Seasonal craft beers are inducing a serious buzz.
Ranging from big-bodied, high-alcohol porters flavored with spices and herbs in the winter to low-alcohol pale ale “saisons” marketed during the warm summer months, limited-edition brews are quenching beer lovers' taste for adventure.
Their popularity comes at a time when consumers are becoming more interested in craft beers they can enjoy at home.
“Seasonal beer allows consumers to play in areas that they haven't, or experiment with flavor profiles that they haven't had before,” noted Nick Lake, vice president, group client director of beverage alcohol for Nielsen Co.
Seasonal brews are so popular, in fact, that they're posting the fastest growth in the beer category.
Sales of seasonals are up 13.2% in food, drug, convenience and major market liquor stores during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2009, according to Nielsen. The segment helped spur a lift in overall craft beer sales, up 7.5% during the same time period.
Although limited-edition beers comprise less than 1% of the entire beer category, new seasonal microbrews continue to fulfill beer drinkers' taste for something unique. While beers from seasonal share leader Samuel Adams, followed by Blue Moon, Leinenkugel's and Sierra Nevada, have established a loyal following.
“Seasonal beers are getting to be a pretty good part of our business,” Todd Templin, beer and wine director for Dorothy Lane Market, told SN.
Despite their limited availability, several have gained placement on the retailer's top 50 beers ranking based on dollar sales from October to February.
Among DLM's best-selling seasonals are Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s Christmas Ale; Samuel Adams Winter Classics' variety pack including Boston Lager, Winter Lager, Old Fezziwig, Cranberry Lambic, Holiday Porter and Coastal Wheat; and Bell's Brewery's Octoberfest, Winter White Ale and Bell's Christmas Ale.
Other seasonals like Ridgeway Brewing Co.'s Lump of Coal Stout and Tröegs Brewing Co.'s Mad Elf made for popular stocking stuffers last Christmas, noted Templin.
Pumpkin ales, often made with locally sourced, hand-cut pumpkins that are dropped in the mash, have also gained momentum at DLM. Demand for varieties like Buffalo Bill Pumpkin Ale was so high that the retailer sold out of them well before the beer's selling season wrapped up at the end of November.
“We couldn't get enough of them,” Templin said.
Timed to the calendar and drawing on seasonal ingredients, these beers lend themselves to themed displays, food pairings and in-store tastings.
Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl appearance and win were inspiration for a Louisiana-themed display featuring craft brews from the state. It featured Abita Springs-based Abita Brewing Co.'s Mardis Gras Bock, Turbodog dark brown ale, Amber beer and Purple Haze raspberry wheat beer.
A nearby display in DLM's produce department featured ingredients to make guacamole dip for the Super Bowl.
“Consumers want different beers for different occasions,” Julia Herz, craft beer director for the Brewers Association, Boulder, Colo., told SN.
Since grocery stores are the most favored off-premise destination for beer drinkers — with 75% frequenting the channel, according to Information Resources Inc. — it behooves supermarkets to draw on another strength, and pair seasonal beers with complementary fare.
“Craft beer does an amazing job with pairing with foods, and the faster supermarkets tie into that, the better their sales will be,” Herz said.
While food retailers commit resources to pairing wine with meals, seasonal brews are often overlooked. But as they gain greater promotional play, many are proving themselves well-equipped to pick up where wine leaves off.
“Wine does an amazing job of contrasting foods due to the acidity, but the sweetness of the malt in craft beers will sooth heat in foods,” said Herz.
Because they are carbonated, craft beers have something else that sets them apart from wines lacking bubbles: a scrubbing effect that primes the tongue for the next taste.
“Every bite is like taking the first bite,” noted Hertz.
Traditionally “higher hopped” than mass-produced lagers, craft seasonals also cut against the fattiness in foods, making way for the flavor, Herz explained.
Wegmans Food Market's executive chef, Russell Ferguson, likely considered these factors when producing a beer-pairing party menu timed to the cold winter months.
“Our four-course menu features beer pairings to complement the flavors in each dish,” stated the retailer.
Although the menu includes craft beers marketed year-round, the same idea can be leveraged by grocers looking to capitalize on sales of seasonal beers.
Wegmans' appetizer ideas include recipes for Artichoke and Asiago Profiteroles paired with Guinness Draught and Ready-to-Cook Stuffed Clams with Ommegang Hennepin.
A Beer Cheddar Cheese Soup and French Blend Salad with Walnut Vinaigrette is matched with Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale; a Slow-Cooked Country Pork with Kielbasa and Sauerkraut, with Paulaner Natural Wheat Hefe-Weizen; and Chocolate Mousse Cups with Lindemans Framboise.
The retailer is wise to recognize the sophistication of beer, noted Lake.
“Beer is a very complex beverage, more so than wine in that its different flavors bring out the different flavors of food,” he said.
Other retailers are also promoting seasonals.
Take for instance Jungle Jim's International Market, which hosts beer tastings of 10 different takes on a single genre of seasonal brew.
“We love good beer,” said Jungle Jim's wine and beer director, David Schmerr. “Fine beer is just like fine wine and it's a great product to enhance food and enjoy.”
Last fall, Jungle Jim's featured Octoberfest and pumpkin beers from Samuel Adams, Bell's Brewery, Flying Dog Brewery, Summit Brewing Co., the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. and others in a tasting that beer enthusiasts paid $25 to attend. Bread and cheese were provided at the event held in Jungle Jim's 800-person capacity Oscar Event Center, which adjoins its Fairfield, Ohio, store.
Obscure microbrews and craft imports heighten curiosity about events like these, noted Schmerr.
“It's a nice step up from everyday beers like Budweiser and Miller,” he said.
After learning about and tasting the beers while taking notes on a sheet listing featured brews, prices and alcohol content, attendees took to the store floor to purchase their favorites.
“We group all the beers together for them to make it easy,” Schmerr said.
For those unwilling to commit to 12- or even six-packs, individual bottles of seasonals are offered. Shoppers can even recreate the tasting experience at home by mixing and matching their own themed six-pack. Each bottle carries its own barcode so it can be sold individually.
“Shoppers buy a lot of seasonal beers that way,” noted Schmerr.
Also gaining popularity are magnums of seasonal beer containing 22 ounces rather than the usual 12 ounces.
“They're almost the size of wine bottles so you can enjoy them with a few friends,” noted Schmerr. “People who are big time into beer love these.”
In fact, many Jungle Jim's shoppers actually collect and even trade them with enthusiasts on the West Coast, for beers that cannot be obtained in Ohio.
Retailers who cater to the needs of seasonal beer consumers like these are being rewarded for their creativity. But given some logistical challenges, seasonal brews aren't for every retailer, warned Herz.
“They have to be stocked in the beginning of the season and moved through by the end of the season,” she said.
Jungle Jim's takes advantage of the seasonality of limited-edition beers. Since 50,000 customers shop its store each week, it's built a reputation for selling through a large volume of product.
“A supplier might have to move a winter beer since the spring beer is coming,” said Schmerr. “They'll discount it to us and we'll move it out so they don't have to worry about it going out of date.”
Jungle Jim's recently sold a six-pack of winter beer, regularly retailing for $7.99, for $3.99.
TOASTING THE SEASON
Winter and Christmas Ales
Winter and Christmas ales are big-bodied, high in alcohol content and often flavored with spices and herbs, malt, wheat and other fermentables. Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s Christmas Ale gained placement on Dorothy Lane Market's top 50 best-selling beers in terms of dollar sales from October to February.
MAI-BOCK — This malty, German-style lager served in May was traditionally consumed by Roman Catholic monks who used the beer as fuel while they fasted during the spring season of Lent.
Wheat Beers — These are brewed with 30%-60% wheat malt, according to the Brewers Association, Boulder, Colo.
SAISON — French for season, saisons were served to farm workers in the French-speaking region of Belgium during the hot summers months as a reward for a hard day's work.
“These beers are lighter than some of the Belgium styles out there,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewers Association.
OCTOBERFEST — Traditionally fermented in German caves in March and tapped at the end of summer, this amber lager style was first created in 1840.
PUMPKIN BEERS — Growing in sales at retailers like Dorothy Lane Market, pumpkin brews come in all styles, flavors and strengths, and can be ales or lagers.