Is the seasonality of beer a myth?

It’s light lagers and ales in summer and dark, warming beers in winter, right? But do we really change how we drink when winter comes? Beer Writer of the Year Adrian Tierney-Jones muses

Never mind winter, autumn has come. The mellow and fruitful season, a time of early morning mists coming off the river, the smell of a bonfire in the air, ash on an old man’s sleeve and all that jazz. Then if we think about what kind of beer we’d like in our glass at this time of the year, we’ll be conjuring up a beer that is fuller in the body and more muscular in its appeal than those that sustained us through the summer; our desire will also be beers whose general mood is contemplative and comforting (though I’m sure very few will

Is the seasonality of beer a myth?

It’s light lagers and ales in summer and dark, warming beers in winter, right? But do we really change how we drink when winter comes? Beer Writer of the Year Adrian Tierney-Jones muses

Never mind winter, autumn has come. The mellow and fruitful season, a time of early morning mists coming off the river, the smell of a bonfire in the air, ash on an old man’s sleeve and all that jazz. Then if we think about what kind of beer we’d like in our glass at this time of the year, we’ll be conjuring up a beer that is fuller in the body and more muscular in its appeal than those that sustained us through the summer; our desire will also be beers whose general mood is contemplative and comforting (though I’m sure very few will stop drinking IPAs or Pilsners).

This is a time of stouts and porters as dark as a moonless night or hefty amber ales brimming with newly harvested malt and hops (barley wines and imperial stouts/porters are ideal for chasing away gloomy winter evenings). Or even — as British brewers follow in the footsteps of their American cousins — this is a time of the odd pumpkin beer, replete with spice and a winning sweetness. Beavertown’s Stingy Jack seems to be the best known pumpkin beer, while BrewDog’s Pumpkin King is their acknowledgement of the style. Maybe the apparent scarcity of the style is due to the beer’s Marmite nature, being something that people either love or loathe.

Many breweries pay lip service to the idea of seasonal beers whether they are traditional or self-consciously craft: you know the deal, pale and hoppy in the spring and summer, strong and weighty in the autumn and winter and, of course, beers with nutmeg and/or cinnamon for Christmas, which is my particular kind of hell. These are beers whose flavours and aromas are supposed to collaborate with the turn of the seasons (though sometimes they feel as false as a ‘new’ one-off flavour for a brand of crisps). This celebration of seasonality continues over in Europe, where Germany has its Märzen and Festbier, Northern France bières de Mars, Scandinavia celebratory Easter beers (one brewer in the south of England produces a green beer at Easter that is a homage to his Danish background).
However, I have often wondered if the idea of seasonal beers is an exaggeration, something that we want to happen, rather than what actually happens? I think of how we can eat and buy raspberries in February or asparagus in December — sometimes it seems that the concept of eating seasonally has become murkier than the worse New England IPA. With that in mind, could it be that the clamber for craft and the excitement surrounding all sorts of flavours (caramel latte imperial gose stout anyone?) are diluting the idea of seasonality?

For instance, I would certainly harness sour/tart beers in the service of the warmer months, but not so much when the temperature drops, but I would put my house on the likes of Thornbridge Tart and Magic Rock Salty Kiss continuing to be produced as the nights draw in. Meanwhile, many dark and potent stouts and porters are produced throughout the year and drank with deep gusto. I’ve certainly enjoyed something like Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout on a summer’s evening and the world hasn’t fallen apart.

Perhaps the conundrum is that the very nature of brewing used to be seasonal and we’re still clinging to that folk memory. Until the development of refrigeration in the 19th century, breweries used to come to a halt in the summer months because the warm weather made brewing unreliable (this still happens with the classic lambic producers such as Cantillon, whose beers perhaps you could argue are seasonal). Come early autumn, beer would be made again with the added bonus that the new season’s barley and hops were ready to be used. You could also argue that there’s an echo in this with the release of green-hopped beers around September, an event that is seasonal in the full sense of the word.

There are an awful lot of myths and legends floating around in beer and maybe seasonal is another one of them that will soon be sharing the company of the now-debunked origins of porter and IPA. On the other hand, I would hate to see the end of seasonal beers, beers that celebrate the hop and barley harvests, beers that celebrate the festivities and holidays that mark our progress through the year, beers that almost act as calendars so that you know where you are in the year when you drink. There is something special and heart-warming in drinking a beer that only appears once a year; it’s an adult way to approach the excitement of the continuing craft beer revolution, after all I love the fact that asparagus appears in the late spring while dark and heady wines are perfect for later in the year. With that in mind, the evening is drawing in and I’m going to pour myself a glass of Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, an ideal accompaniment to this time of the year.

Adrian is an award-winning freelance journalist, author and speaker, writing and talking about beer, pubs, food and travel. Books include The Seven Moods of Craft Beer, Beer: In So Many Words, Great British Pubs, 1001 Beers To Try Before You Die and Britain’s Beer Revolution (with Roger Protz). Contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer and World Beer. Head of Judges for the World Beer Awards and also ends up on various juries in Italy and Belgium.