While smaller breweries working with smaller batches and somewhat different timetables can keep the hardier, maltier brews around for a bit longer, larger brewers don't want to get stuck with a whole lot of leftover seasonals when they could be reminding drinkers that the next, sunnier season is just around the corner. As Symphony IRI reminds us, seasonal beer sales have jumped 15% to 25% in recent years and are one of the industry's strong points.
However, as just about every craft brewer will remind you, small brewers tend to live and die with the IPA. Symphony IRI saw a 36% spike in IPA sales during the first half of 2013. As our colleague Tom Rotunno at CNBC noted in an IPA story last year, sales of IPAs jumped 39% in 2012 just before last year's leap. In short, the sooner breweries can get an IPA into a drinker's hands, the quicker their long winter's nap can end.
It may be one of the big reasons why the winter IPA has caught on in recent years. New Belgium Brewing Company, which produced 765,000 barrels in 2012, had a winter lineup for 2013 led by its Accumulation White IPA, which was far more floral and citrusy than the vast field of spicy, malty winter warmers it faced. Samuel Adams, meanwhile, tossed a Juniper IPA into its holiday mix at the end of last year and gave Rebel IPA a try on taps around the same time. Hood River, Ore.'s Double Mountain, meanwhile, has been dumping an avalanche of Centennial hops into its Fa La La La La winter ale for a number of years.
Besides, it isn't as if winter crybabies like ourselves are left wanting. While hop-heavy Sierra Nevada (nearly 1 million barrels in 2012) and New Belgium approach the season with bitter, floral offerings like Sierra's Ruthless Rye and New Belgium's 2 Below, there's also the occasional warmer. This is when Sierra Nevada typically releases its 9.6% alcohol-by-volume Bigfoot Barleywine, while New Belgium mixes it up with its rich, sweet Frambozen Raspberry Brown Ale.
The tilt toward stronger, warmer brews this time of year is slight, but even limited releases still provide some much-needed kick. Last year around this time the Craft Brew Alliance's (BREW) Widmer Brothers brewery, part of a nearly 700,000-barrel operation, introduced its KGB Russian Imperial Stout in a package with similarly strong raspberry and chocolate Russian imperials (it's a stiff 9.3% ABV). Widmer's mainstay spring seasonal was a mild steam beer known as Columbia Common. Deschutes also uses the late winter months to show off its formidable, 11% ABV Abyss Imperial Stout.
Occasionally, stronger, maltier beers even slip into the spring mix. Both Pyramid, which produced 337,000 barrels last year with North American Breweries partner Magic Hat, and Samuel Adams take the opportunity to add red ales to their spring variety packs, with the latter throwing a Maple Pecan Porter into its 12-pack for good measure. The market forces the seasons to creep into bigger craft breweries a little more quickly, but even their brewers know they have to do something to keep warm until the temperatures rise.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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