Seasonal and commemorative brews could be the way to bring cask ales to a new generation of drinkers
Back in the olden days when everything was black and white, when everybody wore big hats and when cask ale consumption was at its peak, all brewing was "seasonal."
Breweries ceased production during the summer as the hot weather rendered the brews unstable and liable to attacks from wild yeasts and used hops to preserve cask ale so it could be drunk during the hot summer months. As a result, the first seasonal ales were those drunk in autumn, as that was when the brewing year began.
Although the advent of more sophisticated brewing techniques now allows core cask ale production throughout the year, the legacy of these seasonal ales still remains. Regardless of time of year, you are bound to spot a seasonal ale, often witily titled, sat proudly alongside the more established beers and lagers that are served all year round.
The weeks running up to Christmas and the New Year represent the high point in the seasonal ale calendar and, although considered gimmicky by some, these festive winter warmers often signify a serious boost to volumes in a market that is in serious decline.
This year's festive offering is typical of previous years, ranging from the traditional beers steeped in heritage such as Harvey's Old Ale and Christmas Ale and Adnams' Tally Ho! to the more humorous ales like Thwaites's Good Elf and Bateman's Rosey Nosey whose pump-clip is adorned with a tinkling, flashing nose and beard.
Attitudes to seasonal ales differ from brewer to brewer. Harvey's is representative of a more traditional approach to seasonal ales and has shunned the gimmicks and marketing techniques adopted by other brewers in favour of producing beer linked to the heritage and tradition of the brewery.
According to Bill Inman, marketing manager at Harvey's, the likes of Tom Payne (named after the radical thinker who lived in Lewes) and Bonfire Boy (a smoky-flavoured brew made for the famous pagan Guy Fawkes celebrations in the town) rarely see the light of day outside the brewers' own estate.
"We tend to only sell our Christmas Ale in pins to go on top of the bar. Although the volumes are small, the entire seasonal range gives our tenants a chance to put something different on the bar and it creates a huge amount of interest in our pubs," he said.
For other brewers the benefit of seasonal ales is considerably greater than merely topping up sales within their own pubs.
Although demand from within its own estate was the original reason Brakspear's started to explore the possibility of a seasonal beer range five years ago, the Henley-based brewer soon realised that the potential of its Brewers Selection, a range of six seasonal cask ales each available for two months, went far beyond its own estate and South East heartland.
Now in its fifth year, the Brakspear's Brewers Selection has established itself as one of the more recognised seasonal ale ranges not only in the South East, but nationwide.
"After trialing a few ideas in our pubs, we realised there was a golden opportunity to go outside our heartland with something other than our heritage and tradition," said Joe Laventure, director of sales and marketing at Harvey's.
The Brewers selection now accounts for approximately 14 per cent of Brakspear's total output, average production for each beer reaches an impressive 400 barrels and in addition to nationwide distribution through Beer Seller, some have achieved extensive listings with numerous pub companies including Whitbread, Unique and Enterprise Inns.
"At first we thought it would be a good thing to do, but now it really adds value to the whole business and as far as we're concerned has achieved its objectives," said Laventure. "In fact, having started trading with our Brewers Selection we have managed to introduce our core range in places where we would never have been able to before."
The Brewers Selection is also representative of a shift away from producing archetypal dark, strong winter warmers and pale summer ales towards bespoke offerings associated with either a particular event or a specific target audience.
Daniel Thwaites is another big regional to reject the standard seasonal styles in favour of tailor-made beers designed for specific events or particular audiences. In order to develop relations with wholesale partners in and around Wales, last year Thwaites produced Stadium Bitter, a specific ale made to commemorate the Millennium Stadium and the Rugby World Cup, and this year released a beer called Dic Penderyn in recognition of the hero of the Welsh working classes.
John Siddeley, marketing manager at Thwaites, said: "The consumer is becoming increasingly sophisticated and is getting bored with frolicking lambs and summer solstice type beers.
"Associating a beer to a suitable event or target audience allows us to experiment and design specific ales, flavours and marketing ideas and gives us a more creative angle. Both Stadium Ale and Dic Penderyn have a distinctively Welsh character," added Siddeley. "In short, we're trying to create a fresh approach to a market that has seen healthier days."
Few would disagree that the traditional cask ale sector is very much the poor relation of the brewing industry when it comes to promoting its beers. From a marketing perspective, seasonal beers can provide a unique selling point and offer brand managers and brewers the chance to join forces and experiment with new recipes and promotional initiatives as they look to attract new drinkers.
And although stories of fledgling seasonals flowering into established brands are rare, a chosen few such as Shepherd Neame's Spitfire Ale and Fuller's Organic Honeydew have made the successful transition.
Honeydew, the Chiswick-based brewer's spring beer for the last five years, has been re-launched by Fuller's as an organic bottled beer and made available all year round. Spitfire has enjoyed incredible success since its launch in 1990 as a event beer to commemorate the Battle of Britain.
Fuller's seasonal range has also recently become less seasonal after its Old Winter Ale was replaced by Jack Frost - a move welcomed by director of brewing, John Keeling.
"We have found that it's restrictive to call beers by seasonal names. It's a logistical nightmare as you're confined to a limited window in the calendar," he said. "In the case of strong winter beers, our research shows that people just don't want to buy a beer with an ABV of more than five per cent."
With the cask ale industry currently struggling, it seems a number of regional brewers are taking the seasons out of their seasonal beers and using them as a platform for producing new exciting and specifically designed products in an attempt not only to maximise the potential of their own estate, but also challenge the vice-like grip held by lagers and premium packaged spirits.
"Seasonal beers are genuine new products that are not necessarily linked to a brewer's history and tradition. It's very important for cask ale to be innovative and the likes of Organic Honeydew help shed the sector's fuddy-duddy image that has so far failed to attract younger drinkers," said Keeling.
Whether this new breed of seasonal beers proves to be the key that unlocks the door to a new generation of drinkers remains to be seen.