The turn of each season brings changes in wardrobe, home decor, even attitude. Now there is also welcome change for suds enthusiasts: seasonal beer. While Oktoberfest was typically once the only seasonal that came to mind, today's craft brewers are rolling out barrels of temporal brews around the calendar.
Often used interchangeably with "microbrew," a craft beer is "made by a brewer using skill and creativity to put forth a beer that he knows will taste really good," says Matt Simpson, aka The Beer Sommelier and founder of
thebeerexpert.com. While craft beer tends to come from smaller breweries, there are larger craft producers like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams. "Craft brewers produce superior quality brews across their entire lines, and they do it consistently year after year, which is one of the hardest things to do in brewing," says Simpson.
Why the surge in seasonal offerings? The short answer: It makes good marketing sense. Breweries gain steady income from year-round varieties while also wowing regular customers with limited releases and hopefully attracting curious newcomers, too.
"Going back in history, there were no refrigerators, so there was no way to lager a beer in summertime," says Simpson. In Germany, lagers were fermented in naturally cooler caves, but Belgians made ales instead of lagers, which are fermented differently, and those fermentations were made to follow the seasons. Today, brewers can make any type of beer any time they wish, good news for ardent fans of hops and barley. Brewers can produce a traditional winter beer like an Imperial stout in summertime or a lager in winter.
Even better news: You can now buy seasonal craft beer just about anywhere, including your local grocery store. There are also specialty beverage stores like
Binny's Beverage Depot that usually carry a good variety of interesting seasonals. If you can't find a decent selection locally, consider a "Beer of the Month" club like MicroBeerClub.com or The Connoisseur's Beer Club, where a selection of some of the finest craft brews available lands on your doorstep each month. (Check first to see if your state allows shipment of alcoholic beverages.)
Here are The Beer Sommelier's recommendations for the best brews for each season:
Perhaps related to harvest time in many parts of the world, autumn tends to feature the widest variety of seasonal styles.
Try: Southern Tier's Pumking (New York) "rich and buttery pumpkin pie in a glass," and the classic Ayinger Oktoberfest (Germany).
Goes well with: Most spiced beers are meant to be savored on their own, but Oktoberfest lagers are lighter and pair more easily with everything from mild cheeses to poultry, or traditional German fare.
Winter is the time for what Simpson calls "big beers" like Imperial stouts and winter ales, which tend to fall at the far end of the style scale. "They're big in alcohol, big in body, flavor, palate sensation and often big in bitterness, but hopefully still balanced," he says.
Try: barrel-aged versions like Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout (Illinois), Alemith's Speedway Stout (California), or a Belgian like Delirium Noel.
Goes well with: Either alone or with fatty, smoked meats.
Spring brings two great seasonals: doppelbocks and barleywines. "Doppelbocks are malt-heavy, medium to full in body, caramelly and with some wonderful residual sweetness," says Simpson. Barleywines are what Simpson calls "the big beasts of spring" -- with alcohol levels of up to 15%, plan on either staying in or sharing one of these. American versions tend to be very bold and on the bitter side.
Try: An old German standby doppelbock like Ayinger Celebrator (each bottle comes with a little plastic billy goat around its neck) or Smuttynose S'Muttonator (New Hampshire), is a great American example. Barleywines to check out: Three Floyds Behemoth (Indiana), Southern Tier's Back Burner (New York) and Full Sail's Old Boarhead (Oregon).
Goes well with: Doppelbocks pair well with mild cheeses like brie or even light, creamy desserts like flan. Barleywines are great alone at cellar temperature or paired with robust cheeses like Stilton or sharp English cheddar.
Higher temps call for lighter, more refreshing beers that many usually associate with American microbrewed lagers. Among craft brews, Simpson likes Belgian Saisons and wheat beers (weizens) during summertime.
Try: Brewery Ommegang's Hennepin (New York) and Penn Weizen (Pennsylvania).
Goes well with: lighter fish or chicken dishes.