Winter Warmers

Winter beers excel around the holidays and throughout the colder months.

Despite the discontinuation of the heralded Anchor Christmas ale in the midst of Anchor Brewing Co.’s recent shuttering, beer lovers still have a plethora of winter brews to choose from to toast the holidays and onslaught of cold weather. Like the popular San Francisco beer, these labels enjoy rich histories and benefit from pent-up demand as temperatures drop each year. 

Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Celebration Fresh Hop IPA was introduced in 1981, targeting the holidays primarily, as opposed to winter in general. Lesley Albright, vice president of the Chico, California-based brewery, notes that beer fans look forward to the seasonal release each year. Meanwhile, Samuel Adams Winter lager launched in 1989, following strong response to other Boston Beer Co. seasonals. The release was revised four years ago to “create a crisper and brighter Winter lager that boasts the spice and citrus flavors of the season, with a malty finish and greater drinkability,” says head of brand Lauren Price.

Great Lakes Christmas ale from the eponymous Cleveland-based brewery celebrated its 30th birthday in 2021, and the brand is still going strong. “This is a special brand for us, and it’s sustained incredible consumer response over three decades,” notes vice president of sales Chris Brown. “It just keeps growing.” In fact, despite distribution in only 14 states and seasonal availability, Christmas ale has been the brewery’s top selling brand, and is the third-largest winter seasonal overall, Brown says. This past Christmas saw its presence expand into New York City and Long Island, New York.

While tradition is important for most winter brews, innovation can also be compelling. In 2023, Great Lakes, for example, introduced a new holiday seasonal, Cookie Exchange Milk stout, based on a rotating cookie flavor; the inaugural version was caramel vanilla shortbread, and the label was sold on its own, as well as in variety packs with Christmas ale. Great Lakes’ barrel-aged Christmas ale has also returned this past season, Brown says, noting that in 2022 the special release sold out in less than a month in most markets. Boston Beer, meanwhile, launched Sam Adams Oaked Vanilla porter, exclusively available as part of its Beers for Cheers variety packs, and Sam Adams Holiday White ale also returned, Price notes. 

Leading winter and holiday beers are typically supported with festive and colorful p-o-s merchandise both on-premise and off. Great Lakes additionally hosts an annual “first pour” event at its Cleveland brewpub, which is often replicated in the marketplace via support from its distributors. Christmas ale and Sam Adams Winter lager have also been supported with holiday apparel collections in recent years.

Beer retailers say that when it comes to seasonal beers, winter brews are among the best performers. Not surprisingly, Great Lakes Christmas ale was a top seller at Rozi’s Wine House in Lakewood, Ohio, according to beer buyer Kevin Villafane, along with winter brews from local craft breweries like Market Garden and Thirsty Dog. The store stocks about 30 different winter beers, priced at about $13 a 6-pack, the retailer notes, merchandised both in the cold box and via case stacks. In Littleton, New Hampshire, Little Town Brews similarly stocks up to 30 different winter brews ($2-$5 a 12- or 16-ounce bottle or can), with local New England labels performing best, co-owner Kevin Smith says. The mix-and-match purchase option has helped drive popularity of the store’s “Advent Box,” whereby customers can create their own multi-pack assortment for gift giving or their own enjoyment. “Seasonal beers are about pleasing your regular consumer, while also trying to catch the eye of a new customer or beer drinker,” he adds.

Marketers of winter brews encourage retailers to vigorously promote the products. Boston Beer’s Price and Great Lakes’ Brown recommend the beers be merchandised as part of festive holiday displays. Sierra Nevada’s Albright adds that cross-merchandising with seasonal foods and other products can be successful as well. During the holidays and wintertime, “consumers are looking for seasonally appropriate products to take to parties or to enjoy when gathering with friends and family,” she notes. “People treasure the seasonality of special winter beers.”