By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Who’s afraid of the seasonal creep? It sneaks up when you least expect it with autumn pumpkin-spiced beers in August and malty, strong winter ales in September. The seasonal creep lures you in with your favorite summer seasonal when spring rain is still falling, but mysteriously disappears by August.
If you’re one of those people surprised to find 10 Barrel Brewing’s Jamaican Me Pumpkin available in the dog days of summer or Deschutes Jubelale before the first leaf hits the ground in fall, then you’ve been smacked by seasonal creep. Pumpkin beers are a controversial new seasonal hit, but usually debut in stores before pumpkins. As I write this, it’s a clear blue sunny day and there’s a bottle of 2016 Deschutes Jubelale on my desk. Ironically, this year’s Jubelale art is called “First Snow,” while winter still seems nowhere in sight.
Understanding why seasonal creep strikes is to understand consumer buying habits and the supermarket strategy. In many ways, craft beer has blossomed on the back of seasonal beer releases. Where bars and taprooms would once carry the same beers year-round, drinkers began craving diversity. Seasonals were the first rotating, specialty offerings before limited-edition one-offs were a thing. We grew accustomed to looking forward to our favorite seasonal all year. No doubt there is value in hanging a beer release on a holiday, but it’s a double-edged sword.
The quickest way to grow a brewery is by getting beer into bottles and onto supermarket shelves.
A store will grant a brewery a certain number of stock keeping units (SKUs) or how many varieties they’ll carry. These slots must remain filled because an empty row is lost revenue. It’s difficult to capture more than a few SKUs if you’re a small brewer, and if you can’t keep them filled, you’re out. As Jason Randles, digital marketing director for Deschutes Brewery explains it, “You can’t have empty shelves at retail, so you have to be ready to backfill with the next seasonal because they share the same SKU.”
Seasonals are often intrinsically connected to holidays. Breakside Brewery’s head brewer and former Oregon Brewers Guild president Ben Edmunds says, “We've found that brewing and rolling out a beer attached to a very specific season or holiday really shifts people's attention away from the beer and onto the season in question. And, unfortunately, this means that if you release beers "late" in a marketing season — say releasing a "winter beer" on Jan. 15 or a pumpkin beer on Oct. 20 — the beers don't sell as well as they would if they were released earlier.”
“Summer seasonals stop moving towards the end of August. Holiday beers like Jubelale stop moving on December 31st,” adds Jason Randles. “Another interesting point about seasonals is that the trends are very soft. In the past, consumers would go to seasonals for variety and change, but now change is everywhere. “
The McMenamins locations throughout the Pacific Northwest regularly tie their beer releases to holidays. Black Widow Porter is a rare McMenamins bottle that only makes an appearance around Halloween. McMenamins hopes that supply will be gone by Nov. 11 when the Christmas-themed Kris Kringle Traditional Yuletide Ale comes out.
“When should a winter seasonal be released? I'm not sure, but I do think that if you're putting a beer out marketed with snowcapped mountains, Santa Claus or winter landscapes on the label before Oct. 1, you're letting marketing drive a lot of your beer-making decisions” says Ben Edmunds.
Deschutes Brewery is the largest independent brewery in the state, the eighth largest in the country. Their winter seasonal Jubelale is one of the region’s most famous, now in its 29th year. But even a classic like Jubelale can struggle in the market. Jason Randles admits Jubelale has hit as early as late August to ensure sellout by the holidays. However, Deschutes is making attempts to release seasonals more in line with the actual seasons.
“We did our best to address this seasonal creep this year by introducing a fourth seasonal, Hopzeit, but it didn’t work out as well as we had planned,” Randles says. “Hopzeit was supposed to be available for about six-to-eight weeks in late August through early October, but Hop Slice went long and is still on the shelf in Oregon. Hopzeit was supposed to push the Jubelale release to its intended early October release date.” Still, October ain’t bad when compared to an August release.
At Breakside Brewery, they have found their own way to stay out of reach of the seasonal creep.
“Our solution has been to avoid attaching our bottled, rotating beers to a particular season. You won't see any of the seasons or holidays specifically mentioned in the marketing or imagery for our rotating beers. The exception to this is some draft beers” said Ben Edmunds.
So if you’re as afraid of seasonal creep as I am, do your best to support year-round beers and drink your seasonals fresh and in high quantity!
By Branden Andersen
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The winter warmer holds a special place in the beer industry’s heart. While old-world breweries celebrated the passing of seasons with spring beers like saison and Maibock, the American beer industry instantly grabbed onto the winter seasonal as its golden child for rotational styles.
It all started with Anchor Brewing, which released its first Christmas Ale in 1975. Label artist Jim Stitt has been designing the labels since that year, drawing a different tree for each edition ranging from a California palm to a Douglas fir.
“We’ve always believed handmade beer deserves a handmade label,” an Anchor representative said in a promotional video. “So rather than running to the computer, we run to our friend Jim Stitt, a wonderful illustrator and wonderful watercolorist.”
The idea, according to an Anchor press release, is to keep the labels changing just like the beer inside the bottle. Each year, the brewers work off of a caramel and toast malt base while adding a different combination of hops and spices that they refuse to disclose to the public.
Anchor set the pace for the hundreds of breweries that popped up in the years that followed. Local breweries now hold on to their winter seasonals and build releases around them. 10 Barrel hosts Pray for Snow parties across the state to celebrate the release of their beer. Hopworks Urban Brewery’s Abominable Winter Ale’s bright blue monster cans and tap handles are seen around bars as a celebration of the season.
Possibly the most recognized and revered winter release in Oregon comes from Deschutes Brewing. They’ve brewed and bottled their winter seasonal Jubelale since opening their doors in 1988, with different labels wrapping each bottle. From 1988 to 1995, Bend local Ed Carson designed wreaths for the labels, updating them once every two years.
“Deschutes Brewery owner and founder, Gary Fish, and our graphic designer at the time, Ed Carson, came up with the idea to celebrate the beer and the holiday season,” explained Deschutes digital marketing manager Jason Randles, “and I guess you could say the rest is history.”
While Carson oversaw the Jubelale art project until 2003, he handed off the art reins to local artists.
“As Gary Fish likes to say, ‘Jubelale packaging is all about the art,’” recounted Randles. “It’s a fun project that celebrates the craft of brewing and art and brings them together in a real unique and festive way.”
This year, Central Oregon transplant Taylor Rose found her way into the discussion for Jubelale’s 2015 label, and quickly made her way to the top of the list.
“I figured there was a huge wait list,” Rose said. “I was just reaching out to see what I had to do to be included. They brought me in and started talking about the project, and it turned out I got the job.”
Randles said that Deschutes prioritizes Central Oregon artists, tasking them to create winter-themed art.
“It was very hands-off,” Rose said. “I sketched up my idea and they told me to go for it.”
Rose said her inspiration came from her newfound love of fly-fishing. Since moving to Bend from New Hampshire, she has been inspired by all of the outdoor recreation that the area has to offer and she incorporated that into her work.
“A friend took me out to the Crooked River to go fishing,” Rose said. “We didn’t get anything that time, but just being in the environment, I loved it.”
The Jubelale label, titled “First Tracks First Cast,” is a tribute to that memory and how inspired she has been by the Central Oregon outdoors. She used her fantasy-like style to portray an outdoor scene of a couple with their dog preparing to cast into a fish-filled river.
“We like the detail, vibrancy and playfulness of her work,” Randles said about Rose. “We’re always looking for something different from the previous year, whether that be style, medium or subject matter.”
The original art, which is hanging in Deschutes Brewery’s tasting room, took roughly 80 hours from start to finish. Rose said it’s the biggest project she’s ever done, and admires Deschutes for giving artists the opportunity.
“How awesome is it that Deschutes does this,” Rose said. “They gave me total creative freedom and make it all about the artist.”
Rose got the whole royal treatment, including her picture on Deschutes press releases and a poster-signing party at the pub as the art was revealed. Suddenly, Rose said she was recognized by locals. Besides that, her art was placed all around town, on six-pack carriers and boxes in the beer aisle.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.