Christmas may still be a couple of months away, but if you listen closely while standing in the beer aisle of your local grocery store, you may just be able to hear the faint sound of caroling.
That's because winter seasonals — those nostalgic, robust brews meant to keep you warm in the mean, chilly months ahead — are starting to flood the shelves of grocery stores and local specialty shops.
Winter brews have a long and storied tradition in the world of craft beer: Sierra Nevada first brewed its revered Celebration Ale in 1981. Deschutes Brewery's Jubelale was the company's first seasonal when it was brewed for the first time 26 years ago.
For a lot of breweries, the annual winter tradition means big bucks.
“It's our best-selling seasonal by far,” said Jimmy Seifrit, brewmaster at 10 Barrel Brewing Company. “It's that way for most other breweries, too.”
While the labels on these beers depict snowy winter scenes, many of the bottles arrive on grocery stores in early October. Some, like 10 Barrel's Pray for Snow, were officially released in mid-September this year. Early release dates for winter seasonals seem to have become a trend in the craft beer industry, said Seifrit.
John Van Duzer, head brewmaster at Cascades Lakes Brewing Co., said he has noticed this trend, though his brewery has, for the most part, maintained an Oct. 1 release date for its winter seasonal.
“It seems the distributors want it out there earlier and earlier,” Van Duzer said. “It's a short season. Some other seasonals have about four months, but it's a three-month season for winter.”
Tom Gilles, co-owner of The Brew Shop and Platypus Pub in Bend, said that once the holidays are over, winter seasonal beer sales dip significantly, even though in places like Central Oregon, winter is far from over.
“Similar to pumpkin beers, there's a short window to sell these (winter) beers,” Gilles said. “Once Christmas hits, the beer doesn't sell as much. It seems like they've been getting out there earlier this season.”
But you won't hear beer lovers complaining that their favorite winter warmers are on the shelves too early. Gilles said that even though it's a transitional period between seasons, winter brews are starting to pick up in popularity.
Pray for Snow from 10 Barrel is one of the most popular with Brew Shop/Platypus Pub customers so far this year, Gilles said. Pray for Snow is in its third year of being bottled and its fifth year of being brewed, and unlike many other winter seasonals that rely on the same recipe from year to year, the brewers at 10 Barrel prefer making Pray for Snow a unique experience every winter, Seifrit said.
“We like making it different every year because we like starting a conversation,” he said. “We like people talking about the differences between years and which one is their favorite.”
While many winter brews are already on shelves, more will be released in the weeks ahead. And while seasonals vary from brewery to brewery, Seifrit said there is one thing that all winter brews should have in common.
“It should be a hearty beer that gives you a sense of warmth,” Seifrit said. “It should give you that hearty burn of alcohol in the chest and have a big full flavor. You want it to be like that nice winter jacket you go for.”