by Kevin M. Smith
There is a long history of seasonality to beer. Access to ingredients, and temperature control for fermentation were both major elements of creating beer that were heavily dependent on what season it was – cold weather, and cooler climates were more conducive to lagering. Harvest ales were often mashed in with adjunct fruits, and bittering agents such as lavender.
As technology improved, styles that were once dependent on seasons soon became flagship beers – Pilsners, and light lagers became staples of the industry.
With the craft beer boom, and the evolution of the industry, seasonality of beer, with few exceptions, has begun to rely more on what a brewery wants to do, or how popular an intended one-time brew performed, than on what was traditionally released at a given time. That said, there are a handful of beers that still drop at very specific times – pumpkin beers, Festbiers, and Christmas/winter brews – and even so, not everyone is releasing the same styles, and pumpkin beer is a weird situation.
Pumpkin beers might be the most commonly produced and recognized harvest brew, and people seem to love them, or hate them. And, for whatever reason, about a decade ago, maybe longer, the bigger craft breweries started to get into a race to see who could release their pumpkin beers the earliest, resulting in those brews hitting the shelves as early as late July.
Historically, these had been beers that were released after the beginning of the pumpkin harvest, in September and October. Many people, including the fans of those beers, can be found asking why release a fall harvest beer in the height of the summer, and might further wonder why Christmas beers/Winter Warmers haven’t been impacted by the same seasonal creep. Aaron Blessing, the head brewer at Antietam Brewery in Hagerstown, the rare brewer who has never made a pumpkin beer, speculated that maybe “ead times on pumpkin beer and holiday/Christmas beers are most likely determined by the marketing projections of the larger breweries with the understanding that the week after Thanksgiving or New Years these [pumpkin] beers will all be moved over to the discount shelf at the retail store.”
Mike Glavich of Fin City Brewing down in Ocean City refrained from commenting on the seasonal creep of pumpkin beers, but intimated that he would be for the death of the controversial fall style that now many breweries release in the height of the summer. This year his brewery is jumping on board the holiday/winter seasonal train.
Glavich, whose Ocean City brewery operations were once dictated by the seasonality of the vacation town in which it resides, has long since engaged in year-round brewing, and has chosen to release a holiday beer for the first time. The beer, scheduled for an early December release (again, that lack of seasonal creep for the Christmas/winter beers) this year, will be subject to a double release next year. “We have had some unseasonably warm falls and winters lately which had us scratching our heads for a good brew that was lighter, more refreshing but felt like it could be still enjoyed during the holidays festivities,” Glavich explained. “So, a few years ago we brewed a bright, juicy Cranberry IPA and it turned out amazing. We took that recipe and put a modern twist on it by making a little hazier and fruit forward and the result was awesome…The Cranberry Sauce. Unlike the heavier, darker winter beers this is light and hoppy and pairs well with everything. And…the release date was critical. This is meant to drink fresh [and] it’s a very limited size batch that had to be preordered by our distributors, but will be available in sixtels and cans. Next year in a, hopefully, pandemic free climate we will release a batch in time for Thanksgiving and another for Christmas as cranberry suits both holidays well.”
Blessing has brewed a cranberry beer in the past, and faced an issue that’s not uncommon, but can certainly be chalked up to bad luck, or bad timing. “In the past I often would release beers that tried to reflect the season. I kind of got away from that practice when one year I decided to release a cranberry sour around November, which was such a good idea that tons of breweries also released a cranberry sour and the market was completely oversaturated with cranberry sour beer.”
That’s not to say that Blessing doesn’t brew seasonal beers, he just doesn’t tend to do beers tied to holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Halloween. “The beers that I make that are tied to the calendar are usually traditional styles not holiday based beers,” he said. “Every year I make an Oktoberfest and release it at the beginning of September. I hope to make a Bier de Mars to release this March. While the brewing industry is currently more innovative and creative than it ever has been, it also has an amazingly rich history that I think as a brewer we have an obligation to tell.”
At Gypsy Brewing Company in Calvert County, down in Southern Maryland, brewer-owner Eric Christensen has avoided the pumpkin beer wars, choosing to brew a dunkel as his fall seasonal instead. As we push into the holiday season, Christensen said that his small brewery is “doing an Oatmeal Double Stout aged in a Bourbon barrel that we hope to have out by mid December. We also have a Scotch Ale we are aging in a Tenth Ward Smoked Bourbon barrel. That may be January. Just depends on how it develops.”
The bourbon-barrel stout will be packaged in 500 ml bottles and will largely be distributed in Southern Maryland. “I am my own distributor, so we mostly distribute in Southern Maryland. Check out www.gypsybrewco.com to see locations that carry our beer. We are also on Biermi, but delivery is only in Calvert and Southern, AA County. We do not ship in or out of state due to the cost of materials and shipping.”