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Marketing: Holiday Cheer Can Be Found in Beer, Say Many Makers of Seasonal Brews

December 27, 1995

Swirling snow. A crackling fire. Time to pop a few cold ones.

Beer is joining champagne as a standby of holiday imbibers, and winter has become a crucial selling season for many brewers. An avalanche of new seasonal brands and the growth of microbreweries have put sizzle into cold-weather sales of what has traditionally been a hot-weather drink in this country.

``The fourth quarter is our biggest quarter,″ says Paul Shipman, president and chief executive of Redhook Ale Brewery of Seattle. That brewery’s Winterhook Winter Ale is one of dozens of winter and Christmas beers appearing for the first time in many markets.

Anheuser-Busch Cos. of St. Louis is offering its Special Christmas Brew, described as similar to holiday beers that founder Adolphus Busch created in the 1890s. Among many others are Santa’s Private Reserve, from Oregon Brewing Co. of Newport, Ore.; Season’s Best Holiday Amber, from F.X. Matt Brewing Co., Utica, N.Y.; and Winternacht, from Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. of Portland, Ore.

The glut of winter beers makes competition for shelf space, particularly among smaller brewers, even keener than in the summer. Advertising of holiday brands isn’t heavy; small brewers can’t afford it, and big brewers can get on the shelf without it. Liquor stores and other retailers squeeze in the different winter brands any way they can, making stacks on the floor when shelves fill up. ``You make space because they’re going to sell,″ says Mark Caruselle, owner of Grill Beverage Barn in New York.

One reason the holiday season is so important for microbrewers and regional brewers is that they tend to make the heavier, darker and stronger ales that ``skew more to this time of year,″ says Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer’s Insights, an industry newsletter.

Big U.S. beer makers see seasonal brews as an island of growth in an otherwise flat market. Though specialty beers make up less than 5 percent of the total market, their sales rose 50 percent last year, while overall beer sales slid 1 percent, according to Impact Databank’s annual beer-market review.

``The only option is to seek shelf space and market share from competitors,″ says Lacey Logan, spokeswoman for Stroh Brewing Co. in Lehigh Valley, Pa. ``That means bringing out new products.″ Stroh’s winter offering: Augsberger Dopplebock, a dark, malty ale.

Even as existing brewers bring out new brands, other competitors join their ranks: In this year’s second quarter alone, 31 new breweries and 56 new brew pubs opened across the country, bringing the combined total to 658, according to the Institute for Brewing Studies, in Boulder, Colo.

Many importers say this is their strongest season. ``Sales go up dramatically during winter months,″ says George Saxon, president of Phoenix Imports Ltd., of Baltimore.

Among domestic brewers, the winter offerings begin with Oktoberfest beers and brews such as Harvest Pumpkin Ale from Adolph Coors Co.’s Blue Moon Brewing Co. unit, and Ichabod Crane Holiday Lager, from Woodstock Brewing Co. in Kingston, N.Y. At Boston Beer Co., four of seven seasonal beers are winter brews. Many winter beers come off the shelves in January.

The seasonal specialties have small but passionate followings. After Golden, Colo.-based Coors created the Blue Moon specialty unit earlier this year, it dropped several seasonal beers it had been testing, sparing only its Winterfest brand. Sales of that beer are minuscule compared with the lighter, less malty flagship brand, Coors Light, ``but we have customers that call us every year starting in August wanting to know when it’s coming out,″ says Sally Lopez Ritter, the brand manager.

At Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif., sales have grown so rapidly that the company had to cut back production of its winter brew, Celebration Ale, in order to make enough of its flagship Pale Ale. It stopped selling the winter beer east of the Rockies.

When word reached O’Donoghue’s Tavern, a small Irish bar in Nyack, N.Y., customers circulated a petition and, late one beery night, produced a videotape pleading for the brew. ``A week ago, a call came in, and they said they’d send us a keg,″ says bar manager Barry Kock.

Sierra Nevada isn’t eager to talk about the incident. ``We have to be careful, there’s a lot of accounts out there,″ says Steve Harrison, marketing director. ``Let’s just say I heard a rumor some is getting out there somehow.″

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