It’s coming up to the end of winter in Japan – did you know Japan has four seasons? That means breweries have begun their annual change of moving away from darker beers, to those lighter ones that seem to sell much better than the stouts, schwarzbier, and bocks. We all know that colder beers are preferred in the summer months, and thicker beers are sold more in the colder months of the year. But we’re here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. You should be able to drink an imperial stout in the summer, or a pale ale in the winter.
How did we end up at this point where are told what to drink at what time of year? Well the breweries certainly have a lot of say. The professionals who make the beers that we drink try to match the flavours and textures of the beers to the seasonality of food, the weather at hand, or the ingredients available for brewing the beer.
However, it’s worth going back even further in time and looking at something we all take for granted – refrigeration. We’re often told that beer has to be kept cold to retain its freshness, or maintain the balance of hops in the beer. This meant that a lot of beers were seasonal to ensure that they could be stored properly when the only form of climate control was, well, the climate really. With temperatures that fluctuate throughout the year, colder months meant that lagers could be made, and stored in cool caves, to allow the yeasts that are used to make the lagers could work efficiently, and not produce off-flavours or aromas. Brewing thus became an autumn and winter activity. The harvests during autumn would be when the new barley was harvested, which meant the workers themselves no longer had to put in long days in the field. The cooler weather also made it possible to store beers for longer, especially high-alcohol beers like stouts and doublebocks.
By the end of the spring, the temperatures began to rise, which meant a different kind of yeast was used to produce beers. Enter the ale yeasts. Like lager yeasts, there are numerous kinds that are used; however, one of the common traits between them is that they like to work on the wort at warmer temperatures than their lager cousins. Brewers would have older malts that would have been left over from the lager production time, and this was put into darker beers that could handle the malts that have been left out and hops that have been left over.
But why does this idea still persist when we have the refrigeration tools, and also the transit network, to have any kind of beer at any time of year? Well it’s down to you, the consumer, and basically what you choose to drink. Hotter weather means beers that are more refreshing, such as pilsners, pale ales, and saisons are more popular than sweeter beers, such as weizens, stouts, and barley wines.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. Think of all the foods you eat during the summer months – all that BBQ food, burgers, salads, and other lighter foods. There are a huge range of “winter” beers that would go nicely with them. Some pulled pork? How about a nice stout to bring out the smokiness? Having a salad? Try some weizenbock to bring some sweetness against the acidity of the dressing.
This of course also works the other way with winter beers. You don’t have to drink a stout with those typically heavier foods. The winter foods tend to be more starchy, heavier on the belly, yet a stout can be too filling. So if you’re having a beef stew, why not have a saison to refresh the palate? Having a roast dinner with all the trimmings? Go for a pale ale with a citrus flavour profile to go against the saltiness of the dish.
People should really be able to drink whatever they want, whenever they want. So the next time someone says “You can’t drink stouts in summer”, remind them why is it ok to drink a lager in the winter?