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!
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.