Seasonal beer

Sophie Atherton: what does seasonal beer mean to you?

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Sophie Atherton: what does seasonal beer mean to you?

Related tags: Beer

Beer sommelier and writer, Sophie Atherton looked at what 'seasonal beer' means and how licensees can tap into it to make the most of the different times of the year.

Pubs tailoring their beer range isn’t just pandering to ‘fussy’ drinkers. I can understand the challenges of choosing what to put on the bar, but if seasonal beer was truly seasonal, maybe it would be easier?

Think about it. What does ‘seasonal beer’ mean to you? A cask beer only available during certain months I imagine. Sort of seasonal but not actually dependent on the seasons.

Certainly not the same as using the word in relation to locally produced food – which many people will happily pay more for – whereby you simply can’t get certain things when they are not in season.

I suppose it would still be artificial, but I think we need a bit more imagination in fitting seasonal beers on the bar to the seasons. Or the weather, if we weren’t so regularly blessed/cursed with unseasonable elements. Instead there seems to be a ubiquity of golden beers all year round with darker brews often lucky to get a look in at all.

As I say, it’s not just about fussy drinkers, or beer geeks. Making more of seasonal beers could be a huge opportunity to earn by creating interest and something to talk about. Licensees already understand the value of marketing around events in the calendar, but to do it with beer specifically would take things up a notch. It would also have a value beyond the season because it could be part of a drive to promote beer, especially cask beer, differently and get customers to look at it in a different way.

Green hop speciality

There is one kind of beer that is genuinely seasonal, green hop beer. Brewers in Kent have been trying to use it to do exactly as I describe above.

They want people to clamour for these special beers that are only available in the autumn and only for a few weeks. They’ve succeeded quite well with many pre-selling all their green hop beers before they are even brewed.

The first beers appear in late September and it’s usually all gone by late October – often sooner because it is so popular with drinkers. Some call it ‘beerjolais’ in a nod to the beaujolais nouveau tradition and the drama of getting the young wine on to the market on the same date in November each year.

There’s much more drama to green hop season, known as Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight, by the local brewers. Green hop beers are made using fresh hops instead of dried ones.

Hops are usually dried immediately after picking to preserve them for use year round. They can quickly spoil if not either dried – or brewed with – straight away.

So brewers usually collect their green hops straight from the grower and rush back to the brewery so they can brew with them barely hours after they’ve been picked. You don’t get much fresher, or much more seasonal, than that. It’s a great story for pub staff to tell customers too.

In the US, pumpkin beers are quite a thing. A few British brewers make them, but I’m always surprised it’s not a bigger deal for us given our love of Halloween.

British Christmas beers are a bit of a wet lettuce too. So often Christmassy in name only, with barely anything to mark them out as seasonal, let alone special.

Alternative suggestions

Green hop beers aside (and although Kent makes the biggest deal of it you’ll find brewers all over the UK make green hop beers thanks to the help of hop merchants Charles Faram & Co), it’s left to pubs to make what they will of seasonal beers. So let’s not waste the opportunity.

Green hop beers mark the end of summer; amber and dark gold ales match the turning leaves of autumn. Porters on the bar for Guy Fawkes Night, remembering their London origins and the gunpowder plot.

Higher ABVs in smaller measures could mark the run-up to the festive season and keep drinkers warm into the new year; barley wines are a British classic that fit perfectly.

Spicy brews, honey beers or those with chocolatey flavours at Easter. Golden ales for spring and summer. British lager if we’re blessed with hot weather. You get the idea.

Or perhaps it’s time pubs pressured brewers to come up with more seasonal brews?

However and whatever pubs do with their seasonal guest beers, the thing to remember is do something to promote them. Otherwise drinkers might start thinking beer and pubs are, “So last season.”

Related topics: Beer

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