Where are the Seasonals?

I spent Thursday night supping Leeds Brewery’s Gathering Storm; and a lovely pint it is, too. Rich with burnt-malt smokiness and a slight hint of red-berry fruit in the finish, it’s a truly Autumnal stout. The guys from Leeds were ‘launching it’ for the year, handing out Oysters and generally putting themselves about. It became apparent during the night that they felt it  was a ‘true‘ Seasonal – brewed between October and December, once a year. A cause for celebration. Something worthy of an anniversary.

This got me thinking. I started drinking Beer pretty much exclusively around 2003 – and even though this is relatively recently, I recall many, many more brewers brewing truly seasonal beers ‘back then’. What I mean by ‘truly’ is a core range, supplemented by four/five beers that (well, in my mind, anyway), matched the seasons. A zesty Spring ale, something ruddy and sweet in Autumn, something probably spiced (groan) around Christmas. Throw in the odd fresh/green hop beer in there and you’ve got what used to be the mainstay of a brewery’s production roster for the year.

Is it me, or does this practise not seem to be as prevalent these days? New breweries seem to have a much smaller core range – maybe one or two ‘flagship beers’  – and then a rotating cast of ‘Specials’ – a term bandied around much more than ‘Seasonal’. Does the modern ‘craft’ beer drinker simply not care about such a set of parameters to drink within? Do the younger generation of brewers find brewing to the seasons boring? Is brewing a ‘Seasonal’ beer simply not needed? As a concept, is it antiquated?

Or – to flip that round – are the Seasonals still there, just advertised less, or maybe even re-branded? If less people drink in pubs – opting to stay at home – are the one-off barrels (too small a run to justify bottling) being missed?  For the bigger boys, could the growing trend to invest in smaller, pilot-style plants give the brewery the rotation and interest to snare a new market that a one-off ‘Seasonal’ once provided?

I hope that seasonals aren’t dead – I like the idea of waiting 10 months to get your hands on a beer you really like (Anchor Christmas springs to mind as a true ‘event’ beer).  I suspect they aren’t – but where are they? Am I just not looking hard enough? Do I have to wait to go to events such as the excellent National Winter Ales Festival or Autumn-Hop Picking Events simply to dive into that season’s bounty?

About leighgoodstuff

Blog: https://goodfoodgoodbeer.wordpress.com/ I'm Leigh Linley; born and bred in Leeds, and writing about it since 2005. TGS exists solely to highlight the great beers that are out there; brewed with passion by Craft Brewers around the World. I also edit the 'Tavern Tales' section of Culture Vulture, which looks at Pubs and Pub Life rather than the beer in the glass.

Posted on 13/10/2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Certainly trying a pint of that this weekend

  2. Although I agree with what you are saying Leigh, could it be that those “old” seasonals are still there but your tastes have perhaps changed towards newer brewers with different ideas?

    Flipping it on its head, I love and loathe the Christmas seasonals. I really look forward to some, Anchor as you’ve mentioned, Gouden Carolus Christmas, Bush Noel, specials I suppose, but dread walking into pub after pub chockablock with Rosie Nosey clones. I generally find myself craving a light fresh hoppy pale for several weeks, there needs to be a balance, you agree?

  3. Fast forward six months and Brian sent me a text asking if I wanted to brew a beer for IPA day to be dispensed through a Randall. Did I? Yes! And so the idea was born between us. This will be a 7.3% golden IPA, with around 90 IBUs and it will be dispensed on keg in The Grove and Port Street on keg via Randall with different hops, and it will also be on cask in both venues. The Grove has two casks, each dry hopped with one of the bittering hops, one Columbus and one Chinook. Port Street has but one cask of it, dry hopped to hell with a blend of Columbus and Chinook.

  4. Harveys have produced what one might call “proper seasonals” for a slong as I have known them, and that has to be 35 years or so. Their superb Old Ale is launched, each year, at the beginning of October with a “Dancing in the Old” ceremony, that takes place in the brewery yard in Lewes. They also produce a wonderfully strong, traditional Christmas Ale.

    They have augmented their range of seasonals over the years but, to my mind, remain true to the seasonal ale tradition.

  5. It would seem to me that the Chr*stm*s clones you mention, Phil (I dread seeing them too) are less of a true ‘seasonal’ carefully-planned ale, and more just a marketing bandwagon bullshit – I just can’t imagine seeing pumpclips with lame Xmas puns from the more ‘progressive’ or what we probably think of loosely as ‘craft’ brewers these days.

    I still seem to notice some seasonality in cask ale pubs though – but perhaps these days, anyone who is keeping a keen eye on the bleeding edge of ale consumerism has noted that things move fast and tinkering with the best way to sell their product may show it’s better to re-brand ‘seasonals’ as part of a ‘specials’ range – e.g. Oakham brew a programme of monthly specials which quite often you could see correspond roughly to the idea of what you may be drinking that season – but again, this year, I’ve seen so much more publicity and talk given over to green hop beers than before – so things may swing back again where seasonal suddenly becomes a new buzzword in the beer scene. After all, the idea of seasonality, and it’s marketing value, has certainly been coming to prominence in the food world for quite some time.

    You’ve given a few things to think about Leigh – you can be sure I’ll be bearing this in mind as I scan pumpclips and beer release info in the next few months – perhaps you’ll do an update later in the year, to see if being more aware of looking out for this, has uncovered more examples out there of an autumnal and winter seasonal ales being produced by the current crop of good breweries out there, not just perhaps the large regionals whose brewery schedules are bound over to their judgement of marketing needs?

  6. I think seasonals were useful when they gave brewers an excuse to experiment but, as you say, the ‘special’ now seems much more common, especially as big brewers get pilot plants. I can’t think of many spring, summer or autumn beers either of us was really crazy about. The occasional winter beer was OK, but Christmas beers almost always stink, too. Seasonals are too often labels (marketing niches?) in search of a product.

  7. Loving the seasonal beers, 4 green hop beers then moved on to an October Alt beer. Next week our Scrumkin Ale is back ( spiced pumpkin sorry!) still only our second year so not as organised as we would like but seasonal is really big for us.

  8. carsmilesteve

    I think they are disappearing. Even Shepherd Neame who used to have a proper rotating set have started producing them what seems like all year round…

  9. All; thanks for your comments. Tania – I do hope that the ‘True’ seasonal – ie a beer brewed with a season in mind rather than a marketing opportunity that Bailey mentions – does come back around into fashion. Given the cyclical nature of beer trends, surely it’s on the cards. Let me posit this; when was the last time you ‘looked forward’ to a seasonal coming out? Anyone?

  10. Leigh,

    You make a really good point. I had not considered it before, but we always used to get smoky or reddish coloured beers at this time of year. Taylors used to release their delicious Ramtan at this time of year, but this now seems to be a beer they produce all the year.

    There are a few brewers doing green hop beers at the moment with the new crop of hops, which I always look forward to. Otherwise not a great deal on offer

    Bailey is so right that Christmas specials usually stink!

    • Hi Prof. Yeah, I think RamTam is available all year round now. Of course, the popular seasonals becoming regular beers is also well-documented (Stella Artois, anyone?!)

  11. Just thought of a good example of seasonal beer production/marketing – not quite the same as what you’re getting at in your blog perhaps – but Bristol Beer Factory’s “12 Stouts of Christmas” was, IMHO, a successful attempt at something seasonal which had a point to it – to experiment in small batches with flavours that marry with stout. It’s perhaps something very niche, not really the same as a seasonal beer that gets brewed in significant batches for the on-trade, but the beers all had quite wintery flavours without falling into too much cliche, and I’d be quite happy if some kind of whisky-cask aged stout became the new Xm*s beer of choice!

    • Tania – that’s a really good point, Bristol’s 12 Stouts *were* seasonal – but as you say, not a true ‘in line with the seasons’ sort of deal. More a special, for Christmas!

  12. This blog has really got me thinking Leigh. I used to really enjoy some of the seasonal beers especially, when I lived in Leeds, Tetley’s Imperial. As I got older I felt I got pigeonholed into what I called “dark winter beer syndrome” and, like Phil, really began to crave something pale and hoppy in the winter. Then I thought about it some more and remembered how much I really like a dry stout in the summer.

    I offer this; the beer industry is in a state of flux. I’ve never seen so many different varieties available (assuming you know where to look) and I just don’t think there’s that much room for seasonal beers any more. So, yes, I agree with you that it is less prevalent than before. Part of me thinks it is a shame but most of me is happy with the variety that is out there.

  13. Odell still do seasonals
    and from what I can tell Hawkshead unlease some seasonal specials upon us every couple of months, but you are right sir seasonal beers seem to be going the way of the dinosaur and being replaced with so called one off specials.

  14. the bigger regional brewers still do seasonals, though more are moving toward 2-monthly specials (eg Ringwood 4X)

  15. What the other said – I think there are more seasonals these days, it’s just that the brewers making them are not as fashionable in the new age of craft beer. I’d love to see more craft brewers exploring seasonals though – getting seriously bored of so many exciting young creative brewers all doing the same thing…

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