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What We Drink When We Drink Over the Holidays

January 13, 2017

By Michael Donato, January 13, 2017

Christmastime conjures images of sugar plums, figgy pudding, and other rich scrumptious foods. The beer is no different; we favor big beers with dark fruity notes from the yeast or complex flavors from bourbon barrels. These are beers meant to be savored and enjoyed, perhaps by a fire, maybe one you’re already roasting chestnuts on. Some of them clock in at a higher alcohol by volume than red wine, despite coming in a bottle similar to a low-alcohol lager while others come in bottles similar to wine bottles complete with cork and cage.

It’s those bigger bottles I like to open on Christmas. I’m not driving anywhere, I’m home with family, and there will be people around to share with. Or I can sip that big bottle of Brooklyn Brewery’s Cuvée Noire all day and it’s just as good, if not better, as it warms than it is at serving temperature.

Craft beer ratings favor the hop forward, so the top rated beers on Christmas are generally similar to those of any other day. You’ve got your Pliny and Heady Topper, at least. Then you'll add a few darker, stronger beers, like Bourbon County Brand Stout. Those are good beers to drink on Christmas, because they’re good beers to drink any time.

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting / Data: BeerGraphsTop ten holiday beers by untappd rating.

Certainly if you’ve purchased a fresh bottle of a hoppy beer you shouldn’t let it sit around. Drink those fresh! Try the one from out of town that your brother brought home from college, or that one your trading buddy sent you.

These are great beers, but not everyone is a whale hunter and when the holidays come around the majority of people are just drinking whatever’s available. If you change it up to look at beer by volume, you'll find a lot of poorly rated beers. 

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting / Data: BeerGraphsTop ten holiday beers by volume.

This is where the winter beers begin to show up. Sam Adams Winter Lager dominates this list, and it’s a not so subtle reminder that no matter how big craft beer gets, the general public is still going to gravitate towards the familiar and the obvious.

Sam Adams Winter Lager for winter? Done. Boston Beer Company puts out more variety packs than anyone, and what better purchase is there for a mixed crowd? Sam Adams White Christmas is also on this list at number nine. Technically a Pale Wheat Ale, it’s clearly a Christmas beer.

My own Christmas Eve usually finds me drinking my way through the winter variety pack at one point. Family get togethers are why I’ve tried more Sam Adams beer than any other brewery. I’ve had 108 unique beers made by Boston Beer Company, and I probably wouldn’t be able to name 20 without help.

Other members of this variety pack are featured as well, including Boston Lager at 14 and stalwart Old Fezziwig at 20. I rely on these variety packs to get my yearly Fezziwig, one of my early craft standards. With two new bottltes in the case this season, Ginger Beer and Hopflake White IPA, I expect to get my unique total of Boston Beer offerings up to 110.

What if we want to talk more generally about what happens to our beer choices over the holidays? Three styles jump up the list in popularity when Christmas rolls around; Winter Ale, Winter Warmer, and Belgian Strong Dark Ale.

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting / Data: BeerGraphsTop 10 holiday styles -- most popular Christmas styles versus year-round.

Your mileage may vary with Winter type ales, typically heavily spiced malty beers. Outside of Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig, most of them aren’t my thing.

A seasonally festive beer that falls into the Belgian Strong Dark category is Troegs Mad Elf. Brewed with honey and cherries and clocking in at around 11%, this is a perfect Christmas beer. It’s rich, sweet, full of alcohol warmth and darker fruit flavors. It’s a beer that tends to be enjoyed by a larger crowd too. Offer a taste to your husband or wife, your mother-in-law, your wine-swilling cousin or really anyone that you’re drinking with.

In the summer the trends are more along the lines of simpler, lower alcohol beers that we quaff and then excuse ourselves from conversations in order to go get another. In the wintertime we take the time to sip, enjoy, and discuss the myriad of flavors presented to us in a glass. In the warmer months we’re drinking the beer while dodging kids running to and from the pool or while leaning over a grill. During the holidays we’re in a warm house, taking our time and staying in one spot. Perhaps in front of a fireplace. It’s a calmer setting and calls for a more contemplative beer.

Another good indication that a beer is a Christmas beer is how fast it drops off in volume after the holidays. The check-ins for this beer outside of December are typically less than 10% of what they are for Christmas. This mimics the other Christmas beers as well. Despite Winter really not kicking in until the new year, the spiced winter beers disappear pretty fast, and the strong Belgians and high ABV Stouts tend to get cellared for next December if they weren’t consumed immediately.

Check out how Alcohol by Volume for the average checked-in beer on untappd changes over time. It demonstrates that same phenomenon -- lighter for the summer, stronger for the winter. 

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting / Data: BeerGraphsAverage Alcohol by Volume by Date

With the holidays over and a new year arriving, it’s not surprising that these big, and high in calorie, beers drop in popularity in January. Like many, I typically try to curb some of the bad behaviors I got into over the holiday season. Baking cookies and drinking 12% chocolate stouts tends to be unhealthy so it’s good to give yourself a little break.

It’s not officially a season, but I always find February begins to yank on those bad habits of mine. I look forward to Bells Hopslam and Troegs Nugget Nectar in particular, and they’re not the only beers that come out around that time.

So since Christmas clearly has its own domain, it’s worth looking at what takes hold at other points during the year. Are we drinking Pumpkin beers in October because breweries are making them, or are they making them because we’re drinking them? When does Christmas begin in the beer world?

Michael Donato, data from BeerGraphsCount of seasonal beer style checkins on untappd, by date

Pumpkin beers get one last gasp right around Thanksgiving. Finish off the stock of pumpkin ales in your fridge at the harvest party, and then quickly onto big Belgians and Winter Warmers. The Pumpkin beers go away as the Christmas lights come out and the shopping frenzy begins. It’s not availability that causes this either; I guarantee you can walk into many big beer stores in mid-December and still find bottles of Southern Tier Pumking on the shelves.  

Goose Island can get some credit, or blame depending on your preferences, for this phenomenon. They’ve turned Black Friday into a dark beer holiday with the release of Bourbon County Brand Stout. Other breweries have started to follow suit, trying to get their imperial stouts noticed by riding the coattails of the fervor for BCBS varietals.

We had our brief fling with Pumpkin, but we’re starting to revert to the more traditional Oktoberfest beers in October.”

It turns out the holidays make good checkmarks for our drinking preferences. Pumpkin beers have their ultimate peak on or around Halloween and quickly decline from there. In previous years they’ve enjoyed a pretty sustained high throughout much of October, and at times it felt like there were Pumpkins beers dominating taps throughout the month. This year they didn’t enjoy quite that level of attention, building up through October towards their Halloween peak. We had our brief fling with Pumpkin, but we’re starting to revert to the more traditional Oktoberfest beers in October.

2016 was the first year in a while that Oktoberfests, except for Halloween, reclaimed its lead over the Pumpkins. Oktoberfest kept the lead throughout most of October and then quickly dived, they’re not called Novemberfests after all, and doesn’t enjoy the brief Thanksgiving bump that Pumpkins get. This year though, Oktoberfests got the jump on Pumpkins and started their rise a few days early, in early August. They continued to be popular until the middle of October, the end of the festival in Munich, and then started to hibernate for the winter. I can’t take all the credit even though I had quite a few Oktoberfests and no Pumpkins.

Pumpkin ales won’t disappear, but it looks like they’re coming back down from some hype and will level off where they should be.

The rest of the year is devoid of easily defined seasons. You get the obvious one day spike for Irish Reds and Irish Stouts in mid-March. There are fresh-hop harvest ales at various points in the fall but that’s not a distinct style and we drink so many hoppy ales anyway that it’s nearly impossible to separate those out.

If there’s a summer trend it’s minute and not easy to isolate. No style really that defines that season. There are beers called Summer Ales but they’re across many different styles.

We drink big festive beers during the holidays. Oktoberfest is the biggest party in the world. Pumpkin spice is everywhere.

Outside of these three trends, industry-wide seasonals are mostly a myth. People drink what they want, and brewers brew what they want, when they want them. Don’t let Christmas trends prevent you from pounding weak session ales and spending your calories on chocolate snowball cookies instead, that’s okay too. You can always drink that big, boozy, bourbon-barrel aged Belgian on the beach in the summer.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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