Back in the BC (“before craft”) era, the term “seasonal beer” essentially meant a Corona with lime in the summer, a Guinness in the winter and maybe an Oktoberfest thrown in to be trendy come the fall. Then came the craft beer revolution, and the seasonal beer scene exploded, giving rise to tremendous expansion. As its popularity continues to grow and palates become more refined, brewers — big and small — are adding to the number of seasonals created and the frequency with which they’re released. Given the blinding speed at which these seasonals appear and how far in advance of the season some are coming out, you may find yourself carrying 10 different Oktoberfests that end up gathering dust in December. Conversely, if you don’t order properly, you may run out of a best seller long before its season ends. Don’t suffer from seasonal-induced stress! A little strategy can get you back on track and your seasonals selling smoothly once again.
Customers want and expect to find the latest offerings at your bar. But how do you choose? It depends on the focus of your establishment.
“I recommend balancing the decision with what brands are most popular and what companies are most interested in helping your business achieve the appropriate sales and profitability,” David Commer, president of Texas-based Commer Beverage Consulting, says. “A popular brand that generates 25% waste does me no good.”
Distributors should actively work to help you create a dynamic portfolio.
“At any one time, seasonal beers make up 5 to 10% of our overall beer menu,” says Greg Powell, general manager at TapWerks Ale House & Café in Oklahoma City. “We work closely with suppliers to stay on top of the new offerings and plan accordingly on our tap wall to make room for those beers. In some cases that’s easy, because certain breweries [such as Samuel Adams, Boulevard, Great Divide, Left Hand, etc.] have a constant tap that’s dedicated to seasonal offerings. So, when one runs out, it’s just a matter of cleaning the line, changing the tap handle, educating the staff and we’re ready to go.”
Food + Seasonals = A Perfect Pairing
When it comes to cuisine, beer is the new wine. Driven by modern chefs, designing menus featuring seasonal-beer pairings is a growing trend. Not to mention, it’s also a great way to showcase your seasonal selection.
“Every time a restaurant switches its menu, they should be looking to pair dishes with seasonal beers,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association. “Meet with your distributor several weeks in advance to find out what’s being released and plan accordingly.”
Herz recommends using a chalkboard to promote daily beer and food specials. Many brewers are dedicating sections on their Websites to pairing recommendations.
Buying local is a big trend these days as consumers increasingly want to support small businesses. Herz likens it to the notion of “what feels good tastes even better.”
Commer recommends “checking with your local brewer or distributor to take advantage of popular items in your specific region. Beer, in particular, lends itself to local and regional influences.”
Remember, local brewers have a vested interest in working with you to promote their offerings.
Seasonal beers from local Oklahoma breweries, such as COOP Ale Works and Marshall Brewing Company, are very big sellers at TapWerks, Powell says. “Those breweries do a great job with the social-media outlets, so guests are always asking if we have the newest offerings.”
If you find yourself going crazy from managing a never-ending stream of seasonals, keeping up with staff education and maintaining a proper ordering schedule, then a program may be for you.
Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, explains how his Samuel Adams label’s well-established system works: “Our program gives an operator variety without complexity. Beer drinkers are interested in tasting different offerings, but it can be an operator’s nightmare trying to pick the beers and educate the staff. The Sam Adams Seasonal Program takes care of that. It gives four seasonal beers during the year, which change every three months or so. Operators commit their draft line; they know it’s going to sell, and the staff knows it’s always a Sam Adams seasonal. Customers know it, too, and it’s by far the largest-selling seasonal program. We started it 20 years ago; it took awhile to develop those four strong seasonals, but we have a proven brand the operator can put on with confidence. The transition is easy to manage.”
A program isn’t necessary for everyone, however. At ChurchKey in Washington, D.C., 2011 Nightclub & Bar Best Beer Bar Award winner, beer is managed personally by Beer Director and Managing Partner Greg Engert.
“Seasonal beer was originally born out of necessity; what was brewed was based on availability,” Engert says. “Now it’s more based on the weather. I have a paradigm: crisp beer, fruit and spicy beer, tart and funky, etc. I work in seasonals where I think they’re appropriate, making sure I have the flavors represented. Flavor profiles of seasons aren’t necessarily in sync with my needs. I don’t like to lock up a line just because it’s seasonal.”
Additionally, Engert personally oversees all of the beer education in-house. Nonetheless, he does appreciate programs: “For another operator, a program offers variety and reduces the stress. The work is done for them. Programs offer staff education and support, such as glassware, tap handles and a guarantee of a steady stream of beer.”
Although there are only four seasons, brewers increasingly are offering beers that showcase the flavors of the time of year. This is a great way to incorporate more variety into your selection on a smaller scale.
“We’ll put out a kölsch in the summer, a pumpkin for fall, a chocolate bock for Christmas,” Koch says. “Limited-time releases are in addition to the four seasonals, they’re not replacements.”
Several brewers also offer various flavors throughout the year; this can add to the confusion and require even more knowledge and training on the part of the operator. However, it’s a sure-fire way to keep your beer list fresh and evolving.
Where’s the Beer?
Seasons change quickly, and seasonal beers move even faster. Instead of committing lines, “some brewers are moving toward a pre-order system,” Engert says. “For instance, I’ll pre-order three different styles of a particular seasonal like Oktoberfest but rotate them myself. This way, I control what’s coming on.”
Simply getting a hot new seasonal isn’t enough. You also have to notify the masses.
“Our biggest promotion for a beer release is typically a pint night,” Powell says. “When I know the date a beer is going to be available, I can schedule it around one of our Thursday Night Pint Nights. We advertise that in local print media and also through Facebook and Twitter.”
Whether you feature two or 20 seasonals, they should serve to enhance your beer program, not complicate it, and that goes for operations, service, marketing and sales. Make a plan, expand your beer/food pairings, work with your distributor and don’t be afraid to try something new! NCB
A Four-Season Beer Primer
Here’s a look at the major styles and some representative selections for each season:
Winter beers are hearty and rich with savory spices meant to keep you warm. Look for seasonals featuring vanilla, coffee, cinnamon, maple and chocolate. Winter beers generally are available November through January.
Spiced ales: Harpoon Winter Warmer, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, New Belgium 2E Below Winter Ale, Redhook Winterhook
Old ales: Great Divide Hibernation Ale
Winter lagers: Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Matt Brewing Company Saranac Winter Lager
Porters: Sierra Nevada Porter, Anchor Porter, Narragansett Porter
Spring beers should be bright, crisp and clean — much like spring itself. Also like spring, the releases are brief, usually available January through March or February through April.
Maibocks/Bocks: Smuttynose Maibock, Anchor Bock Beer, Narragansett Bock
Pils: Samuel Adams Noble Pils
Spring ales: New Belgium Brewing Mighty Arrow Pale Ale, Dogfish Head Aprihop
Helles: Victory Brewing Company Victory Lager
Red ales: Harpoon Celtic Ale
Everyone loves summer, and the season typically is the longest for releases, often March/April through late August. Generally lower in alcohol, summer beers tend to be fresh and light for easy sipping.
Kölsch/blonde ales: Harpoon Summer, Geary’s Summer Ale, Matt Brewing Company Saranac Kölsch, Michelob Beach Bum Blonde Ale, Goose Island Summertime
Belgian white: Blue Moon Belgian White, Allagash White
Fruit: 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon, Sea Dog Blue Paw Wheat Ale, Great Divide Brewing Company Wild Raspberry Ale
Wheat ales: Samuel Adams Summer Ale, Kona Wailua Wheat Ale
Once dominated by Oktoberfests, the autumn season has diversified. Intended for crisp nights, autumn beers are filled with spices and rich flavors. They generally are available from September to October/November.
Pumpkins: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Brooklyn Brewery Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Michelob Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale, Saint Louis Brewery Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
Oktoberfests: Flying Dog Brewery Dogtoberfest, Thomas Hooker Octoberfest Lager, Pete’s Brewing Company Pete’s Wicked Oktoberfest, Beck’s Oktoberfest
Harvest ales: Goose Island Harvest Ale, Gritty McDuff’s Halloween Ale
Springtime in January?
Does it drive you crazy that your seasonals keep showing up sooner and sooner every year? For the most part it’s strictly marketing, the same reason Christmas merchandise is on store shelves in October.
“Early releases are mainly capitalizing on sales,” says Greg Engert, beer director and managing partner at ChurchKey in Washington, D.C. “It’s another reason I don’t like making commitments.”
In some cases, there is method to the madness.
“People are releasing their beers so early they’re out of season,” Boston Beer Company Founder Jim Koch says. “It’s confusing to the customer to see a summer beer in January or a pumpkin in July. We’ve been doing this a long time and have discovered there’s a right time to put a seasonal on tap. Geographically, we have a good idea when certain areas are ready for a new seasonal. We release earlier in some parts of the country vs. others. In Arizona, for instance, their spring starts after Christmas but in New England it’s much later.”