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Seasonal drinking: A Year in beer

Drinking according to season might seem like a quant or antiquated way to approach a sensory pleasure. Learning about seasonal brewing and drinking might just teach us more about what we drink and why. Jonny Garrett explores the UK’s modern brewing scene and deep dives into the histories and unlikely origins of our favourite styles – all bringing it back to the context in which we enjoy them – not just the season, not just the weather, but the people and the places that make them unique. 

Jonny Garrett

Freelance writer, editor & creator Jonny is one half of the Craft Beer Channel team, he also works full time at Cave Direct, a lead importer of artisan craft beer. 

The art of beer

Why do we buy the beer we drink? What drives us to make each decision? Does the can art and branding factor into our beer buying habits? If so, what do our beer purchases say about us and how we try and portray ourselves to the outside world. Pete Brown looks at how such questions have played a major role in the evolution of beer art, design and branding. The focus of his new book Beer by Design 

Jonny Garrett

Freelance writer, editor & creator Jonny is one half of the Craft Beer Channel team, he also works full time at Cave Direct, a lead importer of artisan craft beer. 

Ask any beer lover whether they drink seasonally and you’ll likely hear the same thing – that no, they don’t really. Sure they drink more dark beer in winter, a few more lagers in summer, maybe a big strong Belgian beer at Christmas, but really they stick to their favourite styles and breweries come rain or shine. I’d bet my entire beer stash that this approach echoes with you, too.

So what if I told you that not only does that make you a seasonal drinker, but that underneath those small, conscious shifts you make are thousands of unconscious ones that make everything we drink reliant on where we are on our journey around the sun. The truth is that if you drink beer, you drink seasonally.

That’s because beer is an agricultural product, and like any farmer will tell you that means it is completely at the mercy of the weather. In fact, beer used to only be brewed in the colder months because it would get infected in warmer months. On top of that, it was made using the ingredients that were available at the time – not just barley but wheat, rye and spelt, not just hops but spices and herbs, and of course whatever wild yeasts were passing the brewery at the time.

Ask any beer lover whether they drink seasonally and you’ll likely hear the same thing – that no, they don’t really. Sure they drink more dark beer in winter, a few more lagers in summer, maybe a big strong Belgian beer at Christmas, but really they stick to their favourite styles and breweries come rain or shine. I’d bet my entire beer stash that this approach echoes with you, too.

So what if I told you that not only does that make you a seasonal drinker, but that underneath those small, conscious shifts you make are thousands of unconscious ones that make everything we drink reliant on where we are on our journey around the sun. The truth is that if you drink beer, you drink seasonally.

That’s because beer is an agricultural product, and like any farmer will tell you that means it is completely at the mercy of the weather. In fact, beer used to only be brewed in the colder months because it would get infected in warmer months. On top of that, it was made using the ingredients that were available at the time – not just barley but wheat, rye and spelt, not just hops but spices and herbs, and of course whatever wild yeasts were passing the brewery at the time.

“The truth is that if you drink beer, you drink seasonally..”

 

— Jonny Garrett

“Somehow, against all the odds, some 30 of these family-owned breweries have survived..”

 

— Roger Protz

Centuries of advances in engineering, farming and technology, have given us significantly more control over our brewing, but we still have one malt harvest; our hops vary from field to field and farm to farm; our yeasts still prefer certain temperatures and pressures; our water chemistry can shift. Even once they’re made, the beers we drink are sensitive to light, heat and oxygen. It’s not just our beers that are ceaselessly changing, either. Our palates are influenced by what we’ve eaten, what we’re looking at, who we’re with, and our mood. We still cannot wrestle nature completely into submission, nor our innate human sensitivity to it. And nor should we.

There was a period in the mid 20th century where all this was less true. Fordism was the dominant discourse when it came to production – efficient, consistent, scaled. Seasonal variation was the enemy of beer,and we invented remarkable things to limit its effect – seminal things like steam engines, refrigeration and pasteurisation. As we ironed out the kinks of seasonality from beer, finding ways to make spring and winter sown barley taste and look the same, to extract the oils of hops to use less of them, to ferment quicker and at higher temperatures, we also started to destroy any difference between beers.

Centuries of advances in engineering, farming and technology, have given us significantly more control over our brewing, but we still have one malt harvest; our hops vary from field to field and farm to farm; our yeasts still prefer certain temperatures and pressures; our water chemistry can shift.

Even once they’re made, the beers we drink are sensitive to light, heat and oxygen. It’s not just our beers that are ceaselessly changing, either. Our palates are influenced by what we’ve eaten, what we’re looking at, who we’re with, and our mood. We still cannot wrestle nature completely into submission, nor our innate human sensitivity to it. And nor should we.

There was a period in the mid 20th century where all this was less true. Fordism was the dominant discourse when it came to production – efficient, consistent, scaled. Seasonal variation was the enemy of beer,and we invented remarkable things to limit its effect – seminal things like steam engines, refrigeration and pasteurisation. As we ironed out the kinks of seasonality from beer, finding ways to make spring and winter sown barley taste and look the same, to extract the oils of hops to use less of them, to ferment quicker and at higher temperatures, we also started to destroy any difference between beers.

“Somehow, against all the odds, some 30 of these family-owned breweries have survived..”

 

— Roger Protz

A brewer’s job shifted from making every batch as delicious as possible to making every batch as similar to the last one as possible. The most successful started to eat up smaller competitors and their unique beers, creating a tidal wave of dull pale Lager and Ales that were quicker, cheaper and more scalable. Marketeers went into overdrive to convince that beer was meant to taste like this; that it had always tasted like this. For a while, seasonal drinking and the joy and variety that came with it, was dead.

We all know what happened next. Not everyone had given up on the traditional, regional styles of the world. Homebrewers on the West Coast of America started playing with American hops and British recipes to create the craft beer movement, CAMRA fought passionately for the protection of cask ale, and central European brewers doggedly stuck to centuries of tradition.

The result was an explosion of exciting modern brewing in America through the 1990s, followed a decade later by the same in Europe. Thousands of breweries opened up, mostly inspired by what was happening in the States. But the return of variety, innovation and excitement in brewing didn’t mean a return to seasonality.

A brewer’s job shifted from making every batch as delicious as possible to making every batch as similar to the last one as possible. The most successful started to eat up smaller competitors and their unique beers, creating a tidal wave of dull pale Lager and Ales that were quicker, cheaper and more scalable. Marketeers went into overdrive to convince that beer was meant to taste like this; that it had always tasted like this. For a while, seasonal drinking and the joy and variety that came with it, was dead.

We all know what happened next. Not everyone had given up on the traditional, regional styles of the world. Homebrewers on the West Coast of America started playing with American hops and British recipes to create the craft beer movement, CAMRA fought passionately for the protection of cask ale, and central European brewers doggedly stuck to centuries of tradition.

“Drinking seasonally isn’t about winding the clock back to the 1800s. It’s about bringing it bang up-to-date…”

 

– Jonny Garrett

We still had the technology to make consistent beer all round, and a world now so well connected that we could share ingredients, recipes and even beer itself within a matter of hours. With so much variety and consistency, drinkers can reach for whatever style we want from the fridge. It might be winter, but in our warm houses a crisp Pilsner still hits the spot. It might be 30C outside, but in our air conditioned pubs a porter can still be warming. For the last few decades we have been drinking a-seasonally, revelling in the joy of being alive at the best time ever to be a beer geek.

But the opportunity to drink whatever we want, whenever we want actually presents an opportunity to drink seasonally once again. In my new book, A Year in Beer, I explore a new form of seasonality. One that doesn’t just bring in the seasons but our culture, our history, our traditions, and our technology. We still celebrate the hop harvest with green hopped Bitters, we still worship a heritage autumn-sewn barley called Maris Otter, and forage for seasonal fruits and spices to add to our beers. But we also now celebrate the arrival of American hops in the UK in spring with big and bold Double IPAs, sip fruited kettle sours made with kombucha yeast during heat waves, and down nitro Stouts on St Patrick’s Day.

    The result was an explosion of exciting modern brewing in America through the 1990s, followed a decade later by the same in Europe. Thousands of breweries opened up, mostly inspired by what was happening in the States. But the return of variety, innovation and excitement in brewing didn’t mean a return to seasonality. We still had the technology to make consistent beer all round, and a world now so well connected that we could share ingredients, recipes and even beer itself within a matter of hours.

    With so much variety and consistency, drinkers can reach for whatever style we want from the fridge. It might be winter, but in our warm houses a crisp Pilsner still hits the spot. It might be 30C outside, but in our air conditioned pubs a porter can still be warming. For the last few decades we have been drinking a-seasonally, revelling in the joy of being alive at the best time ever to be a beer geek.

    In the book I tell you about the intertwined history of Porter and beef and how it fed the poor on feast days, but equally the best Pastry Stouts to have with your Mr Whippy on the beach in Margate.

    Drinking seasonally isn’t about winding the clock back to the 1800s. It’s about bringing it bang up-to-date, and making it reflect the wonderful, interconnected beer world we now live in. It’s about taking note of everything around us and finding the perfect beer to enjoy it with. Modernism held seasonality at arms length, but ironically it has created the opportunity for them to be closer than ever before, and hopefully A Year in Beer will prove that to you.

    But the opportunity to drink whatever we want, whenever we want actually presents an opportunity to drink seasonally once again. In my new book, A Year in Beer, I explore a new form of seasonality. One that doesn’t just bring in the seasons but our culture, our history, our traditions, and our technology. We still celebrate the hop harvest with green hopped Bitters, we still worship a heritage autumn-sewn barley called Maris Otter, and forage for seasonal fruits and spices to add to our beers. But we also now celebrate the arrival of American hops in the UK in spring with big and bold Double IPAs, sip fruited kettle sours made with kombucha yeast during heat waves, and down nitro Stouts on St Patrick’s Day.

    In the book I tell you about the intertwined history of Porter and beef and how it fed the poor on feast days, but equally the best Pastry Stouts to have with your Mr Whippy on the beach in Margate.

    Drinking seasonally isn’t about winding the clock back to the 1800s. It’s about bringing it bang up-to-date, and making it reflect the wonderful, interconnected beer world we now live in. It’s about taking note of everything around us and finding the perfect beer to enjoy it with. Modernism held seasonality at arms length, but ironically it has created the opportunity for them to be closer than ever before, and hopefully A Year in Beer will prove that to you.

    A Year in Beer

    by Jonny Garrett

    A Year in Beer explains why drinking seasonally might just teach us more about what we drink and why.

    The book is peppered with delicious food recipes, explorations of the UK’s modern brewing scene and deep dives into the histories and unlikely origins of our favourite styles – all bringing it back to the context in which we enjoy them – not just the season, not just the weather, but the people and the places that make them unique.

    Written by 2019 Beer Writer of the Year Jonny Garrett this book will change how we look at brewing and drinking beer, and increase our enjoyment of both.

    Order now

    A Year in Beer

    by Jonny Garrett

    A Year in Beer explains why drinking seasonally might just teach us more about what we drink and why.

    The book is peppered with delicious food recipes, explorations of the UK’s modern brewing scene and deep dives into the histories and unlikely origins of our favourite styles – all bringing it back to the context in which we enjoy them – not just the season, not just the weather, but the people and the places that make them unique.

    Written by 2019 Beer Writer of the Year Jonny Garrett this book will change how we look at brewing and drinking beer, and increase our enjoyment of both.

    Order now  

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