—through physically warming customers but also hitting an emotional spot, bringing flavors of the season, and evoking nostalgic remembrances.