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I enjoy the Sam Adams seasonal varieties, as they usually put people in the holiday spirit(s), etc., and they evoke the feeling of "only for a limited time" like a Shamrock shake at McDonalds.

In that vein, were the beers originally designated "seasonal" due to the availability of certain ingredients during different times of the year (Harvest Pumpkin Ale springs to mind) or is this notion of a seasonal beer chiefly a marketing construct?

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A few notes on brewing and the seasons. It isn't a question of availability today but there are other factors that likely have seasonal impact.

Traditionally (say, 1000 years ago), yes, brewing recipes would vary with the seasons. Some ingredients like henbane seed or barley keep extremely well. Others do better fresh (herbs and such). It is likely that gruit components varied with the seasons. This is not an issue today. Aside from some components of other beers (pumpkin ale, beers with seasonal fruit), most beers today do not involve ingredients that are problematic to preserve over a year.

There is a second issue though. That is that beers traditionally have another factor which is starch content. The starch contributes significantly to calorie count of the beer, and usually darker, richer beers have higher carbohydrate count. It makes sense to consume more calories in cold weather than warm weather, and it makes sense that darker, heavier beers would be favored in winter while lighter beers would be favored in summer (although as one would note the heavier beers came out of traditions of using them as bread substitutes for fasting monks and so would have year-round applicability in monasteries).

I don't think it has to do with availability. I think instead it has to do with seasonal expectations and reserving richer, heavier, higher starch beers for the winter (we have higher metabolism in winter, see http://www.mate.tue.nl/mate/pdfs/4319.pdf, and generally less availability of fresh foods before modern refrigeration and rapid transport). I don't know when this became common though. In general, when I look back a thousand years ago, I don't see anything in primary sources to suggest heavier malts in the winter. So trying to date this would seem speculative. There is a fairly obvious practical pattern though.

EDIT: As I think about this, I would note that aside from lagers, it is very hard to brew in the winter in a colder climate. There may also be a component where heavier, stronger beers keep better and therefore keep into the winter better.

  • Could you perhaps explain why it makes sense to consume more calories in cold weather than warm weather? It might seem intuitive, but upon deeper thought I'm not sure why that should be true. For example, it's known that a cold body temperature leads to decreased basal metabolism—meaning less calories burned. Some say we're programmed to "stockpile" when the weather gets colder, but there are no studies that evidence this view; others say we become accustomed to higher caloric intake during winter due to the habit of celebrating holidays annually—but again, no studies. – Andrew Cheong Jan 25 '14 at 7:01
  • mate.tue.nl/mate/pdfs/4319.pdf is a study to the contrary of what you are suggesting. – Chris Travers Jan 25 '14 at 7:40
  • Huh, I guess I had it backwards! Thanks for the link. – Andrew Cheong Jan 25 '14 at 7:45
2

It's hard to say either way unless we find a primary source (someone privy to the company's strategies), but I think a refinement of your question might be—

Are any ingredients for brewing either unavailable or prohibitively expensive depending on season?

I doubt this is the case—if an ingredient were impractical to obtain in other seasons but one, then I'd imagine the price of that seasonal beer would be extraordinary, which isn't the case with Sam Adams' seasonal beers.

If by chance there do exist such ingredients, then the next question is—are any of those ingredients used in Sam Adams' seasonal beers, which itself is a difficult question, since Sam Adams' recipes are proprietary. From Sam Adams' site, though,

Samuel Adams® Octoberfest is a malt lover's dream, masterfully blending together five roasts of barley to create a delicious harmony of sweet flavors including caramel and toffee. The beer is kept from being overly sweet by the elegant bitterness imparted by the German Noble hops.

Unless one of those "five roasts of barley" (providing the above is even true and not a marketing statement itself) is some rarity in other seasons, which I highly doubt, again, I'd say mass produced seasonal beers are only "seasonal" for the sake of marketing and inducing a certain feel—

Samuel Adams® Octoberfest provides a wonderful transition from the lighter beers of summer to the winter's heartier brews.

I feel guilty posting this as an answer, since, it's not a definitive answer, but I don't feel the question can be answered by anyone but a primary source, so perhaps this question should be closed instead—but I don't know what the appropriate reason would be.

  • Perhaps there is someone privy to the information or it was featured on a "Behind the Brews" Discovery Channel show or the like. I wouldn't be so quick to want to close it. – jonsca Jan 25 '14 at 4:03
  • (also, academic journals have case studies on such marketing strategies, so I'm assuming not every company keeps it so tightly under wraps) – jonsca Jan 25 '14 at 4:08

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