Unlike fall, which leans heavily on pumpkin beers and Oktoberfest Märzen beers, winter beer tends to be a bit more diverse. Porters, Stouts, Brown Ales, Old Ale, Barleywine, Amber Lager, Wheat Wine, White IPA -- all of those qualify and "winter beer" and all of them are usually among brewers' winter offerings. They aren't just for small brewers, either: MillerCoors's (TAP) Leinenkugel and Blue Moon brands produce winter seasonals, as do some of its recently acquired craft brands including Saint Archer and Terrapin. Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) , mean while, releases winter seasonal beers through its Shock Top label as well as many of the ten craft beer brands it's purchased since 2011.
All of those styles come during a tough part of the calendar for brewers. According to the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the 16 million barrels of beer that the industry sells in August winnows away to 12 million by November before briefly climbing to 13.5 million for the December holidays. By January, sales drop to 12.9 million barrels and remain frozen there until roughly St. Patrick's Day.
While we understand why some brewers would want to get a jump on things and boost numbers a bit, we'll admit that September is very early for winter holiday beers. Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association craft beer industry group in Boulder, Colo., notes that November 1 is typically when U.S. reach their limit on fall beers and move onto the next season. He pointed out that interest in seasonal beers plummets on November 1, but quickly climbs again throughout the month.
That said, market research group IRI Worldwide notes that 11.6% of seasonal beers are sold in October. By comparison, just 9.3% of seasonal beer is sold in November. That's kind of a tough comparison, though as Watson says winter beers can be hard to track.
"The way the data is structured, I don't really know what seasonals are selling - just how much of the generic seasonal SKU [stock-keeping unit, or beer packaging] sells in a given period," Watson said last year. "That said - fall seasonals, particularly pumpkins - kind of die in November, so it's likely any pickup is from winter seasonals."
Those winter seasonals fall into a broad spectrum. Stout is often considered a winter beer, but it comprises sweet Milk, Oatmeal and Chocolate stouts, roasty dry Irish stouts and high-alcohol Russian Impeerial stout. That's just one style amid English Old Ales, India Pale Ale variations, Scotch Ale, Barleywine, Porter, smoky Rauchbier and even Saison and certain varieties of wheat beers.
However, while it's a bit odd to drink pumpkin ale or even Märzen beyond late summer or fall, all but the Christmas-decorated winter warmers are pretty much fair game until early spring. Watson noting at sales of winter seasonals are strongest in the second half of both November and December, but that seasonally unspecific styles can carry over better than, say, pumpkin beers did when temperatures stayed unusually warm during fall 2015.
However, the main reason you'll see a wintry beer around this early in the year is because nobody wants to see it after New Year's Day. It's a shame, since the early months of the year are a wasteland for beer production and consumption, but Watson says that "lots of new resolutions, people saving a bit of money after holiday spending, etc." takes all beer off the table at least until Super Bowl Sunday.
With more than 5,300 brewers in the U.S. and limited shelf space for all of them, everyone is looking for a seasonal edge and nobody wants to be the last seasonal beer lingering around in January. We took a look at winter beer releases and found 10 -- some stalwarts and some newcomers -- that are bringing the holiday cheer as early as early as September.
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Deschutes Brewing Company in Bend, Ore.
Jubelale is surprisingly pleasant and mild for holiday ale from a town that loves its hops and high alcohol content. Its a caramel-sweet but molasses-cookie rich Strong Ale with 6.7% ABV, Jubleale goes down deceptively easy thanks to its roasted barley malt. Its deep garnet color is matched in beauty only by its label's ever-shifting artwork. Though there's still a while until the first skiers hit Mount Bachelor the late-September debut of this beer is the strongest signal of winter's arrival in Central Oregon.
Founders Brewing Company of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Founders's stouts basically built this company. The Grand Rapids, Mich., brewery once had to scold merchants last year for gouging prices on its Canadian Breakfast Stout and its KBS bourbon stout still remains a rare treat.
Original-recipe Breakfast Stout, however, is just a tasty milkshake of a beer. Sold in four packs and from late September through December -- or a few months shy of its December-February peak a few years back -- Breakfast Stout is smoother, creamier and more pleasant than its alcohol content suggests. This 8.3% ABV combination of flaked oats, bitter and imported chocolates, and Sumatra and Kona coffee mellows it out and gives it a smooth taste that just induces cravings.
While it isn't as rare as it once was, it's still an absolute gem of a stout that should be cherished by the states lucky enough to be points on Founders' distribution map.
Heavy Seas Brewing Company of Baltimore, Md.
There was a time when a "hoppy" U.S. craft beer wasn't an India Pale Ale or IPA, but another English-derived acronym. The Extra Special Bitter has a reddish hue to it and, at least in the U.S., piles piney hops onto a bed of mild English hops that make your typical bitter not so bitter at all. This 7.5% ABV beauty is a bit more potent than most ESB, but the mild British and Goldings hops serve as a backbone for West Coast favorites Cascade and Centennial, which have a more pine-and-grapefruit bite to them. An ESB shouldn't be limited to just one time of year, and this one in particular would make a fine year-round staple if it wasn't for that alcohol content. Consider this a winterized version of an underrated style.
Ska Brewing in Durango, Colo.
Much like ESB, Pale Ale generally doesn't have all that much heft to it. However, when you're teaming with a snowboard company to make a beer and want to get people thinking about the slopes in mid-September, it pays to crank up the alcohol content, the roasted chocolate malt and the grapefruit bite a bit. Venture Snowboards makes a Euphoria snowboard to pair with this beer, but even folks who don't stray much farther than the ski lodge can taste the merits of a weightier beer that's decidedly less pale than the snow outside.
Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo.
We were going to point out that Avery's self-proclaimed winter beer, its dense and sweet Old Jubilation English Strong Ale, can sometimes be found by the end of September. But then Avery did us the favor of releasing a seasonal bridge beer, Chai High, in August with the full intention of letting it linger into the cold winter. A bigger launch happened in September, but this beer's debut last year was so well-received that Avery brought it back. A brown ale spiced with ginger from Boulder based Bhakti Chai, this is the creamy, spicy fall treat that pumpkin-spiced anything wishes it was. It also isn't afraid to be a multi-seasonal beer, which makes it the most comfortable "winter" beer on this list.
Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, Ore.
In years past, we've highlighted this brewery's Wassail, which combines caramel and dark chocolate malts to give it a deep mahogany color and usesEuropean noble hops and Pacific Northwest aroma hops give it a citrusy, slightly bitter finish. But last year, Full Sail finally got around to putting its 6.5% ABV winter IPA Wreck The Halls in six packs. It's a lot of Centennial and Cascade West Coast hops backed up by rich caramel malt to give this brewery in the shadow of Mount Hood a regionally appropriate taste of winter. Also, like Wassail, it has a habit of showing up in September during certain years.
Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colo.
When you eagerly await that first snow of the season, you kind of want a winter ale as soon as possible. The Colorado brewers have mastered this caramel-colored, brown-sugar-flavored Old Ale style largely because they know their audience. At just 6% ABV, however, Isolation is a bit easier on that fan base than many of its contemporaries. Sure, it lacks the punch of a Belgian quad or Strong Ale, but it's an easy-drinking holiday treat that doesn't overwhelm with spice. Sure, it can be considered a holiday beer, but to many of the folks who drink it, any day you can get on the slopes is worth celebrating. If it's in late September or early October, so be it.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, Calif.
Best known for its Boont Amber Ale, this nearly 30-year-old microbrew mainstay has made a legacy out of its smooth, malty brews, its "Bahl Hornin'" Boontling logger speak and its part-bear, part-deer "beer" mascot Barkley. It's Winter Solstice, however, is one seriously enjoyable winter warmer. Seriously, if you bring some to a holiday party don't just let the folks who brought that light lager hog all of it. This beer is just a whole lot of warm, roasty malt in a dark amber package. Little bits of toffee, caramel, pecan and pie spice blend together like a holiday dinner as the Munich and Crystal malt works its magic. That 6.9% ABV should keep things nice and toasty, though that isn't always such a great thing around its September release date.
Troegs Brewing Company in Hershey, Pa.
It isn't a September release, but we admire the audacity of getting it out there before . Mad Elf's mischievous elf label hides a ruby red brew that sits like a holiday wine and sparkles like Rudolph's nose. It combines Belgian and German to represent far ends of Pennsylvania's brewing spectrum, but leans more toward the state's traditional side. The Saaz and Hallerstrau hops are bold without delivering an IPA-style bite while the pilsner, munich and chocolate malts provide the smoothness of a stout or dark bock. The core of its sweetness and strength, though a mix of honey and cherries that's Christmas-candy sweet without overdoing it. At 11% ABV, Mad Elf isn't the beer you should squander at a holiday party. Reserve this for sipping by an open fire.