There was a joke in the beer-distributing world that you could tell when it was the Fourth of July because the pumpkin beers started showing up in the warehouse. It wasn’t too far off from reality. In the not-so-distant past, pumpkin was king. Customers couldn’t get enough of it, and the brewers who turned out the spicy, orange-gourd ales were bringing in lots of cash.
Then it hit a saturation point.
Larger brewers who had been making pumpkin beers for years and had gained a following for their recipes suddenly found themselves with too much stock as every small brewery in the country was also making pumpkin beer. There was just so much out there that by the time January rolled around, you could still find cases (on a steep discount) at your local bottle shop.
“I’d like to think that you can stand the test of time with great beer, but trying to match production with consumer demand is always tough,” says Russ Klisch, the founder and president at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. “There are just so many different beers out there these days that it’s tough to get as much attention as we used to for seasonals.”
That thought is echoed by Roger Adamson, the beer education manager at Binny’s Beverage Depot.
“Everything is so focused on the IPA and the many variations of IPA. It can be tough to think about seasonals when there’s a new beer available every week. But there’s also some longevity for some of these seasonals, and so many of them are malt-centric,” he says.
It’s a break from the IPA cycle especially in autumn when Oktoberfest beers start to appear. He calls the arrival of the German tradition an exciting time because “people like to take a break from the IPA deluge.”
Oktoberfest beers with established credibility, especially authentic German releases, usually sell well and continue strong well past the actual holiday. Still, it’s getting harder to weed through all the offerings, and retailers now have to commit to orders long in advance.
“The distributors are being conservative,” Adamson says. “They want more pre-orders because they don’t want to run the risk of running long on stock. We have to commit to a set number, whereas in the past, we’d order when we needed beer. But, they don’t want to warehouse the stock.”
Combatting Seasonal Fatigue
Throughout the year, seasonals—because of their names—often quickly fall out of fashion. Christmas ales that still taste good on December 26 are a tough sell. Many have been rebranded as “winter ales,” but even then, as January rolls around and thoughts shift to warmer months, it’s a similar drop off.
One sign that brewers are trying to combat the seasonal stigma: Bell’s Brewery has rebranded its cold-weather seasonal, once known as Winter White Ale, to Bright White. Another sign is that the spring- and summer-month beer offerings are now combating shandies and hard seltzer as the refreshing alternatives.
“Because people are used to a new beer coming out every few weeks, these once long-anticipated seasonals have fallen by the wayside,” Adamson says. “But still each year, we do see people come in for the ones that really speak to them and fill their carts with like ten cases because they love a beer that much.”
Still, some seasonals have a following, and brewers are still going to keep pushing new things into the market. Lakefront had big success with a porter, of all things, as its winter offering last year. It replaced a Citra-forward pale ale named Warm Front that the brewery had released in the colder months for the previous few years.
“We called it Proper Porter, and it’s just a basic beer that sold well,” Klisch says. “There’s a window for the seasonals, and it’s not going to be around forever, so if you can find a beer that works, that matches the season, people will find it—that’s provided you get it out in good condition to distribution on time.”
Many brewers say that the usual life for these pop-up seasonals is about 2 or 3 years before fatigue sets in and customers expect a new limited offering.
The exception is, of course, pumpkin.
In the heat of the midsummer sun, the brewing team at Nebraska Brewing Company started chopping up pumpkins for Wick for Brains Pumpkin Ale, the brewery’s fall seasonal. Paul Kavulak, the brewery’s founder, says that he would have preferred to wait a little longer, but one of his out-of-state distributors had an early demand, so they got to work.
“They were sweating to death in the brewery, and it’s a little ahead of the curve, but for the market, it’s what you’ve got to do,” he says.
On the brewery’s annual release calendar, there are beers that Kavulak calls seasonals. Starting in the fourth quarter of a year and extending into the first months of a new year, it’s the Little Betty stout, “perfect for the cold weather,” that transitions into an Irish red and then a Mexican lager.
What Kavulak has seen over the past several years is that the “consumer is wowed by what they haven’t had yesterday and is always looking for something they didn’t have yesterday.”
Earlier this spring, when it was time to start thinking about the pumpkin ale, Kavulak planned to have a second fall beer—a vanilla porter. But he looked at the up-front cost of artwork, ordering preprinted cans, and other budget items that come with a big release of a limited beer.
“I looked at how the other seasonals had done on the shelves. We sold out our stock and were able to fill that slot as the next one came in,” he says. “My worry is that if we had two on the shelf, they both would suffer.”
So, for Nebraska Brewing Company, it’s just pumpkin this fall, having seen their sales numbers rise, following a general fatigue that set in a few years ago when bars and shelves were awash in gourd-forward ales and lagers.
“People are coming back to the good pumpkin beers,” he says. “I think ours will stand the test of time because it’s made well. There’s going to be a market for it.”
The Last Real Seasonal?
As far as seasonal beer offerings go, there’s one yearly offering that will likely show no signs of slowing down: the wet-hopped and fresh-hopped beers that start showing up in September, just a few weeks after the first hops harvest. It’s an annual tradition where the vibrancy of fresh, whole-cone hops can shine and elicit immediate smiles from the aromatics. While there’s also been a rise in interest in Southern Hemisphere fresh-hopped beers following the harvest down under (in the Northern Hemisphere’s early spring), the fact remains that the hops harvest comes but once a year in each hemisphere, guaranteeing that the experience of the fresh-hops character will be a fleeting pleasure.
For the past several years, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has partnered with a German brewer to create a collaboration seasonal offering: Oktoberfest. Given the reverence that most have for Sierra Nevada as well as the breweries they have partnered with in the past, there is usually excitement and a quick run on stock when the beers hit the shelves.
“This year, 200-year-old, family-owned Bitburger Brewery and Sierra Nevada have brewed an Oktoberfest with a secret blend of hops that has never before been shared outside the Bitburger brewery walls,” the brewery said in a release. “The recipe features what Bitburger calls Siegelhopfen, meaning ‘sealed hops,’ that complement the beer’s strong malt backbone. The flavors are married together with the help of a custom German yeast—another house ingredient gifted for the first time ever.”
Roger Adamson, the beer education manager at Binny’s Beverage Depot, says it’s not uncommon for customers to buy more Oktoberfest than they might need for a season. Given the strong malt profile, “it’s a beer you can still drink 6 months later. It still tastes great and is still seasonally appropriate.”
Photo: matt graves/www.mgravesphoto.com