Cake, donuts, cinnamon, candy, chocolate, clove and gingerbread; seasonal beers have become a billion dollar industry.
Brewers are increasingly catering to a new and extraordinary range of tastes, driven by an adventurous public keen to experiment. Once known as ‘pastry stouts,' winter holiday drinks now regularly take their influence from foods - often sweet desserts and treats.
Dessert-style flavors now account for a significant proportion of our $4.1 billion appetite for seasonal ‘beer' according to IRI, the market research firm that tracks sales at supermarkets, mass-market chains and convenience stores.
“When I think of a sweeter stout, it's often something that drinkers like any time after September, when people start thinking about the holidays,” says Victor Novak, Brewmaster at Golden Road Brewing in Los Angeles.
“Training under an English Brewmaster, I learned the classic styles, but at this time of the year, if you are unwilling to look outside water, malt, hops and yeast, you're going to get left behind."
“Brewers don't want to be gimmicky, but people really like a tweak on those classic styles, whether it's adding cacao nibs, vanilla beans, baking spices, fruit - whatever might create an emotional connection."
Known more widely for their classic IPAs and award-winning fruit beers, like Mango Cart, (based on the flavors brought by Mexican fruit sellers in LA), Golden Road Brewery has found itself attracting customers with its own version, a Gingerbread Stout.
“The idea came from Meg Gill, the owner of Golden Road,” says Victor. “She's from Virginia and wanted to tip her hat to her roots, where she previously tasted a local gingerbread beer.”
The brewers used fresh and ground ginger, nutmeg and allspice to create an authentic gingerbread cookie flavor.
While adding a new twist, the richer dessert flavorings also hark back to more long-lasting traditions like English ‘winter warmers' and Imperial Russian Stouts, Victor says.
“We also do a spiced cranberry beer for the holidays - it's a Belgian Dark Strong, very gently spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove and then we add cranberry and a little bit of local boysenberry. It's almost like a mulled wine."
“People are prepared to experiment much more with what they drink now. You see the variety everywhere and it is really accepted. When I'm out with friends in general almost no one drinks the same drinks twice. It's ‘What have you got? What's new?'”
Victor says during the festive season drinkers like seeking out the unexpected.
“It gets you in the mood for the season, and perhaps there's a little bit of nostalgia too - an emotional tie to your childhood.”