Seasonal Disorder: The Disappearance of Spring Beer Styles
At some point, when no one was really looking, an entire season just fell off the calendar. Think about it. Each year drinkers look forward to summer ales and autumn’s Oktoberfests and pumpkin beers. Then, as the air gets crisp and cold, the brews get spicy and boozy, with the arrival of winter warmers and barley wines. But whither spring?
To be fair, most breweries do release a seasonal offering for the twelve-ish-week period between late February and late May, but how many can actually say that a quintessential spring style has emerged? How often does anyone go into a bar that’s touting its extensive spring beer selection or festival showcasing only brews from that season? Aside from the odd maibock here and there (a style that seems less and less available these days), options are pretty scarce.
“Spring is a tricky time, as there are no specific seasonal flavors attributed to spring—except maybe jelly beans and ham—and the weather is highly variable around the U.S. during spring,” says Patrick Rue, CEO and founder of The Bruery in Placentia, California.
While there may be a dearth of regular, go-to spring styles, that hasn’t historically been the case. Even when there were a fraction of the breweries there are today, many of those producers seemed to have had the season figured out. In fact, it may have been the only one they’d figured out.
“It’s odd that the main traditional spring seasonal—bock—has pretty much disappeared,” observes veteran beer writer Randy Mosher, a regular contributor to this magazine; creative partner at the Chicago breweries Forbidden Root and 5 Rabbit Cervecería; and author of Tasting Beer and A Beer for All Seasons, among others. “When I was a kid, Schlitz, Pabst, Stroh’s and Schoenling—going to school in Cincinnati—all made bocks that started to show up [in late winter]. Weird that the only seasonal beer available back then is the one that disappeared.”
Granted, Mosher acknowledges, those weren’t much to write home about, but they were something different. “So we were all over them,” he remembers.
Bocks used to be an annual rite of spring in Pennsylvania, as well as other parts of Victory Brewing Co.’s distribution footprint. When the Downingtown, Pennsylvania, brewery’s saintly bock duo—St. Victorious doppelbock and St. Boisterous maibock/heller bock—started appearing in stores, they were much more reliable harbingers of milder temperatures than their home state’s most famous rodent. But drinkers’ thirst for such styles gradually dwindled, to the point that they’re now only available in limited, draft-only quantities.
“It does get out into the market a little bit, really just to keep the locals happy,” says Bill Covaleski, founder and brewmaster at Victory, which last year combined with Southern Tier Brewing Co. to form the umbrella company, Artisanal Brewing Ventures. “Someone usually asks, ‘Why can’t I get St. Boisterous heller bock in bottles?’ and it’s easy to commiserate with that guy because I am that guy.”
Part of the reason Victory drinkers aren’t gravitating toward the bocks is that their flavor profiles—the grainy breadiness of the pale St. Boisterous and the caramel-forward character of St. Victorious—don’t compete as well with the ones that are attracting the lion’s share of beer enthusiasts’ attention.
“In general, malt-driven beers just don’t get the same response that hop-driven or yeast-driven beers do, when you look at overall sales,” Covaleski offers. “Pilsner is the outlier, but it’s highly hopped. People haven’t appreciated malt-driven beers yet, at least in big numbers.”
While IPAs tend to be year-round and, increasingly, the flagships for a growing number of breweries, seasonal riffs on the style start showing up on shelves as winter winds down. Those may arrive in the form of session IPAs (though, again, many have graduated to year-round) or as fruit IPAs, with juices enhancing the fruitier characteristics of particular hop varieties. Oranges, mangos, passion fruit and, naturally, grapefruit, are among the most commonly used elements from the produce aisle. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Aprihop was an early adopter in the fruit-and-hops realm; the apricot-and-Amarillo combination first appeared about 13 years ago and has made a regular appearance between March and May.
But it’s those sub-styles’ more thirst-quenching attributes—at least when compared with typical winter pours—and not their specific ties to spring that make them popular during the season. The North American apricot harvest doesn’t really even begin in earnest until at least May, about the time when the last cases of Aprihop disappear from shelves (and if it were really based on the harvest, it would have to be more in line with the Southern Hemisphere’s growing calendar, in order for them to find their way into the beer supply chain in time for a March debut).
Of course, it becomes a bit of a slippery slope when you try to make the “seasonal ingredient availability market” for any season. Pumpkin beers are the greatest example of that. If they truly were tied to fall (and all of them contained actual pumpkin and not just pie-related spice), a brewer would be lucky to release a first batch by the end of November.
“The whole idea of seasonal, at its base, is funny,” suggests Greg Engert, beer director and managing partner at the Washington, D.C., Neighborhood Restaurant Group, the team behind the District’s ChurchKey, Birch & Barley and The Sovereign, and Alexandria, Virginia’s Rustico, among many others. “What is seasonal? Is it available based on seasonal availability of ingredients or seasonal processes?”
At least when you look at the history of something like märzen, there was a seasonal logic to its process. German brewers traditionally produced it in March for mostly summer consumption (when the hot temperatures would foil fermentation), with the rest put aside for an Oktoberfest release.
These days, few in the U.S. associate märzen with summer, but rather with the world’s best-known beer festival and the early fall events stateside designed to replicate the Bavarian original. And that has, more or less, kept the style alive as a perennial autumn release. Traditional German spring festivals where the bocks typically flowed haven’t enjoyed the same crossover appeal.
Add to that the fact that spring is shoehorned between two eminently more popular seasons, beerwise, and there’s little mystery as to why the period seems to be vanishing.
“Summertime is associated with warmth and the beers that go with that temperature, winter is associated with coldness and the beers that go with that temperature, and fall is associated with flavors that are determined by tradition from Oktoberfest and by flavors that are appropriate for the season,” Engert says. “There isn’t something like that for spring.”
That’s further complicated by seasonal creep, which continues to erase months from the calendar. “The thinking is, ‘If you’re going to release a beer for the weather of spring, why not just push up your release for summer?’” Engert explains. “Why create two beers for the warmer months when you could just ride your summer seasonal longer?”
That’s not to say spring hasn’t been a fertile time period for stylistic experimentation. The Bruery’s current seasonal release is Or Xata, inspired by the sweet, milky Mexican nonalcohol drink horchata. Rue beerifies the concept by brewing cinnamon, rice and fresh vanilla beans with lactose to impart some dairylike elements.
“I wouldn’t describe the beer as only suiting the springtime,” Rue says. “It’s a beer that we happen to release in spring, but it happens to suit the summer well.”
The brewery has since retired its previous spring release, Saison de Lente, a dry, crisp, hoppy and slightly funky offering that’s a somewhat lighter version of its Saison Rue and pairs well with typical Easter fare.
Rue’s also a fan of Aecht Schlenkerla Fastenbier, a slightly less smoky version of Schlenkerla Märzen, which, he says, “is the perfect beer with ham … well, because it tastes like ham.”
Mosher has tinkered quite a bit with spring recipes, both as a homebrewer and in his commercial endeavors. He considers the perfect spring beer to be what he calls a collision between a hefeweizen and a Belgian strong ale. At 5 Rabbit, he worked on one called Missionario, which includes muscat grapes and a different companion ingredient—figs, almonds and pears, so far—each time the team brewed it.
He’s also developed a recipe for a maibock flavored with the spicy herb woodruff—better known in its green syrup form squirted in a Berliner weisse.
Now, if only the rest of the drinking public would get around to rediscovering bocks.
“Bock, of course, has the great spring story: goats, fertility, monks, Lent,” Mosher says. “Sadly, it’s dark and not hoppy—the kiss of commercial death these days.”
Tastes evolve, however, and the spring beers of yore could be primed for a comeback. That certainly would be a welcome development for Covaleski.
“The beauty of it is, we continue to brew them, we know the recipes in and out, and if the consumer trends ever come around, we’re positioned for that,” he says. “Maybe there’s a moment down the road where a traditional spring beer is back in favor.”
Harpoon Fresh TracksABV: 6.2% | Single-Hop Pale Ale
Tasting Notes: Harpoon’s new spring seasonal is hopped solely with Centennial hops—and the net result is a citrusy and floral profile that’s both fresh and familiar. Harpoon’s been doing a lot with later hop additions as of late, and this ultimately favors bright, grassy aromatics and flavors over a more traditional bitter-first approach. Here that makes for an exceptionally drinkable pale ale: grassy and floral and lean at its core, with a laser-focused, modern feel overall.–Ken Weaver
Alaskan Husky IPAABV: 7% | IPA
Tasting Notes: For a beer with a label that prominently features a cold-weather-loving dog, this sure produces some tropical-minded thoughts. Thank the Mosaic hop, the only variety used in this beer, with its rich flavors of papaya, spicy pineapple and sweet tangerine juice. It has a crisp pilsner malt body and an assertive bitter finish. A beer to ease the transition to warmer weather as winter holds on just a little bit longer. –John Holl
Jeff Cioletti is the author of Beer FAQ, The Year of Drinking Adventurously and The Drinkable Globe. Follow him at @JeffCioletti and DrinkableGlobe.com.