It seems we have lost touch with when foods are in season. Eating and drinking seasonally is not exactly convenient, it pretty much the exact opposite. Adapting our dietary habits based on nature’s timing is hard; it takes time, and commitment. In our modern industrial food culture, where canned, frozen or fresh flown in from somewhere warm, is available year round, seasonal eating is only for the die-hards. I like to think I have what it takes to let nature control my diet, but my unrelenting food urges, which are not always linked to nature, frequently lead me astray. One has to give up control of their daily food intake and let the world’s natural timing dictate what and when they will eat. And that is hard.
We do not control the sun or the rain and we certainly cannot mandate a pumpkin to be ready for harvest come August 1st, – which is roughly when a pumpkin should be harvest-able in order to get pumpkin ale to market by September 15th. That is of course if the pumpkin is local, fresh and in season.
I like pumpkins a lot. I’m a gourd guy I guess. I eagerly await the pumpkin harvest every year. Typically pumpkins reach the market starting September 15th, but are considered to be at their peak after they have had some time in the early autumn sun and after a light frost. Thanksgiving is the best time to start eating pumpkin. So how is it that I can buy pumpkin ale before the key ingredient, pumpkin, hasn’t reached harvest-able maturity?
Further down this path, In British Columbia Raspberry season starts July 1st. Many raspberry seasonals also happen to be released starting July 1st. Something isn’t adding up.
Proper ale takes a minimum of six weeks from start to finish before it can be consider fit for consumption. With this in mind we should drink pumpkin ale starting mid November and raspberry ale from mid August through to Thanksgiving. But herein lies the problem; we want pumpkin ale at the Thanksgiving table. Beer marketers know this, and brewers are forced to source out of season, imported, or frozen ingredients for an upcoming seasonal release.
Some of beer culture’s greatest celebrations are linked to the harvest. Oktoberfest is a celebration of the summer harvest and the beginning of the brewing season. Unable to brew lager beer in the summer months, drinkers liberally imbibe in the reaming cave aged Marzen in order to make room for the fresh lager soon to come. With glycol cooling brewers can lager beer all summer long and this annual celebration is no longer necessary, but it is so much fun we have kept the party alive and well.
Even beer styles have been shaped by the seasons. Saison, directly translated as season, is a classic example. Originally brewed in a farmhouse during the autumn and winter months, Saisons were aged into the summer where farm workers quenched thier thirst with a snappy effervescent beer. Refrigeration and digital temperate controls have changed how Saisons are brewed, which I’m sure has changed the flavour profile.
As a beer fanatic and an enthusiastic eater I like to think seasonality has remained a mainstay of modern beer culture, but it hasn’t. Brewing with what nature provides is not easy. Seasonal brewing pushes consumer demand to the back seat. When consumer demand remains a top priority for business owners, the boundaries of the season get pushed. The idea of releasing pumpkin ale one month after thanksgiving, and even after Halloween, may seem counter-intuitive, but it isn’t.
Optically, yes, beer is very seasonal, but the way we brew and the way we consume is far from it. Like being part of a movement, it feels good to be a seasonal drinker. We like to feel an emotional connection to Mother Nature, but the effort to make a real connection is too great a commitment for most brewery owners, so marketers fake it.
Industry and nature do not mix all that well. Marketers love the image, but hate the reality. To be a seasonal brewery one has to err on the side of nature and quality rather than the timing of consumer demand.
Are there enough die-hards out there to support a seasonal brewery? I would love to see a brewery say, it will be ready when it is ready, and it will be damn good… when it is ready of course. It would take guts to say this and it would be a business risk, but it would be cool – it would also be a great point of differentiation.
There are some bright spots. The resurgence of local hop production in BC has created a hyper-seasonal wet hopped ale trend. And Belgium’s lambic breweries hold true to the seasonal limitation of wild fermentation.