Craft beer sales are typically highest in the winter season, when robust, high-alcohol brews are most popular.
In the same way that food menus seasonally shift, ditto for one’s beer selections. The transition into the coldest months brings forth a bulk of seasonal beers and a greater focus on more robust, higher-alcohol styles like barleywines, imperial stouts, and robust porters that may be available year-round.
Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, emphasizes the opportunities as well as the pitfalls in properly integrating winter beers into a beverage program. “The winter season is the highest time of the year for craft beer sales,” Herz says. But beer’s also a perishable product and in winter warrants even extra attention.
“That’s an important thing [for restaurants to note],” Herz warns. “Just because they build the menu doesn’t mean that the menu will sell. They have to properly preserve and present that beer as well.” It’s the challenge of both properly choosing one’s winter beer menu in the first place and doing the things required to bring your customers around to engaging with it.
While the particulars of winter beer purchasing will be very much a condition of one’s situation, Chris Lively, owner of
Ebenezer’s Restaurant & Pub in Lovell, Maine, offers some good general advice: “A) Obviously: Do a lot of research. B) Don’t buy anything unless you know what it is.” It’s a balancing act: Too large a seasonal shift can irritate customers and confuse staff.
Lively personally tends to stay away from the majority of holiday-specific seasonals, partly because the window for selling these releases is so much briefer than for non-seasonals.
“Once Christmas is past, it sure gets hard moving a beer called Noel,” he notes.
Some bottles can age for years (or even decades) with favorable and endearing effects, much as wine. But choosing beers that are actually capable of doing that—beers that won’t readily fall apart due to oxidation—isn’t as straightforward as looking at style or alcoholic strength. The average beer wasn’t built for aging. And most hoppy beers definitely weren’t.
Colorado’s Vail Cascade Resort teaches staff about its craft beer selections, including pairing notes, abv levels, and responsible portions.
Lively, discussing which holiday beers he does take to—and that have some good results with cellaring—mentions various things: Gouden Carolus Christmas, holiday beers from Baladin in Italy, Struise Tsjeesus, Anchor’s seasonals, and Hair of the Dog’s Doggie Claws.
“Those are beers that are easily vintage-able,” Lively emphasizes. And winter seasonal beers that can tolerate time in the cellar also make it easier to sell future fresh releases, as one can stack them in a vintage flight. “In my opinion,” Lively adds, “you can take one of those Christmastime/winter issues of not being able to move it all, and turn it into a strength.”
Knowing which beers tend to age well isn’t a skill one tends to casually acquire. While Lively digs into the sour and hoppy facets of things beer-wise, he points to his wife, and co-owner, Jen Lively, for her world-class knowledge of strong beers.
Similarly, Russ Craney, general manager of Colorado’s Vail Cascade Resort, speaking about the direction their properties have taken with craft beer, cites the contributions of Laura Lodge, a craft beer consultant they approached about building out their beer program. They felt an independent consultant was important for making smart beer choices.
“If you ask your reps,” Craney explains, “they’re going to push what they need to push. There’s a conflict of interest there if you’re going to your vendors with these questions [of what beers to buy], because they need to move the stuff they need to move.” He adds it was by no means a knock against the vendors—that’s them doing their job correctly.
Mind the Seasonal Details
A craft beer program that implements a seasonal beer menu for the winter benefits from having more robust methods of getting customers involved with those beers. Many restaurant menus have seen a shift toward beer pairings—often in place of wine.
“Whoever you have setting your beer menu also should be working with the chef,” Herz emphasizes. “You can work with seasonal ingredients that the chef is incorporating. And somebody [who] knows how to pair can incorporate and leverage ingredients that are being brought into the menu, and also highlight what beers best feature those seasonal items.”
For establishments that may not necessarily offer heavier beer styles year-round, the winter-appropriate styles can bring in less-familiar pairing notes like dark chocolate, rich spices, figs, and spirit barrels.
The Brewers Association offers a variety of resources at CraftBeer.com for negotiating beer and food pairings, along with glassware, best practices, and selection guides.
Proper glassware for winter beers is another consideration: At the bare minimum, bars require something beyond a shaker or similar pint glass. Beers most appropriate for the coolest months tend to be those highest in alcohol, and glassware allowing for smaller portioning affords flexibility.
One needs to pay even closer attention to the amount of alcohol being served with winter beers. For instance, a single, 16-ounce pour of 7.5 percent ABV stout actually equates to two standard alcohol servings. As Craney says, “Lots of folks will mistake it for the altitude.”
Vail Cascade’s staff often recommends certain beers be split—as some ABVs approach 15 percent. It benefits both the customer and the restaurant to emphasize ABV levels and portion sizes.
Staff education is also crucial: Not simply in keeping track of and communicating info on big beers, but also knowing the beers well enough to give recommendations and pairing options.
Using smaller glassware also opens up the potential for offering pairing flights. These allow customers to sample a greater number of beers, comparing and contrasting different selections. For many restaurants, improved customer retention outweighs the slight increase in service costs.
At Washington, D.C., beer destination Smoke & Barrel, beverage director Jace Gonnerman has been putting the restaurant’s strong selection of winter beers to other use. While a barbecue/beer restaurant may not be a traditional New Year’s Eve destination, Smoke & Barrel has featured strong (and often barrel-aged) beers at its New Year’s Eve Dozen Dark Delicious Drafts pay-as-you-go event for the past two years. Beer enthusiasts get to try limited-release craft beer as a New Year’s Eve alternative. Last year, a couple dozen enthusiasts lined up outside waiting for the restaurant to open.
Smoke & Barrel is already setting aside special ageable kegs for this year’s event. Last year’s gala featured hefty selections like 2011 Dogfish Head World Wide Stout and The Bruery’s Bois.
If inventory lingers late into its proper season, one can typically offer markdowns, special events, or flight specials to increase turnover. (Christmas-in-July events are common for very good reason.)
As Gonnerman puts it, “We always try to under-buy as opposed to over-buy so that we don’t end up in that situation.” Attention to inventory is emphasized time and again.
Lively tends to take a more communal approach to dealing with his peak bottles than a lot of other places might. The relaxed atmosphere at Ebenezer’s allows him to go between tables and do things like coordinate curated bottle splits.
For instance, in a typical scenario two tables would get 5 ounces of six beers, at half the price of the full-bottle flight.
“In a perfect world,” Lively explains, “you’re hoping to be able to have that kind of relationship for your customers.”