By Lew Bryson
The year has turned, we’re seeing everything with 2020 vision, and you should be looking at season-appropriate beers. If you don’t know what I mean, read on; if you do, get ready for some old and new favorites!
Back in the early days of craft beer – back when we called it “microbrew” – one of the things we celebrated was beer brewed according to the calendar. Seasonal beers swung to the seasons, to the olden times, keyed by things like the harvest, planting, thaws, snow and yes, even mating season.
Holiday beers were the first seasonals to return to the scene. Oktoberfest followed, bocks for the cold and Irish-style stouts for St. Patrick’s Day. Lots of traditional beers were rediscovered. Some new traditions were created too, like the spicy richness of pumpkin beers, fruited-up gose and Berliner weisse for quenching summertime thirsts.
Recently, though, we’ve taken to drinking the same beers all year. As I wrote elsewhere, it was as if an IPA steamroller had shattered the beer calendar like plates at a Greek wedding. Seasonality was all but gone, as brewers put out IPAs, Imperial stouts, sours and sweet ‘pastry’ beers, without any kind of regard for the time of year. Holiday beers were still strongly calendar-driven, but that was it.
Until 2019, when Oktoberfest seemed to make a comeback. And I say, let’s take it and run with it, before we lose these traditions altogether. I’m not ready to give up my beer calendar for the sake of year-round cucumber-kiwi gose! Open your calendar app, and let’s schedule some drinking.
January is deep in the winter, and you’ll want something big and burly. This is the time for fireplace beer, something to sip, while you laugh at the snow (or restore yourself after shoveling it). Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is made for this: massive malt, toe-curling hops, big enough to split a 12-ounce bottle. If you want something closer to home, plunk down with some Cape May Devil’s Reach. And there’s always the golden glow you get from some Lagunitas Lucky 13!
We’ve always been partial to lagers around here, though, and that means bock (that’s the mating season reference; bock beer is associated with the mountain goat mating season in Germany!). Two German classics will set you up right: Paulaner Salvator and Spaten Optimator. These rich, brown doublebocks deserve some respect, with a hearty meal to soak up the impact. You’ll also want Sly Fox Instigator, the big brown from Pottstown. (If it’s still cold on Fat Tuesday on February 25th, roll out the Abita Mardi Gras Bock!)
February means three things: Super Bowl, Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day. The first two, well, you drink what you want. But Valentine’s Day calls for something seasonally special to reflect the romantic holiday. Start with some rosé; a beautiful rosé cider from Angry Orchard, Jack’s, Strongbow or Woodchuck. Go with a rich Trappist-style pour for dinner. Chimay Gold or the Grande Réserve are so prestigious. Or, if your meal is lighter, pour a perky, powerful Piraat golden ale.
Then for dessert, you can go to either fruit – where the full array of Rodenbach covers you well; the new Fruitage is yummy! – or chocolate. Three very different chocolate beers are the Heavy Seas Siren Noire with bourbon barrel aging and vanilla beans; Evil Genius I’ll Have What She’s Having, a chocolate and hazelnut Imperial stout; or get a pint of the delicious Yuengling Hershey’s Chocolate Porter (if it’s still available!). Allagash’s I Believe in Love, a ruby-colored sour ale aged on cranberries and raspberries in oak barrels just screams romance. Or, you could let your sweetheart know you’d want to be with them at ‘the end of the world’… sharing a brilliantly effervescent bottle of Unibroue La Fin du Monde.
We often get heavy snow well into March, but that’s not what drives seasonal drinking in this month. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, and that means Guinness! You can float all day on mellow black pours of the Draught or turn it up with a roar of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Want to be different? Ice up a glass of Magner’s Irish Cider – their new berry flavor hits the shelves in February. And don’t forget Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout – a great local option.
You won’t regret any of these choices, and you’ll be doing the good work of restoring the beer calendar to its proper place. And summer wheat beers are coming!
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer and spirits since 1995. He was the managing editor of Whisky Advocate from 1996 through 2015, where he also wrote the American Spirits column, and reviewed whiskeys. He is currently a Senior Drinks Writer for The Daily Beast, and writes for TheWhiskeyWash.com, ScotchWhisky.com and two new magazines: American Whiskey and Bourbon+. He has also written four regional brewery guidebooks: Pennsylvania Breweries (4 editions), New York Breweries, Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Breweries and New Jersey Breweries (with Mark Haynie).