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Hot Beers, Cold Times

Posted on  | December 20, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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From frosty flips to spicy holiday-themed brews, winter beers are hot, hot, hot!

To merchants, restaurateurs and bar and tavern owners as well as their beer-loving customers, the expression “chill” or “chill out” has taken on a new, delicious meaning. In an oxymoronic phrase, seasonal beer sales are scalding hot during wintertime!

According to IRI data, sales of winter and holiday-style beers rose 23% from November 2012 through March 2013—a time period that coincides with brewers’ rollout of these wintry brews. Dan Wandel, principal, client insights, IRI, anticipates even stronger gains for this year’s holiday season given the fast-expanding universe of holiday and winter brews on offer compared to even a year ago.

And it’s no “small beer” either: In dollar terms, IRI reports seasonal beer sales—spring, summer, fall and winter—are rapidly approaching $500 million annually. Commenting on this “snow storm of seasonal beer sales,” Wandel adds that all seasonal beers, from brewers large and small, are now well on their way to account for 4% of total U.S. beer sales in dollar volume, a stunning achievement given the segment’s near statistical 0% share less than a generation ago.

Rich Doyle, CEO and co-founder, Harpoon Brewery, Boston, MA, concurs. As one of the first craft brewers to market a seasonal beer for the coldest months of the year, Doyle recalls, “We introduced Harpoon Winter Warmer in 1988 at a time when there were only two other Christmas beers available in Boston. The major thing that has changed is how many other brewers make them now.” Together with its sister brewery in Windsor, VT, where winters are really frosty, this season Harpoon is selling its classic Winter Warmer alongside its ever-popular Chocolate Stout.

Seasonal beers, including those on sale during the holidays, help elevate the appreciation of all craft beers, says Jovina Young, brand manager, Blue Moon Brewing Company. Young explains, “Seasonal releases create an opportunity for both brewers and beer drinkers to experiment with unique flavors and ingredients, playing a very important role in helping people along their journey into the craft category.”

Jim Koch, founder and CEO of the Boston Beer Company, notes, “We were one of the very first brewers to have a year-round seasonal program, long before it was ‘the norm.’ We are also very proud to have the #1 selling seasonal program.”

Interestingly, while many seasonal brews wear their cold-weather trappings overtly, à la Samuel Adams “White Christmas” and “Winter Lager,” they are not always flagged as winter brews per se, and they are being dovetailed seamlessly into brewer portfolios as consumers continue to be attuned to a revolving door of seasonal offerings. Heineken’s winter offering—Newcastle Cabbie Black Ale, following on the heels of Newcastle Werewolf—is a deep dark brew that counters the cold with a malty roasted character and notes of dark chocolate, coffee and vanilla.

All told in the last decade, the beer market has witnessed a blizzard of winter and holiday offerings. These seasonal releases now gush forth from the 2,500-plus craft and major breweries now in operation across the U.S., according to the Craft Brewers Association; this is a record number in American history, the group adds. And this figure does not include the dozens of imported winter brews now available stateside.

An Veritable Avalanche  of Wintry SKUs

“Once temperatures begin to drop in November, 35% to 40% of our total beer sales are winter or holiday-style brews,” reports Branden Williams, general manager at Beer World in Kingston, NY. From cinnamon-and-spice spiked IPAs to robust chocolatey stouts, Williams notes that of the more than 1,500 beer SKUs on sale (yes, that’s the correct figure; it’s not called Beer World for nothing) as of late November, the spacious store already featured case-stackings and refrigerated displays offering more than 50 different domestic, craft, artisanal and imported winter and holiday beers. And come December and January, Williams promises an even larger selection of “cool seasonal chill,” as he put it.

Williams says the three best-selling brands are: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, at $9.99 a six-pack and $14.99 for a 12-pack; Blue Moon Mountain Abbey, at $6.99 a six-pack; and Harpoon Chocolate Stout at $9.99 a six-pack.
Across the nation restaurateurs and pub owners tell a  similarly nippy story. At Rudyard’s British Pub, a mecca for beer aficionados in Houston, TX, general manager John Dunivin reports, “Pretty much all the brewers  come out with winter and holiday beers; we typically feature at least four.” Dunivin chuckles when he names a pair of wintry seasonal beers Rudyard’s is now pouring: “Delirium Noël,” a Belgian Strong Dark Ale-style beer brewed by Brouwerij Huyghe in Melle, Belgium; and “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out,” which is loaded with specialty malts, fresh ginger, cocoa nibs, orange peel and other holiday spices, from Karback Brewing Co. of Houston.

Please Do Tell-Winter Beers Transform Cocktails Too

Jim Meehan, a renowned mixologist and managing partner of PDT (as in Please Don’t Tell), a cult bar with a speakeasy vibe in New York’s East Village, has enthusiastically resurrected historic winter-time cocktails called flips, whose origins date back to the American Revolution and even earlier to Elizabethan England. In one take on the flip, called the “Great Pumpkin,”  Meehan mixes Rittenhouse Rye, grade-B (the darkest grade) Vermont maple syrup and apple brandy with Southampton pumpkin ale.  (In a pinch, Meehan says you may substitute a spicy winter ale in this recipe.) To this, he adds one egg, and all is then shaken to produce a creamy, winter warmer, topped of with a few strokes of fresh nutmeg. It’s Meehan’s savory addition of spiced beer that makes the 17th century era flip modern. This cocktail goes down for a smooth $15 at PDT.

Naturally, besides the “Great Pumpkin Flip” and Meehan’s killer “Black Flip”—a deeply hued concoction comprised of Cruzan Black Strap Rum, a thick chocolate stout, Demerara syrup, a whole egg and nutmeg; see sidebar—PDT also serves a revolving cast of winter and holiday brews. Currently being poured are: Captain Lawrence Winter Ale from Elmsford, NY; Victory Prima, a German style pils from Victory Brewing in Downington, PA; Ommegang Abbey Ale from Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown, NY; and Brooklyn Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale. Each of these seasonal brews sells for about $7.

So, don your down coat, put on your snow shoes or throw another log on the Yuletide fire, but above all, don’t miss the opportunity to tap into the “chill” profits on offer by promoting “hot” wintertime brews.  

Jim Meehan’s Black Flip
Serves 1 2 oz. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
1½ oz. Cruzan Black Strap rum
½ oz. Demerara syrup
1 whole organic egg

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and swirl to de-carbonate beer. Dry shake, shake with ice, and strain into a chilled fizz glass.  Garnish with grated nutmeg.


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