The Badass Beer Advent Calendar: December 19th—Howell’s Frosty Bells
Today it's back to Scotland... oh, wait, we haven't actually been to Scotland yet (apart from our little soirée at the White Heather Club, courtesy of YouTube); all we've done is feature a couple of Scottish ales. Our calendar beer for December 19th, however, is a genuine, north-of-the-border, Caledonian-brewed winter warmer - Howell's Frosty Bells.
The name is a little misleading because the beer is actually a Belhaven product (a Scottish brewery well known on this side of the water) that gets its name from head brewer George Howell. Belhaven goes back a long way; all the way back to the 18th century in fact, but in 2005 it was bought by English brewer Greene King who have been busy gobbling up British breweries for more than a decade, garnering the none-too-respectful sobriquet 'Greedy King' among British beer geeks.
By the time it was acquired by Greene King, Belhaven had laid claim to be Scotland's oldest independent brewery, so the Scots must be pretty brassed off about it being owned by the Sassenachs.
I thought that since this calendar is made up of seasonal beers, maybe we should take a look at the notion of seasonals, and something that's been causing a minor brouhaha in the world of craft beer (so that would be a brew-haha. Did I say that out loud?). Seasonal beers are a long-standing tradition in the brewing industry and beer aficionados look forward to them with relish, eagerly awaiting a favourite brew that they can only get for a limited period and at a certain time of the year, before the next seasonal release looms over the horizon. They're a welcome addition to a brewery's year-round portfolio of pales, ambers, bitters and brown ales, but some brewers haven't been playing by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
There's been criticism lately of a trend amongst breweries to bring their seasonal beers out earlier and earlier, until we got to the absurd situation this year where several breweries' summer seasonals were finished before the end of July and their Oktoberfest beers came out immediately. Earlier in the year some spring seasonals were in bars and on the shelves soon after New Year's Day and before we'd had the two coldest months of the year. That just ain't right, even here in Texas with our relatively short winter. I want to drink me a few barley wines and stouts in Jan and Feb!
There are good reasons why certain beer styles are in demand at, and have become traditionally associated with, particular times of the year. During the dog days of summer our palate craves pale lagers, golden ales and other refreshing beer styles much more than full-bodied, rich, malty lagers, in much the same way as our appetite craves lighter foods in the summer and heavier foods when the days get shorter and the temperatures get colder. So why are so many breweries releasing their Oktoberfest before August? Seriously, there's a hint in the name, guys! And who wants spicy winter warmers (that taste like Christmas in a glass) in October when we haven't had our Thanksgiving turkey yet? Pumpkin beers ought to be an accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner, but a lot of them have already come and gone by then.
Some of the breweries, especially the larger ones with more to lose from having old beer on their hands, say that they don't want to be left with stocks of one seasonal beer after the following seasonal beer is released, figuring it might be difficult to sell the old stuff once the new stuff is out, so they aim to brew slightly less than they think they'll need. But the same breweries also don't like to have gaps between their seasonals so they bring the following one out straight away, and this seems to have resulted in seasonal creep. And I guess there could also be a bit of one-upmanship involved here too. If one brewery brings out a seasonal beer, their competitors don't want to be left behind so they bring theirs out too (maybe even a week earlier), and before you can say Jack Robinson, the entire beer release calendar is two months out of phase with the real world.
I reckon that the period between the end of summer and the beginning of spring is absolutely the best for seasonal beers, but I'll freely admit that there are plenty of beer drinkers who will quaff any kind of beer at any time of the year, and I'm one of them (a pint of 12% Russian Imperial Stout in the middle of August? Yes please!), but at the same time it's my strongly held opinion that seasonal beers should be released when they work best or are tied to another, immovable, event or celebration (like Christmas or Oktoberfest), not when a corporation thinks it's convenient for business.