Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a reader with a simple question: “What happened to winter ales?”
He was referring, he specified, to “those rich and malty (but not spiced) beers that many craft brewers used to make to get us through long cold nights.” As a consumer, it was his impression that some of them had gone missing.
A little digging revealed that many brewers have indeed moved away from winter ales, offering stouts, IPAs, or in some cases nothing at all in their place. Maine’s Peak Organic Brewing Co., for example, swapped out Winter Session Ale for Winter IPA this year.
“Our switch in the winter beer is probably a metaphor for our seasonal program in general,” says Jon Cadoux, Peak’s founder. “Historically speaking, we’ve made beers that are supposed to be appropriate for the season. I think we got to a place in general where making beers to fulfill a concept isn’t satisfying anymore.”
Peak’s swap — from a seasonal ale to a juicy IPA more in line with the rest of its core lineup — is being echoed across the craft beer landscape. Several years ago Vermont’s Otter Creek Brewery replaced its Winter Red Ale with Kind Ryed, an IPA. This year it introduced Drip Drop, a coffee stout, to satisfy customers’ cravings for a winter brew.
Also this year, Ipswich Ale Brewery replaced its winter seasonal with two limited edition beers, Zumatra Coffee Stout and Hellbound Barleywine. Neither is designed to last the season; once they sell out, they’re gone.
“It would seem that the craft landscape has shifted away from traditional beer seasons,” says Ipswich marketing manager Mary Gormley. “As a brewery, we’ve learned to be quick and nimble when it comes to getting new products to market.”
Rather than eschew winter entirely, other breweries, like New Hampshire’s Smuttynose, have rebranded, renaming the beer formerly known as Winter Ale to Single Digit Dubbel.
Winter ales are still out there (Samuel Adams makes the most recognizable one), and you can still find several breweries who sell winter-themed variety packs. But Cadoux thinks the shift away from seasonals is more than incidental, and likely here to stay.
“I think there was this playbook you’re supposed to follow when you open a brewery, and here are your release dates for your seasonal, set by the big guys. and then you just kinda do it,” says Cadoux. “And I think it kinda came to a point like: Why exactly do we do this? It’s way more satisfying to make the best beer we can at any time.”Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.