A Beer For All Seasons

The greatest enjoyment of drinking beer is that it’s an
ever changing pleasure affected by mood, thirst, food,
and last but not least, weather. Those of us fortunate
enough o live in the northeast or places where there
are a distinctive four seasons find the weather equally
as important as any other reason for a fuller
appreciation of brews. Folks who live in Florida or
Southern California, for example, where there are no
seasons can’t completely appreciate the finer nuances
of beer styles or seasonal offerings, because for
centuries special styles have been brewed for the
purpose of pairing the beers to the atmospheric
conditions in which they were to be consumed: heavy,
full bodied beers for the cold winter months and
lighter, crisper beers to help endure the heat of
summer. It’s tough to appreciate an Imperial stout
while sweltering in 90 degree Florida humidity.

For far too long Americans had few options other than
just plain  “beer”: standard, golden lagers mass
marketed with silly commercials and catchy slogans but
with no reference as to why the particular beer was
suitable for anything other than watching sports,
cutting the grass, or playing cards. To be sure, local,
regional and even a few national breweries offered a
few seasonal brews, such as bock, and many of them
had year round specialty beers, which, while not
seasonal, gave discriminating beer lovers an option
other than the usual lagers. Ballantine IPA and the
many Pennsylvania porters come to mind. But for the
most part it was blonde lager that all tasted pretty
much the same.

The advent of the craft brewing industry resurrected
seasonal styles that had been a mainstay of the
European brewing tradition and today there are
hundreds of American seasonal brews available to
drink with the weather in mind. The fun of traveling
around the country and making stops to find local
brews has been greatly enhanced by what time of year
you’re visiting a particular area. One can travel to Lake
Placid, for example, and pick up a sixpack of Ubu ale
anytime, but only the colder months allow the pleasure
of finding Frostbite ale on tap, and a journey through
Virginia during  winter, spring, or summer would not
be as pleasurable as in September, when the
wonderful Dominion Octoberfest is available.

Every season or month has a style of beer to go with
it, so why not start at the beginning of the calendar
year?  “Winter” beers, especially barleywines and
Imperial stouts have long been associated with long
winter nights. Sipping from a snifter of Brooklyn
Chocolate Stout while looking out the window at the
snow covered frozen ground and a full moon through
the bleak branches of the leafless trees is a calming
pleasure that greatly alleviates the daily winter grind of
scraping the windshield and driving through blackened

There is a definite reason for these styles of beer: one
needs the full body and high alcohol content to see
one through to spring, which introduces to several
more styles. The most prominent spring style is bock
beer, usually associated with a goat on the label.
Originally a German style lager, bock beer was sold
around Easter time by many American breweries.
Unfortunately, a popular urban legend was that
breweries cleaned their brewing apparatus in the
spring and “the crap in the bottom of the brewing
vessel” was used to make bock beer. This is, of
course, just that. A lot of crap!.

In Germany the stronger bock beers were brewed to
enable monks to make it through their Lenten fasts.
Even stronger doppelbocks probably took the place of
both breakfast and lunch. Traditionally, doppelbock
names end in “-ator”, (Salvator, Troegenator, and
Celebrator to name a few) and because of the strength
of these beers I’d like to suggest an additional
appropriate name: “Drunkenator”!. Although not a
specific “spring” style, in my mind since I only drink it
then, another spring beer is Irish dry stout, especially
popular around St. Patrick’s Day. Pints of Guinness or
Beamish serve to lure real beer lovers away from
ghastly green beer, also making it’s unwanted
presence known at this time of year. Recently a few
breweries, such as Sam Adams, sell spring ales.
Though not bocks or stouts these brews seem to fit
the mood for the appearance of crocuses and
forsythias and the rebirth of life.

In America , summertime is when the most beer is
sold. Picnics, parades, the Fourth of July, baseball,
hammocks, and lolling on the beach are all happily
associated with suds. Standard American lager( lawn
mower beer), usually canned or on tap, is a fitting
drink for all those occasions, but also available are the
many varieties of wheat beer, wit beer and
hefeweizens, all designed to enable one to endure the
often oppressive heat and humidity of everyone’s
favorite outdoor season.

With the advent of autumn come the Octoberfest and
pumpkin beers. Octoberfests, originally called “Marzen”
beers were brewed in March and lagered in caves until
the cooler weather of fall arrived. These beers are full
bodied, malty and are slightly more alcoholic. They’re
perfect for the autumnal equinox, sitting at a picnic
table under some trees and watching guys in
lederhosen schtomp around to the sound of a
Bavarian band blasting out “Hofbrau Days”.

The most diverse of the seasonal brewery offerings
start in November with the onslaught of winter, holiday
and Christmas brews( more about that later).. The
“holiday type of  brew can be anything from spiced ale
to barleywine to weizenbock to Imperial lager. A
brewery can offer a once-a year special brew without
any qualification as to what style it is. One only has to
know that it’s a Christmas beer and meant to be
enjoyed in the special ambiance of a yuletide gathering.
These special brews should be appreciated for the
times in which they are drunk: having a pint of Sierra
Nevada ’s Celebration Ale while watching the fire,
gazing at the Christmas tree while sipping Anchor’s
Special Ale, drinking Sam Adams Winter Lager with
Christmas dinner, or savoring Victory’s Old Horizontal
on New Year’s Eve.

Having covered the entire calendar of seasonal brews,
we unfortunately have to face two downsides that
come about because of the times we live in. One is
that political correctness has not bypassed the craft
brew industry. My collection of labels includes 107 that
are associated with December and January beers. Of
these, only 11 mention  “Christmas”, the rest alluding
to “winter” or “holiday” beers. A clue as to when the
PC started is supplied by the Ballantine brewery of
Newark . A specialty of theirs was Ballantine Burton
Ale, stored for many years in huge oak barrels, then
bottled and  distributed free of charge to employees,
customers and friends at Christmastime.

I have three Burton ale labels in my collection and it’s
interesting to note that the bottlings in 1946 and
1949 have labels that proclaim “Merry Christmas from
your friends at Ballantine”, but by 1964 the almost
identical label said “Season’s Greetings”. Although
Anchor’s wonderful Christmas brew is called “Our
Special Ale” all of their labels from the inception include
the words “Merry Christmas”. Thank God for Fritz
Maytag, the brewery’s owner. I can’t imagine people
standing around toasting each other with a hearty
“Happy Winter’!

Second, in an obvious attempt of ‘one upsmanship” on
the competition from other breweries, we are now
subjected to seeing Sam Adams Winter Lager on the
shelves at the end of September. (I tried my first 2007
offering in Chesapeake , Virginia in 85 degree weather
with oppressive humidity.) Octoberfest beers are
regularly appearing in August and this year was the
earliest I’ve ever seen Sierra’s Celebration in New
Jersey . Undoubtedly, spring bock will make it’s
appearance in February and “Otter Summer” ale will be
seen long before the dog days of summer. However,
all is not lost. If they resist the temptation to sample
them immediately, beerfans can buy them and wait
until the appropriate time to drink them.

Since Halloween has just passed and stores are
already decorating for Christamas, it’s apparently time
to check out the local liquor stores to see if spring
bock beers have made it to the shelves. Can summer
be far behind?


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