Is it pumpkin season yet? No.
It’s mid-August, and the temperature is expected to hit 90 degrees today. The summer is still upon us, beach days are still ahead of us, and pumpkin crop at our area farms is far from harvesting. But that hasn’t stopped some breweries from bringing pumpkin beers to our store shelves. Heck, some hit the road for shipments as early as July. But why is everyone rushing to put this style of beer on store shelves when nobody is in the mood to buy it yet? And for those who love this style, why is the early appearance a bad thing?
It starts with the growing rush to get seasonal beers to market first. If your brewery’s fall seasonal beer is the first on the shelves, it’ll be the first to sell. So we deal with “seasonal creep.” Initially, fall beers - especially pumpkin beers - would use fresh pumpkin from a year’s harvest, so they would release in October. Soon, that was pushed to September. Then, August… and nobody’s getting fresh pumpkin in August. The same trend extended to all four seasons. Last year, it started to get truly out of hand: Shipyard released their pumpkin ale in early July last year. In the most egregious example this year, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy hit store shelves on February 29th.
It’s all business… and if one brewery does it, they all have to do it to keep up with their competition. And the retailers’ and distributors’ hands are tied: the distributor doesn’t want the beer sitting in their warehouse, so they push it out to retailers. Retailers don’t want to miss out on getting the beer, so they have to take it in and sell it. Even if that beer sits on shelves for two months before someone buys it, it’s still going to sell eventually.
Of course, the consumer loses out if seasonal beer appears on shelves two months early. If you don’t want to drink pumpkin beer until October and the bottles sitting on the shelves in October were bottled in July, you end up buying three-month old beer, and freshness suffers.
But even worse, breweries that want to use fresh, seasonal ingredients in their beer can’t get it in front of consumers. In a post last February titled “The Death of Seasonal Beer,” Notch Session brewer Chris Lohring proved just how far this trend has gone to diminish the availability of true, fresh seasonal beer:
[T]he response by an overwhelming percentage of retailers? They claim a September release is too late for a Fall beer, as they are making room for the Winter beers that will be in any day. This is the hand retail has been dealt, and it is certainly not their fault. So, a real Fall beer, the BSA Harvest, born of the change of the seasons that yields a barley harvest, is deemed too damn late. So unfortunately, BSA Harvest will be absent later this year, as it was killed off by the rush to shift units and make shareholders happy.
Notch had to cancel this year’s fall harvest beer, using fresh, locally-harvested ingredients, because the ingredients wouldn’t be harvested until long after other fall seasonal beers hit shelves. The beer is intended to be consumed soon after its bottling date to ensure the proper freshness, but if the brewery can’t get it on store shelves, how can that happen?
Sixpoint chimed in this year, too. Autumnation, their fall seasonal, also falls out-of-sync with the hyped-up timeline of seasonals, since they use fresh hops harvested in September. They sarcastically tweeted last week, “next year we will release our wet hop beer in January with the prior year’s hop harvest to dominate shelf space.” And in a point related directly to pumpkin ales, they note “any pumpkin beer on shelves now is clearly not made with this year’s pumpkin.” They’ll continue to release Autumnation in the actual autumn this year.
So, what can you do to stop this vicious cycle? As Lohring suggested in his piece, stop buying seasonal beer out of season. It’s possible that if consumers don’t blindly follow the calendar that the industry sets, then the industry may adjust the calendar to real consumer demand. It won’t happen overnight, but if beer consumers make a concerted effort to not buy beer early, breweries might not brew it early, either. That may just be wishful thinking, but beer drinkers are the first line of defense against seasonal creep.