Every year, the terror of Seasonal Creep inches malevolently into our hearts earlier and earlier. The shrill cries of terror from the East Coast could be heard clear across the country. “Southern Tier PUMPKING IN JULY!!!!! Run for your lives! SCREW the women and children, every beer drinker for themselves!”
That’s right, soon the horrifying, inexorable zombie-like creep spread across the country like a Max Brooks world-wide pandemic level Zombie infestation accompanied by cries of:
“It comes earlier and earlier every year!”
“Those pumpkins are reanimated zombie squash from last year!”
“Pretty Soon there will be pumpkin beers in May! Oh, the horror!”
“Who will protect us from these fiendish villains unleashing these horrors upon the innocent masses of the beer drinking world?!?!”
Who indeed will protect you? The masses must load up on their summer seasonal silver bullets! Not the light one from Colorado, but the cure for seasonal creep…THE CURRENT Seasonal! Rush to your stores to raid the shelves! Call the National Guard!* Call the United Nations!**
Who’s to blame for this plot to destabilize the craft beer world as we know it? Is it a plot by “Big Beer” to destabilize the space-time continuum so they can regain market share? Is it the brewers and their mad scientist tendencies to delve too deep into the unknown, mystical world of the craft beer? WHO’S FAULT IS IT, I ASK YOU?!?!?!?
Who’s To Blame?
Why YOU are, of course.
Beer, like anything else, is a consumer driven business. Brewers seek to brew beer based on past sales and anticipated demand. This is especially the case with established seasonal brands. The brewers look at last years sales, current growth trends, and anticipated demand then calculate the amount of ingredients they’ll need to purchase in order to meet those numbers. Once the purchase of ingredients is made, it’s hard to adjust the brewing schedule.
The average seasonal, from the brewery’s perspective, has a 3 month life span. The first month is where the brewery ramps up interest and distribution of the new seasonal; the second month is the peak selling window; and the third month is used to clean up the last of the inventory so the shelves/tap handles are ready for the following seasonal. If the first month sees sales massively exceeding projections, there’s still an opportunity to respond by acquiring more materials and producing beer to meet the actual demand. But, if it doesn’t happen until the second month, there won’t be time to get through the whole process and get the beer into the channel, leading to a seasonal selling out earlier than anticipated.
No retailer likes an empty shelf, and breweries almost always have the next seasonal ready to go. This means that the next seasonal is on the shelves ahead of time and ready to be greeted with cries of “Seasonal Creep!”
But why are Fall seasonals appearing in the middle of summer? You say: “I’m not going to buy them until it’s fall.” Well, that’s just not true. The Late Don Younger, one of the great pub owners (Horse Brass Pub) in the US and one of the driving forces in the early development of the craft beer movement, was an astute observer of customer behavior. I had the pleasure of knowing Don from 2002 until he passed in 2011. Don always knew how to turn a phrase. One of his most appropriate quotes was “Watch what your customers do, not what they say.”
He was right. People say they’re annoyed or disgusted or whatever by the early; and as they view it, “out of season,” release of seasonal beers. But the truth is, as soon as you turn your back that person is greedily ordering an “out of season” beer and drinking it with gusto and joy. “I’ll wait until Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer to drink that Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer seasonal” is the flip side to that argument. Ask any brewery how much water that statement holds. Every brewery who has a Santa Claus label dreads the coming of December 26th if they still have beer on the shelf. Pumpkin beers after Halloween? Good luck. Pumpkin beers after Thanksgiving? You might as well flush them down the drain.
Consumers vote with their wallets and actions. Breweries seek to meet that demand. The reason you’re seeing pumpkin beers on the shelves now isn’t because it’s a plot by breweries and wholesalers to mess with the calendar, it’s because consumers drained the shelves of the current seasonal. “Why don’t brewers just make more to start with?” No brewery wants to have their product sitting on the shelf and not selling when consumers have moved onto the next seasonal beer. Consumers stop buying the “in season” seasonal as soon as the “too early” seasonals come out. It looks bad to retailers to have a product not moving, which can cause the brewery to lose valuable shelf space. Breweries would rather run out early and adjust than have to deal with beer that’s not moving because consumers have lost interest.
Those Ingredients Are From Last Year!
Frankly, all the ingredients are from last year’s harvest; the barley, the hops, all of it. If breweries waited until the this year’s pumpkins were ready to be used by them, by the time the beer hit the stores, consumers wouldn’t have any interest in buying them. There are a few pumpkin beers made with fresh Pumpkins, but they’re extremely low volume novelty beers tacked on to the end of the season. Breweries have to buy their ingredients well in advance of the anticipated release of the beer. If pumpkins are seasonal to fall, you need a pumpkin beer ready before and as the pumpkins ripen. You have to buy pumpkins from last years harvest. It’s the same with any “seasonal” ingredient. (The one exception being “fresh” hop beers.)
People want to buy pumpkin beers in August and September, so breweries release pumpkin beers in the summer. People want winter seasonals as soon as the weather turns, so they buy Sierra Nevada Celebration in the middle of the fall when it hits the shelves. Every year, a few retailers attempt to not buy seasonals when they’re released to “make a stand” against Seasonal Creep. The results? They end up missing the window and losing business to places that have the beers people want on the shelves when they want to buy them.
Until consumers continue buying Winter Beers after Christmas or Pumpkin Beers after Halloween, the breweries aren’t going to change when they release the beers. They’re in the business of meeting customers’ demands. If you’re one of the people who legitimately doesn’t drink the Winter seasonal until after December 21st, you’re a true rarity. Personally, I love opening a light summer beer during the rainy days of spring. It’s a little taste of Summer that’ll keep me going during the rainy 8 months that is an Oregon Fall/Winter/Spring. It’ll hold me over until we get to the sunny days of summer.
These insights come from 12+ years of experience working with breweries, wholesalers, restaurants, bars, bottle shops, and consumers.
*DISCLAIMER – Please do not call the National Guard about Seasonal Creep; they do not care.
**Disclaimer – Apply previous disclaimer’s sentiment