Henry Weinhard's may be the oldest craft brewer in the Pacific Northwest, but it was such a part of the scenery that its brand began to...

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Henry Weinhard’s may be the oldest craft brewer in the Pacific Northwest, but it was such a part of the scenery that its brand began to fade.

The Portland-based company introduced a Classic Dark Lager for this winter, the first seasonal beer in its 149-year history. Early results appear promising:

Last month, Classic Dark Lager accounted for 21 percent of the seasonal beers sold in Seattle supermarkets, according to Nielsen data. “Consumers needed new news to be reminded of the brand,” said Jonathan Sickinger, brand manager for Henry Weinhard’s, which is owned by Altria’s Miller Brewing unit.

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Seasonal beers — typically a limited release that coincides with the turn of the seasons — have been around for centuries. Craft brewers have paid increasing attention as the category begins to lift sales.

The Washington Brewers Guild recently hosted a Winter Beer Festival at the Pyramid Alehouse in Seattle. The event, attended by some 400 beer connoisseurs throughout the day, was more like a wine- tasting event, with microbrews paired with artisanal cheeses.

Within the industry, craft beer means a beer made using all or nearly all malt, rather than rice or corn, for the fullest flavor.

A far cry from the world of tastes-great-less-filling, craft brewers explain their concoctions with all the poetry of restaurant critics.

Beers are deep-brown and full-bodied or sweet, with caramel overtones and a tangy finish.

“The craft drinkers here in this market area, they’re pretty savvy,” said Steve Lipe, vice president of beverage at Portland-based Columbia Distributing/Young’s Columbia.

“They like to try different things. They’re always looking for something different.”

Pyramid Breweries — known for its unfiltered wheat beer Hefe Weizen — introduced the seasonal Snow Cap Ale roughly 14 years ago.

On the West Coast, its seasonal offering has outsold all other limited-edition beers, including its nearest competitor Sam Adams Seasonal, according to Information Resources Inc.

John Lennon, CEO of Seattle-based Pyramid, said that while the largest craft beer players have had a seasonal for at least a decade, “what’s happening now is the consumer is starting to pick up on it. There’s consumer interest now. They’re saying, ‘I’d like to give it a try.’ “

Seattle-based Redhook introduced its first seasonal beer, Winterhook, in 1985, modeled after the Extra Special Bitters found in English pubs.

People liked the limited-edition beer so much, it eventually became the brewer’s flagship product: Redhook ESB.

Al Triplett, Redhook’s vice president of brewing, said the company constantly introduces new recipes for its winter and spring seasonals, which account for 5 percent of the company’s annual revenue.

This year’s Winterhook is a deep-ruby-colored dark rye beer, designed to pair well with rich foods, such as turkey and trimmings.

“It’s a good avenue to test the waters,” Triplett said.

Craft brewers still represent a small portion of the beer industry, but a promising one: The U.S. will produce nearly 7 million barrels of craft beer in 2005, representing $3.7 billion in revenue, according to The Brewers Association.

While production for domestic large brewers fell by 2 percent in the first half of this year, U.S. craft-beer output rose 7.1 percent, the association said.

Pyramid’s Lennon said large brewers have felt the sting of younger consumers, ages 21 to 30, favoring spirits over beer.

“My daughter is 21, and she and her friends are drinking Cosmopolitans and mixed drinks,” Lennon said. “When it comes to alcoholic beverages, everyone likes their drink made individually.”

In this age of customized drinks, microbrewers say craft beers — and the seasonals that come along every winter and spring — allow consumers a larger variety of options.

“This is not a negative thing: The craft-beer consumer is a very promiscuous consumer,” Lennon said. “They’re not brand-loyal. They really like to try all different types of products.”

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com