People can tell when winter is coming. Cool weather, falling leaves and dark afternoons are sure signs.
Dark beers are other clues. When people are stacking firewood, they’re often stocking heartier bottles of amber, red or nut brown brews in their refrigerators.
Andy Sparhawk, who coordinates the craft beer program for the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., knows men and women appreciate a light beer or two or three after mowing the lawn on a hot summer day.
“Seems like many people will drink a light beer during the summer months, warm weather months,” he said. “But once it gets colder, they look for a fuller-bodied, perhaps a bit more potent type of beer. We see Oktoberfest beers in the fall and others that seem more positioned for winter quaffing.”
Temperature and taste
Sparhawk said different temperatures prompt different gustatory choices.
“We generally crave refreshing food and drinks during the warmer months and heartier foods during the colder months,” he said. “Most people aren’t ordering beef stew when it’s 98 degrees outside, but a slice of watermelon and wheat ale sounds nice. As the season changes, darker beers tend to add to our seasonal, cozy mood, and the beers that are popular during the fall and winter match the heartier fare that we like to eat. I’ve seen data that suggest that starting in September, seasonal craft beers put up strong numbers on through December. This also has to do with holiday get-togethers during this time.”
Dan Cramer, a brewer at Brown’s Brewing Co. in Troy, said more people will order the tavern’s porters and brown ales now that cold nights and frosty mornings have arrived.
“I think a lot of it is just tradition,” Cramer said. “People expect certain things in the fall and winter. The darker beers, the alcohol-heavier beers, come into more popularity in colder months when you’re stuck inside. You want something to enjoy next to the fireplace that you can be comfortable with.”
Flavor is a big part of the equation. Light beers may be less filling, but they may not be as robust as beers that come with extra calories and coloring.
The flavor factor
Jim Schanz, owner of Albany Beverage in Guilderland, sees the switch from light beer to more potent products every autumn.
“It’s very similar to people who drink wine and liquor,” he said. “A lot of your wine and liquor drinkers drink beer in the summertime and then switch back to wine and liquor in the colder months.”
During winter, he added, people are not drinking for volume. “They’re drinking more for quality, more for flavor. A lot of your more expensive beers are not available in cans in the summertime. When people are using the pool area and traveling with coolers, you find that can sales are higher.”
Oktoberfests are big sellers. So are beers with pumpkin flavoring.
“I think there were 18 pumpkin beers available this year, and it all started five years ago with one,” Schanz said.
Paul McErlean, chief brewer at the Olde Saratoga Brewing Co. in Saratoga Springs, agrees with the cold-weather move to heavier ales.
“As we move into different seasons of the year, they’re looking for seasonal beers like pumpkin ales or Oktoberfests,” he said. “Pumpkin ales are really big this time of year, and then as we get closer to the winter, generally beers with more alcohol in them — an imperial stout or barley wine — they become more popular, certainly more than they are in the summer.”
After painting the garage or weeding the lawn, summer fans might spend some time with light-bodied Belgian white ales with orange peel and coriander accents. Blond and pale ales are other choices for July and August.
“Those are kind of low-alcohol or refreshing beers,” McErlean said. “When it’s hot out, people just want to be refreshed, and when it’s cold they want to be warmed up.”
A barley wine — a wine-strength beer made with barley — is one of McErlean’s choices for the fireside. The beer has more alcohol content, and more and more are coming with different tastes.
“There are a lot of beers that are being aged in bourbon barrels now,” he said. “They’re beers that have sort of a bourbon quality to them, maybe some nice vanilla notes from the wood. They’re the kind of beer you can have in a brandy snifter and drink a little bit warmer. Personally, I like all of my beers a little bit warmer than most people do.”
Spices also mean extra flavor.
“Seasonals like pumpkin beers and winter warmers are typically spiced,” Sparhawk said, “but I’m not sure there is a specific connection between the colder season and spices. Summer beers like saisons [pale, low-alcohol brews] and wits [Dutch-language name for the Belgian style of wheat beer] are spiced, too. Maybe beer enthusiasts just perceive those flavors — nutmeg, allspice, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom — more because the spices go with the season.”
Bucking the trend
For people who make their own lagers and ales, the season may not matter. A man or woman who prefers light beer will be bottling his favorite taste in January and February.
“Since craft brewers tend to buck trends, it wouldn’t be odd to see a brewer come out with a pale ale or saison for the winter,” Sparhawk said. “There really aren’t set rules for what they have to brew, but it does make sense that certain flavors help to get us in the spirit of the season and pair with the foods we enjoy, whichever season that may be.”