But I’m A (Seasonal) Creep – When Beer is Taken out of Context
All things being equal (producer, quality, price, freshness, etc), my beer preferences are mostly a matter of context. People will often ask me what my “favorite” beer is and I must always disappoint them with a non-answer (or more frequently, a question of my own). Truth be told, I don’t have a favorite beer. I know what beer I’d choose if I had to drink a single beer for the rest of my days, but I still don’t know that I’d call it my “favorite.”
If I’m choosing a beer, I take a holistic approach. I want to know what the weather’s like. I want to know what time of day it is. I want to know whether and what I’m eating. I want to take account of my disposition at the time. I want to know whether or not I have to drive later. Even the time of year is important to me.
Which brings me to the issue of seasonality in beer. As one who buys beer for a living (ain’t it grand?), I am keenly aware of seasonal creep. I run a restaurant and bar that is two blocks from the beach. It is hot and sticky in August and yet, here I sit, being warned that pumpkin beers are on the immediate horizon. I can only respond with consternation.
When I think of pumpkin beers, I think of Halloween, Autumn, Thanksgiving and hearty meals with rich, warm flavors that mirror the nutmeg, clove and cinnamon typically found in pumpkin beers. I do not think of any of those things in August. In August, I think of peaches, corn, tomatoes, barbeques and being outside in the Summer sun. It’s never once occurred to me to drink pumpkin beer in August.
I understand the pressure breweries face to both be first to market with seasonal releases, and to sell through those releases before the next seasonal release is ready for packaging. I do wonder though, what good it does a brewery to put product in distributor warehouses before any retailer is ready for it. They effectively put brand and distributor reps in the peculiar position of having to push a product for which a market doesn’t yet exist. Bars and bottle shops are thereby encouraged to purchase product that will move slowly and eventually be of less-than-optimal freshness.
It doesn’t seem like anybody wins. Pumpkin beer hits the market before the consumer wants it and it’s sometimes gone by the time demand is at its highest, simply because space needs to be made for holiday seasonals. You want to sell me pumpkin beer? Ask me from the beginning of October through the end of November. Hell, we can even work back into September a little bit. But mid-August!?
So, what’s a brewery to do? I’d suggest dispensing with the notion of seasonality altogether. I’m guessing that most breweries who make pumpkin beer aren’t doing so because they’ve decided to source, roast and purée freshly picked pumpkins in July. Pumpkins aren’t even in season in July. Brewers use the same canned product that you do when you want to make pumpkin pie at home. Modern agriculture and storage techniques mean that the necessity of making pumpkin beer during pumpkin season is a fiction best confined to colonial history. In other words, pumpkin beer doesn’t need to happen if there isn’t demand.
Here’s another suggestion: make less pumpkin beer. If you don’t want to worry about selling through all your “seasonal” product before the season ends, then don’t make so much of it. Ensure it will sell out in the appropriate period of time. I’d rather have to resort to non-seasonal alternatives at the end of November than see pumpkin beer gathering dust on shelves at Christmas. Besides, we all know that IPA is always in season.