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Seasonal beers on tap

Once upon a time, beer brewing followed the agricultural rhythms of planting and harvest and celebrated the seasons. Each batch was different, reflecting the time of year in which it was produced. The advent of refrigeration and modern brewing techniques changed all that, of course, turning beer production into a year-round activity. These days, however, certain seasonal beers such as Oktoberfest and Bock beer are still favorites of craft brewers, and many of the big producers are adding limited-time offerings. “Seasonal beers are a tradition...

Once upon a time, beer brewing followed the agricultural rhythms of planting and harvest and celebrated the seasons. Each batch was different, reflecting the time of year in which it was produced.

The advent of refrigeration and modern brewing techniques changed all that, of course, turning beer production into a year-round activity.

These days, however, certain seasonal beers such as Oktoberfest and Bock beer are still favorites of craft brewers, and many of the big producers are adding limited-time offerings. “Seasonal beers are a tradition of the old brewing methods,” says Ray Daniels, director of craft beer marketing for the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based advocate for craft producers. Food is also seasonal, Daniels adds. “You wouldn’t eat watermelon in January or heavy stews in July and August,” he insists. “So when pairing beer with food, you want a beer that will go with those seasonal dishes.” In general, that points to darker, more-robust beers in the winter and lighter, simpler brews in summer months.

For restaurants and bars, that means having a beer selection that rotates every few months to match menu changes and to supplement the perennial beer offerings. “Beer drinkers today are not loyal to a single brand or even type of beer from day to day, much less from season to season,” notes Daniels.

Flat domestic-beer sales are one reason even the big guys are getting into seasonal selections, say industry observers. Giant Miller Brewing sells four seasonal brews through its Jacob Leinenkugel subsidiary. Coors has a Winterfest limited time offering. And this summer, Anheuser-Busch released its fourth seasonal beer, Beach Bum Blonde Ale.

“Beer drinkers today are looking for options, trying different beers when they’re in different moods,” says Mike Sundet, Anheuser-Busch’s director of innovation.

America’s biggest brewer began its seasonal program in fall 2005 with the introduction of Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale. That was followed by Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale, aged in whiskey barrels, and Spring Heat Spiced Wheat, an unfiltered Belgian wheat-style beer, brewed on citrus peels and coriander.

“Reaction has been very positive from beer drinkers and operators,” says Sundet.

The brands were created to stand on their own, he adds. To draw attention to the beers, Anheuser-Busch created some clever, whimsical tap markers (pictured) to differentiate the seasonals.


Dispensing Advice

Bottle or tap? That’s the question.

Bottled beer is perhaps the easiest solution. It can fit into an existing establishment with few operational alterations.

Of course, depending on the range of your beer list, you might require more storage and refrigeration. Figure you need a minimum of chilled beer to cover your busiest weekend night—based on sales history. You can save some cash by buying in quantity, but watch out—even bottled beer doesn’t stay fresh forever. Check the bottling date (ask your distributor to help you decode it) and plan on keeping bottled beer no more than three to four months.

Tap and keg systems have to be installed, with lines (often insulated) running from storage (more refrigeration)
to the bar. And keeping the system clean is a regular chore. Once tapped, commercial draft beer stays fresh about 20 to 30 days under refrigeration; craft draft has a shorter shelf life.

Often you can strike a deal with a supplier for better prices if you buy all your beer from one source. The downside is less variety.

As for the bottle vs. tap question, what’s the answer? “Both,” advises the Brewers Association’s Ray Daniels. He contends that restaurateurs and bar owners should maintain a mix of bottles and draft to satisfy today’s discerning beer drinker who crave variety.

“There are some beers that are only available in bottles,” Daniels points out. But it’s also important to have a range of beers on tap, he adds. Draft beer facilitates sampling. “If you have a new beer and it’s on draft, servers can offer 2- to 3-ounce samples, and upsell everyone at the table.” 

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