By Jason Notte
If baseball considers February "spring," there's no reason the beer industry shouldn't release its spring seasonal offerings around this time too.
It's weird timing, sure, but this is a weird time of year for beer in general. Drinkers are transitioning away from darker, maltier, boozier brews and into hoppier, more refreshing beers. This creates organized chaos in the beer coolers as space once taken up by winter warmers, strong stouts and caramel, coffee or even chocolate-flavored treats and bold barleywine becomes an awkward mix of winter leftovers and warm-weather arrivals.
It's kind of like that first day of warm weather in a cold corner of the country that tends to hit sometime in February. The sun comes out, the temperature flirts with 60 degrees or more and folks start wondering where their favorite restaurant is hiding its outdoor tables and whether it's too early to start puttering around in the garden. Then five days of temperatures in the 30s and 40s give way to late-season snowfall and any doubt about whether it's still winter has been erased.
So it is with beer. As much as a hoppy, citrusy IPA seems like a great way to shake off the waning days of winter, there's still enough of a chill left to send beer lovers running to the cellar for their last bottles of imperial stout. This is where mellow but potent Scottish ales and light-drinking dry stouts tend to shine and where a slightly amber pilsner can prepare beer fans for the fickle days ahead.
Unfortunately for the beer industry, none of that is consumed in huge quantities around this time of year. According to figures from the Beer Institute and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, February is typically one of the more miserable months on the beer calendar; production falls about 3 million barrels off its midsummer peak and hits its lowest point until the November-December holiday season.
While St. Patrick's Day gives those numbers a boost, it's not until Memorial Day hits in May that beer really finds its stride again. Despite this, there are still some great seasonal offerings out there for folks who had their fill of holiday beers in December and January and are looking forward to warmer days ahead. The following 10 offerings are just a sample of what brewers put out around this time of year and are a decent representation of just what a mixed bag the slumping spring beer season really is:
Style: Czech Pilsner. Alcohol by volume: 4.9 percent.
This floral, hoppy take on Bohemian Pilsner was the stud of Samuel Adams' spring variety packs a couple of years back thanks to its use of five German Noble hops that help it drink more like a mellow IPA. Boston Beer recently turned it into a year-round affair -- reserving spring slots for its Alpine Spring Kellerbier and other offerings. That said, Noble Pils is still the Sam to have around this time of year explicitly for that light, sweet, honey-tinged finish. It isn't typical beer-hall pilsner and purists should probably beware. But drinkers who are getting a little stir crazy waiting for some actual spring to arrive should ease their nerves with a few sips of this while searching those gray skies for sun.
Style: American IPA. Alcohol by volume: 6.4 percent.
We had our first sip of this at the Widmer Brewery in Portland back in January, and though it's born in winter, it hangs around until April to get you through the spring. Part of the Widmer Brothers' Rotator IPA series, O'Ryely takes a whole bunch of New Zealand Nelson and Savin Hops, masks them a bit with caramel malt to impersonate an Irish red and throws in some rye for just a touch of spice. It's certainly hoppy enough on the front end, but has a fruity aroma and mild finish to pull some of its hop punch. It's a bit sweeter and maltier than a typical IPA, but Widmer Brothers and the Craft Brew Alliance seem just fine with taking baby steps toward their summer IPAs and wheat beers.
Style: American Imperial IPA. Alcohol by volume: 9.5 percent.
Easily the most fun name on our list, Palate Wrecker is also by far the most accurate. International bitterness units are used to measure just how bitter a beer is and typically cut off at 100. San Diego's Green Flash claims 100-plus for Palate Wrecker, which may not be possible but is certainly disputable considering the mouth-puckering bitterness of this brew. This isn't a brewer that saves its hops for seasonal gimmicks, either. Its year-round West Coast IPA weighs in at 95 IBUs. Its everyday Imperial claims 105 IBUs. Each has a hops-up-your-nostrils floral aroma and a flavor that couldn't be more citrusy if you sat around all day licking grapefruit. Palate Wrecker isn't released from January through April as a pleasant little spring awakening; it occupies that window because you couldn't handle it the other eight months of the year.
Style: American Pale Ale. Alcohol by volume: 5.2 percent.
Chicago-based Half Acre has been around only since 2010 but has been incredibly prolific with its 16-ounce tallboy cans. The brewery's list of one-off beers is longer that some breweries' entire resumes, but its extensive experimental and seasonal offerings make their three mainstay beers all the more special. Daisy Cutter would be a flighty little spring offering anywhere else, but it's moved to Half Acre's full-time menu with help from its fruity and pungent aroma, hoppy flavor and easy finish. It's a pint can that seems built for summer sipping, but it's also that great fair-weather friend you really don't mind seeing on the first day of spring.
Style: Scotch ale. Alcohol by volume: 8.5 percent.
Wait, this was released in September? Well yes, but it's typically released around this time of year and often in multiple special releases that include a bourbon-barrel-aged version. Dark brown with notes of toffee and coffee in the aroma, this wee heavy warmer comes through with flavors of dark fruits such as cherry before getting decidedly maltier. There's a whole lot of toffee, coffee and toasted bread in the finish, making this a roasty end to any long winter's night. Even if you're still sitting on the fall 2012, that 750-milliliter wine bottle should be ready for snifters by this time.