Are Craft Beer Seasonals Released Too Early?
Guest post by Brian Trivitt
Way back in October of 2011 (holy cow does time fly), I wrote my first entry on my personal blog titled “Craft Seasonal Releases are too Early.” Back then, craft beer was still growing double digits year over year, and seasonal releases were still in their early (no pun intended) phase of being released earlier than their appropriate season. Since then, craft beers’ growth and overall competition has dramatically changed, but the race to get seasonal beers onto the shelf’s and on tap, seems to only intensified.
Fast forward almost an entire decade:
- Generation Z (born in 1996 or later) is now of legal drinking age
- Craft beer’s growth has slowed to ~4% year over year
- Generation Z (and millennials) drink less alcohol overall than previous generations, and when they do, prefer something besides beer
- The number of breweries has grown
- Caft market share has grown to 13.2% market share of beer
- Rrecreational marijuana has went from being legal in zero (yes, no states had legal recreational marijuana until Colorado legalized it in 2012) states to 11 states and more importantly, legalization at the federal level is likely just a few years away
Needless to say, it’s a whole new world in the ultra competitive craft beverage market. These days, it makes more sense to include all alcoholic beverages into the competition, as opposed to the earlier part of this decade when craft beer seemed to compete more with just their fellow craft breweries and of course, the brewing giants. Now all the talk revolves around how much market share beer is losing to wine and spirits, and of course, those ever so popular hard seltzers.
Seasonal beers have always been a big seller for craft breweries and as many well written articles have pointed out over the years, there are a variety of reasons why craft breweries are compelled to release them so early. What I have come to realize from own observations as well as some articles written by other fellow bloggers is that seasonal schedule for craft beer is actually more complicated than people realize due to several factors:
- Mr. Lew Bryson wrote an excellent article back in October titled “I need you to Drink Oktoberfest Beer Right Now.” In it, Mr. Bryson points out that Oktoberfest beer could be a way back to “bring us back to seasonal beer drinking.” Mr. Bryson’s rationale seems to be that by getting people to drink more beer that is actually called “Oktoberfest,” breweries will ensure the seasonal is out in the fall, and because the actual Oktoberfest celebration in Germany takes place the last two weeks in September, a release of late August, early September would be ideal.
- One of the biggest obstacles to getting the right beer for the season is how the calendar falls in that there is only one week between Christmas Day and New Years. This has essentially created the category of “holiday beers,” which are almost more of a “hearty winter offering” meant to be enjoyed with festive holiday meals and as the weather turns colder, but the reality is the actual season is still fall, but once Christmas is over and especially once the New Year has arrived, many people are reluctant to buy something they were drinking last year. The beginning of January is just 1.5 weeks officially into winter, and when the weather would be most suitable to drinking a “winter offering,” hence some breweries will actually release a more limited, generally high ABV, higher priced release, but these only make up a small portion of their overall sales, as many people don’t want to drink that big of a beer and the releases are certainly not something you sit down and enjoy a few of at a time. Alas, most breweries will actually release their “spring” seasonal right after the holidays, and incidentally, I actually saw Sam Adams Cold Snap (their spring release) on shelves two weeks before Christmas, one week before the actual start of winter! I’m fairly certain that if breweries and wholesalers had it their way (and other things for that matter, but especially beer), there would be another month after December before Christmas was over to sell through all the holiday beers and once the actual new year hit, we would be close enough to spring time weather to actually release a spring seasonal. Incidentally, some breweries like to tout that their early year release is supposed to help you look forward to spring weather, but when we are to the point that they are getting released even before the new year hits, I think most people would agree that this amounts to wishful thinking when spring is so far away.
- Similar to the holiday vs winter seasonal dichotomy, some could argue that the “summer” seasonal is actually more of a “warmer weather” offering, hence you will start seeing them often as early as late March, early April. Depending on what part of the country you live in, April and May are some of the most pleasant months to get outside and start doing warm weather activities such as grilling and mowing the lawn, hence summer seasonal offerings this early can work. But I think I speak for many people when I say that I would rather have an actual spring beer that is released sometime mid to late February, when spring is actually just a few weeks away, and have an actual summer release around Memorial Day. Once upon a time, roughly 2006 or so, I remember mid to late May was when you used to see Summer seasonal releases show up, and each year after that, we saw seasonal creep for everything get earlier and earlier.
So were do we go from here? Well, I can say with upmost certainty that breweries have reached the limit with the arms race for how early a seasonal offering is released. When you are literally a complete season ahead (and a week or so beyond) of the season the beer is being marketed towards enjoying in, releasing any earlier is not going to work.
I could go on forever about this seasonal creep dilemma and brainstorming about possible ways to bring beers back to being released in their appropriate season. But when you consider how hyper competitive beer is overall these days and how much more competition larger, legacy craft breweries face from small breweries that they did not contend with just a few years ago, I’m willing to bet that adhering to an actual seasonal schedule for releases may not be the top priority. So rather than continue to analyze this, I am going to layout my ideal seasonal release calendar that would exist in a perfect world. Obviously, these are based on my own personal tastes, but just for a moment, I am going to quit being so serious and fantasize I have my own brewery and I’m so wealthy I don’t have to worry about how strong seasonal sales are:
- Early January through early March – An authentic German Doppelbock, ~8.5% ABV, rich and malty as can be, with just enough hop bitterness to balance out the delightful, complex malty flavors, followed by a slight tingle of alcohol in the finish. Taking a page from Boston Beer Company back in their glory days of brewing traditional European styles, this was literally one of the best beers ever brewed by ANY craft brewery in America, and if I owned a brewery, I would make it an upmost priority to brew this very rarely seen style here in the U.S., as it’s just a sheer delight to drink during the coldest winter months.
- Mid February – Early May – A good German Helles. Right after the Super Bowl is over and people are gearing up for pre season baseball and even non-sports fans have “spring fever,” an easy drinking modest ABV all malt lager hits the spot. By mid February, it’s close enough to actual spring to be excited about warmer weather and in many parts of the country, start spending time outside on the occasional warmer day or two in a row in late February, early March. A German Helles is of course, a fantastic beer to enjoy year round, but offering it seasonally leading in the heart of spring time would be very ideal.
- Mid May-early September-Adjunt American Lager. There. I said it. I would literally brew a lighter lager, around 4.5% ABV, with some corn to lighten the body, sell it in cans, and offer it as my Summer seasonal. Yeah, I realize this is what the big guys have basically being doing for over a century and offering them year round and trying to beat each other on endless marketing and price wars, but brewed right, an ice cold lighter lager brewed with just enough corn to lighten its body and highly carbonated is the ultimate beer of summer. Pour into a glass or drink it straight from the can, the most important thing is to relax and enjoy the laid back vibe of summer with friends and family. An all American Lager is the perfect beer to bring people together and get your non-craft beer drinking friend to try something from a craft brewery.
- Early September – mid November-Without a doubt, authentic Oktoberfest beers. Before I get into this, I must give a shout out to one of my favorite breweries of all time for the simple, but very clever idea of a rotating Oktoberfest collaboration offering every year they brew with a different German Brewery from year to year. Each year’s offering ranges from being a modern day festbier to an old school Marzen. Each year I have loved every single one. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that if I were running my own brewery, I’m not sure I would be able to get a German Brewery to do a collaboration with me. I’m such a huge fan of both the Marzen and modern day festbier (the style difference warrants its own article) that each year, I would do one of each and include them both in a mix pack, perhaps call it the “Modern Traditional Oktoberfests.”
- Mid November – mid January-this is a tough one, as winter seasonal offerings seem to be the time when I personally bounce back and forth between something more on the hoppy side and then two nights later swear by something smooth and malty. The style “winter warmer” covers a wide range of offerings, but for me, a Scotch Style Ale with some peat malt and maybe just a touch more hops than usual would be perfect to pair with a nice holiday meal and while sitting by the fire. And, yes, my “winter offering” would literally be offered through at least mid January. I would go out of my way to promote this.
As I said above, this is my ideal seasonal beer release calendar, and unfortunately probably not something that would work in today’s crazy craft market. I think a lot of craft beer lovers would like these offerings and schedule as well, but the current consumer is too fickle, and I am sure one of my investors would be paying me a visit Monday morning telling me it’s time to switch up two of my seasonal releases to a hazy IPA and hard seltzer.