A Year of Beer
Sip Your Way Through the Seasons
For nine out of ten people, beer is mainstream lager—a single, pale yellow beverage. It is pleasantly thirst-quenching, predictable, universally available, and a very safe choice if you’re traveling in countries with dodgy water supplies. But, in all honesty, it’s not very exciting.
More and more lucky drinkers have discovered the biggest surprise about beer: it offers more variety than any other adult beverage. Beer can be straw-colored, opaque black, or any shade in between. It ranges in strength from the most quaffable session beer, designed to be consumed pint after pint, to the alcoholic heavyweights that beer judges euphemistically describe as “warming,” which are best consumed in a brandy glass at the end of the day.
The most exciting aspect of beer diversity is its seasonality: there really is a beer for every occasion throughout the year. There are beers that are uniquely suited to particular events, some of them only available for a short time. There are others that just taste better when the seasons turn.
Here’s a calendar of brews, seasonal specialties, and remote tie-ins to get you sipping through the year.
When the weather is bitter, most of the world can’t imagine ordering a cold one. But the beers known as “winter warmers” are the reason many people long for snow. It’s time to add to your collections of vintage-dated English ales from Fuller’s, Gale’s or J.W. Lees, and break out one of each year for a vertical comparison. If you’ve been able to restrain yourself, taste the Thomas Hardy Ales from Eldridge Pope, the original brewery to honor the English poet, and an example from O’Hanlon’s, the brewery that picked up the brand last year.
The birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns is observed in his home country with haggis and whisky, but there are Scottish beer possibilities a plenty. The Belhaven Brewery was in business when Burns was alive; perhaps he drank its beer. Traquair House Jacobite Ale would certainly honor his nationalist bent. We can’t be sure what he’d make of Froach Heather Ale: he may have known the legend of the Pictish drink, but it was Robert Louis Stephenson who would romanticize the tale a century later.
Get up on the second, and if you see your shadow, devote a few more weeks to the winter warmers of January until the weather improves. Otherwise, start planning for Valentine’s Day.
Recent research has discovered that men would prefer beer as a valentine’s gift, in preference to chocolate or flowers, but that’s hardly surprising, is it? But there are romantic beers that will stir the female heart, as well. For the courting couple, Forbidden Fruit (De Verboden Vrucht), a deep red, strong Belgian ale, hints at seduction. For the already committed, Marriage Parfait, from Belgian brewer Frank Boon is a tribute to a happy union. Unsure whether you’re hot or cold? Try Quelque Chose (“Something”) from Quebec’s Unibroue. This wild cherry-flavored ale can be served warm, cool, or—for the unorthodox—on the rocks as an aperitif.
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout not only combines the disinhibiting effects of alcohol and the endorphin-stimulating qualities of chocolate, it wins awards for flavor. So did the Chocolate Bock from Sam Adams, and Chocolate Stout from Rogue.
Mardi Gras, Lent and Easter all have their beer connections. For the pre-Lenten blow-out, known as Fasching in Germany, the strong, malty beers called bocks make their appearance. Come Lent, it’s hard to pretend that drinking doppelbock is a sacrifice, but the ingenious Pauline monks of Munich devised their famous “liquid bread” to get them through the period of fasting. Paulaner’s Salvator is the original doppelbock, but there are now interpretations from many brewers: look for the “-ator” suffix, which designates a doppelbock.
The Easter Bunny doesn’t forget the grown-ups, at least if you live in Scandinavia, Finland, or the Baltic countries. Easter beers can be as rich and chocolatey as the kiddies’ Easter treats, and you don’t have to decide whether to eat the ears or the tail first.
The Irish do not dye their beer green for St. Patrick’s Day, and are politely puzzled at those who do. Instead, have a traditional Irish dry stout, and some oysters (you can drink stout when there’s an ‘’r’ in the month).
Bier de Mars and Märzen styles both take their names from this crowded beer month.
The taxman has affected the character of beer as much as the tastes of drinkers, as brewers adjusted their recipes to take advantage of loopholes and avoid tax burdens on their ingredients. In Britain, beer was taxed according to its strength, and the different tax rates are still recalled by the names of ales in Scotland: 60 shilling (light ale), 70 shilling (heavy), 80 shilling (export) and 90 shilling (strong ale). Shillings gave way to new pence years ago, but Caledonian and Belhaven breweries in Scotland maintain the tradition in their ales, as does Odell’s in Colorado, with its 90 Shilling Ale—which not a taxing beer at all.
For Earth Day, salute the growing list of organic beers, including Wolaver’s beers from Vermont, Fish Tale Ales from Washington, organic ale and lager from England’s Samuel Smith Brewery, Golden Promise from Scotland’s Caledonian Brewery, and Germany’s Pinkus Muller brand. Brasserie Dupont in Belgium brews organic versions of the saison style, and across the border, Castelain in France offers an organic bière de garde.
But don’t stop with ingredients: many American brewers have taken the lead in environmentally friendly technologies: Brooklyn Brewery has joined Colorado’s New Belgium in committing to wind-power.
Maibock, while still strong, has a lighter character than its big bock brothers, as befits a spring beer.
In honor of May Day, salute the workers and raise a beer formulated specifically to quench the thirst of laboring men. The brown ales of Northern England and the mild ales of the English Midlands were brewed with low alcohol and reviving maltiness for miners and factory workers. Brown ales are darlings of the American brewpub set, but milds are harder to find.
From Magic Hat in Vermont, Mother Lager sports a suitably revolutionary label, with red fists raised in defiance against boring beer.
Corona may be the biggest-selling import in the United States, but for Cinco de Mayo, pick up a Negra Modelo, a faithful North American rendition of a Vienna-style beer, recalling Austria’s brief dominance of Mexico.
For June weddings, consider a refreshing German or Belgian wheat beer. Or reach back in history and serve mead, a fermented honey beverage, and the drink for the honeymoon. One mead style, called braggot, is more of a mead-beer hybrid. But is it mead flavored with barley, or beer flavored with honey?
Bière des Ours (“Bears’ Beer”) from Belgium is also made with honey, as are a number of modern honey wheat brews.
Sahti, Finland’s traditional homebrew made with rye and juniper, is a feature of mid-summer celebrations. Lammi Sahti is the first genuine sahti to be imported into the United States, but take care that this perishable brew is kept cold. Fire up the sauna and pass the birch branches.
In this most patriotic month, break out American-style Pale Ale from Stoudt’s Brewing Co., with the flag on the label or the venerable Anchor Liberty Ale. Independence Brewing in Philadelphia used to feature a particularly buff Ben on their Franklinfest and a comely Betsy Ross on the Kristall Wheat. Sadly, that brewery is gone, leaving Sam Adams alone in depicting our forefathers at their square-jawed best.
Of course, France also observes its national day in July, and gives us bière de garde to celebrate with, a farmhouse ale brewed in the cool months to enjoy in the summer.
In the dog days of summer, check out a kennel-full of canine brews. Flying Dog Brewing Co. in Denver has the longest pedigree, with its “litter of ales,” including Doggie Style, On Heat Wheat, Snake Dog and K-9.
In New Hampshire, Olive, the Smuttynose Brewing Co. mascot, was honored with Old Brown Dog, a round, malty brown ale. Olive’s brew inspired Abita in New Orleans to create a slightly hoppier, more alcoholic version, Turbo Dog.
From Sea Dog Brewing Co. in Maine, Blue Paw Wheat Ale is made with Maine blueberries. Rogue Ales is fronted by black lab as the brewery’s, um, spokesdog. Lagunitas Brewing Co. in California puts a patch-eyed pit bull on its beer labels. Check out Sirius Ale, named for the Dog Star.
And if you over-indulge, the brews for you come from Oregon brewery Hair of the Dog.
It’s the start of the festival season, the most demanding time of year for the beer lover. Obviously, the possibilities of fest beers and märzens alone could fill the month. But this is also the month of the hop harvest, the perfect month to enjoy the best of the bitterest.
In Germany, they’re bock beers; in Holland, they’re bok beers, and September and October are their traditional months.
As you pull on the Halloween costume, take inspiration from the beers with scary names—and scary strength. Lucifer, Old Nick, Duvel and Belzebuth all conjure up fallen Gabriel himself; Maudite is “damned,” Mort Subite is “sudden death.” Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale features a glow-in-the-dark label, while Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager might turn you into a zombie.
North Coast’s PranQster embodies the trick that goes with the treat. Skullsplitter and Strongbow (a cider) were both named for warriors who were, no doubt, heros to the home team, but spooky bogeymen to their enemies.
Pumpkin beer is a gimmick that works. American brewers have taken malty base beers, added pumpkin pie spices and sometimes the pumpkins themselves, and created a real addition to the season. At their best, pumpkin ales remind us that spices other than hops used to be used to balance malt sweetness; maybe gruit beers actually contained cinnamon and nutmeg along with the bog myrtle and yarrow.
In Düsseldorf, November is the month when the alt beer brewers present their sticke (“secret”) beers, stronger versions of classic alt beers, as a treat for regular customers.
Back in the New World, bring beer to the Thanksgiving table with a clear conscience. The Pilgrims were a dour bunch in many respects, but they weren’t abstainers: as their leader’s journals remind us, a dwindling beer supply was the reason they landed in Plymouth instead of continuing to Virginia. Had there been a couple more barrels of beer on the Mayflower, American history would be completely different.
The Twenty-first Amendment to the United Stated Constitution was ratified on December 5, 1933, ending National Prohibition. Time to have a beer and raise a toast to sanity.
Christmas beers are strong, cheering, and made to be shared. Samichlaus—formerly from Switzerland, now brewed in Austria—was once the world’s strongest beer, and is still the strongest lager. Bush Noël, called Scaldis in the United States, and Delirium Noël from Belgium are as rich and dense as fruit cake, and much less likely to be “re-gifted” a year later. From Anchor Brewing Co., “Our Special Holiday Ale” is brewed with a different secret spice each year.
These Christmas choices are detectable. However—and we have this on the best authority—Santa is partial to Russian Imperial stout.
Julie Johnson Bradford
Julie Johnson Bradford is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.