What will be hot in beer and cider this Christmas?

Phil Mellows has the latest on what retailers should stock up on for Christmas

The year after the year they cancelled Christmas, it’s likely the drinks world will never be quite the same again, as pandemic lockdowns closed pubs and changed drinking habits.

But having missed out on celebrations and get-togethers with family and friends in 2020, people are sure to be looking forward to making this festive season a little bit special. And when it comes to beer and cider, many have spent the past 18 months trying new things and exploring the huge variety of styles and innovations out there.

Matt Stokes, head of trade at wholesaler Eebria Trade, anticipates consumers “will be looking to make memories and create celebrations after missing out last year”.  He adds: “We think this will translate to their beer and cider purchases, as customers look for something special and memorable to upgrade the occasion.

“We expect to be furnishing stores with premium products, probably a bit stronger and with more experimental flavours than usual. That means imperial stouts will do well, along with Double IPAs and seasonal sours. Splashing out on something new and different will be common. 

“We also expect larger, sharing formats to do well – so lots of 75cl bottles for the festive season.”

Toby Chantrell, chief executive of brewing industry network Brewbroker, agrees that we’ll be seeing a sense of adventure in the market.

“Certainly, our off-trade buyers are looking for new brands they haven’t listed before,” says Chantrell. “In what is now a more competitive market due to the pandemic driving up availability and choice online, there’s an expectation from consumers that retailers will be part of the process of introducing them to new brands, and businesses are looking to get ahead of that. 

“Our hope is that we’ll see new brewers and new brews on the shelves and lots of independent breweries are taking the opportunity to push their brands forward.

“Our reports show, too, that the range of abvs being considered by consumers in and out of home is broadening in both directions as taste becomes the driving factor, so sessionable options are potentially less in demand as drinking habits change and people become more adventurous.”

So, based on long-term trends accelerated by the pandemic and the impact of a festive season we’ve waited a long time for, here are some suggestions for what might be glittering this Christmas.

DARK BEERS

As the nights draw in, beer drinkers traditionally turn to the dark side, and those richer brews lend themselves well to the Christmas table and the slow, languid hours that follow. They might range from strong bottle-conditioned ales such as Fuller’s Vintage to the many stouts and porters now being produced by independent brewers.

In particular, recent years have seen a proliferation of “pastry beers”, usually stouts, that mimic sweet treats and could well find their place accompanying the Christmas pudding – or even in it.

Simon Yates, wholesale manager at LWC Drinks, also puts in a word for old ales, stronger relatives of malty, lightly-hopped dark mild ales that are available only during the winter months, and recommends Old Man from Sussex brewer Long Man with its “soft notes of coffee and chocolate”.

BRITISH CRAFT LAGER

A lot of drinkers will stick with the lighter side of beer, though, and there’s a growing interest in the increasing number of lagers produced by UK craft brewers. They range from the well-established Camden Hells and Lost & Grounded’s Keller Pils to the choice of authentic styles offered by specialist lager brewers such as Bohem, Utopian and Braybrooke.

Yorkshire’s Saltaire Brewery is among the latest to join the fray – with a Helles – and promises more, while London’s Beavertown has recently added a 4.4% lager called Bones to its core portfolio.

WHEAT BEER

Wheat beer is another style that’s more usually associated with summer, but LWC’s Yates believes the aromatic, full-bodied qualities of German weizenbier can suit the Christmas occasion, picking out the Austrian brand Edelweiss. “It features refreshing, fruity aromas, flavours of natural mountain herbs including sage, coriander and elderflower, plus banana for a special richness in the aftertaste,” he says.

BINARY BOTANICAL

For something really different, how about Binary Botanical, a beer that thinks it’s a wine?

Delicately hopped with the leaves of the hop plant, rather than the cones, it comes in 4% and 0.5% versions and is billed as a low-calorie, tangy alternative to Prosecco.

And alongside the 60cl sharing bottle and 25cl single-serve it’s now being packaged in 33cl cans.

MINI-KEGS

Thinking about the larger formats that are likely to be in high demand for Christmas parties, 5-litre mini-casks and kegs have been successful formats in the pandemic.

“With alfresco gatherings and the pub-at-home experience taking off last year, Adnams mini-keg sales over the whole of 2020 were up 17% on 2019,” says production director Fergus Fitzgerald. “When people are able to catch up on those lost celebrations from the past 18 months, we expect them to be even more popular.”

The Suffolk brewer offers a variety of beers in mini-keg, from classics such as Ghost Ship and Broadside through to newer beers like Dry Hopped Lager and Mosaic Pale Ale.

SINGLE-VARIETAL CIDERS

Ciders made from a single apple variety are growing in popularity and bring something celebratory to the table, especially when served in a Champagne glass. Thatchers Katy, now in its 25th year, has been around longer than most and seen sales grow in value bv 20% over the past 12 months.

The company recommends retailers merchandise it alongside premium snacks.

NORMANDY CIDER

Word is that more Brits are discovering French ciders, and Normandy’s Sassy is making progress here with a listing in Majestic.

The company is family-owned and its pure juice ciders available here include Organic, Rosé and a 2.5% abv Poire.

MULLED CIDER

Mulled cider has been massive in the on-trade in recent winters, with cauldrons at the end of the bar emitting a spicy seasonal steam and proving irresistible to cold Christmas shoppers. And wholesaler LWC has seen that translate into ready-mixed, bag-in-box mulled ciders for the off-trade.

“These ciders are convenient, require minimal preparation as they include a variety of Christmas spices – such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves – and can be easily heated,” says Yates.

“Plus, bag-in-box ciders can be sold in much higher volumes for parties and tend to stay fresher for longer as they reduce oxidisation of the product inside.”

LOW AND NO-ALCOHOL

Don’t forget low and no-alcohol beers and ciders. Many drinkers have been discovering their improved quality and variety, and in the run-up to Christmas wholesaler LWC expects to see Generation Zs, along with designated drivers, opting to go low.

Specialist brewer Big Drop has gained a strong reputation for producing 0.5% brews in a wide variety of styles and will soon be launching this year’s winter special, a coffee beer. In cider, LWC’s Signature Brands distributes the South West Orchards range, which now includes a 0.5% option, and Thatchers Zero is a bestseller among those going even lower.

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