Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
A Beer for Every Season - January 17, 2019
Last month I described the joys of having access to a Beer Advent Calendar. A by-product of the resurgence of craft brewing, the diversity of these seasonal brews and “limited release” styles offer up a perfect opportunity to try something new and explore a brewery’s twist on an old recipe. The brewers at Saltbox leveraged locaI by adding wild blueberries and balsam tree tips to create their Christmas “Balsam Blue” ale. And did anyone else get a taste of Roof Hound’s Chocolate Banana Bread Hefeweizen or Upstreet’s vanilla cranberry stout over the holidays? My granny seemed quite pleased when I paired a few samples of these with some freshly baked ginger bread cookies.
But what really makes a beer “seasonal”? As we move through these dark days of winter, the availability of certain beer styles will continue to change. This is driven by a long tradition of brewing that for centuries was directly tied to the seasons. Temperature was a big factor. Refrigeration didn’t come along until the 19th century. Without refrigeration, the heat of summer made brewing unreliable, and farmers were too busy with their crops to take the time to brew. Beer also seemed to spoil more quickly at warmer temperatures. So, brewing usually occurred in the cooler months between October and March. The Bavarians took to storing their beer in icy caves in the foothills of the Alps through the summer. They discovered that letting it sit in the cold caves throughout the warm seasons made the beer more stable over the long haul, and produced a round smoothness to the finish.
In southern Germany, brewing in colder temperatures actually began to change the beer. Over the years, yeasts that fermented at warmer temperatures slowly disappeared. These were replaced by a different kind of yeast that liked the cold, but required a bit more time in the barrel before it matured. In German, the word “lager” means “to store” or “lay down”. It was the proliferation of lager yeast and cold fermentation followed by cold aging that distinguished German lagers from ales. In contrast to the complex, fruity flavours that develop in warm fermenting ales, cold fermented lagers are identified by their smooth, clean flavor profiles that offer a delicate balance between the sweetness of malt and the crispness of hops.
Throughout the centuries, the brewing of beer was also driven by availability of local ingredients. In the month of September, you’d likely experience the nuances of “wet hopped” beers – when fresh hops are available for use in lieu of stored, dried versions. The impact on flavour and aroma is a bit like cooking with fresh herbs instead of using seasoning from a bottle (Saltbox uses locally harvested fresh hops to brew its September seasonal release “Blue Nose 1850”). The use of fresh, local ingredients also comes to mind with the enigmatic beer style known as a “saison” (which literally translates to “season”). Originating in the French-speaking region of southern Belgium, this style was traditionally a rustic farmhouse ale served to the local farmhands to sustain them through the heat of summer. The brew had to be robust enough to survive the summer months, but light enough to quench the thirst of the farmhands. Farmers mostly brewed from pale malts or oats and incorporated a wide variety of spices and botanicals, from white pepper to dried orange peel. Every season’s brew was slightly different.
And of course there are beers derived to reflect holiday-specific events or to pair with season-specific foods. The German beer style known as “doppelbock” was developed by monks as a nutrient-rich brew to be consumed during the forty days of Lent and the four weeks of Christmas Advent when they were required to fast. Referred to as “liquid bread”, this roasty, malty beer warmed many a soul and provided sustenance in lieu of a hearty meal (Saltbox releases its version of Doppelbock in March). Beers that appear later during the fall and winter are often fuller bodied, and can carry a higher ABV. The smoky flavour of scotch ales and pumpkin-flavoured porters in Autumn; the dark stouts tinged with nutmeg and cinnamon to coincide with Christmas; the clean crisp flavours of a Czech Pilsner when the sun is warm enough to sit on the deck without a toque and you sense spring is just around the corner.
Do beer releases have to be seasonal? The answer is no. With evolutions in refrigeration and transportation, we can brew in any season and have access to fresh ingredients year-round. But there is something special about marking your progress through the year based on the beers you drink. And whether the style you choose is a German hefeweizen, a Belgian Dubbel, or an East Coast IPA, you begin to recognize that there is a history behind the style, and a reason for how strong it is, how it was brewed, how aromatic it is, and what it tastes like. Align your internal calendar with the versatility of this beautiful brew called beer and you’ll reap the rewards in any season.