While everyone loves beers that are available all year round, we seem to go crazy for certain seasonal beers that are available only for a short time each year. Don’t get them while they’re out and you have to wait patiently (or impatiently) until they come around again next year. With the change if the seasons, comes a change in the styles of beers that hit the market. Summer ales, hefeweizens, and other highly drinkable styles in the summer. Oktoberfests, pumpkin ales, harvest ales and wet hopped brews in the fall. Winter ales, stouts, barleywines, and others in the winter. And maibocks, Biere de Mars, and more come spring time. We all have the ones we look forward to each season. But it seems each year, breweries are releasing these seasonal brews well before their proper season has begun.
As I’m sure most craft beer fans have noticed, we continue to see brewers releasing their pumpkin beers in July, long before the fall that we typically associate this style with. We see Oktoberfest come out around the same time too. Each time around there is a wave of complaints from the seasonal faithful. Crying that these beers have come out way too soon and brewers need to wait until the proper time to release them or they will refuse to drink them. In the perfect world, these beers would come out at those more seasonally aligned times but there is a very good reason for their early release and it’s part of the reason some of these beers can exist at all. After speaking to a number of professional brewers and distributors, there are many reasons for the seasonal release schedules.
The trend to start releasing seasonal beers before the actual season’s start likely started with Sam Adams and their Oktoberfest. Sam started selling their Oktoberfest early and other brewers followed suit. They did this largely because after October ends, consumers will not buy Oktoberfest. I’m not saying that you, yourself, won’t. Just that the general consumer will not buy a Oktoberfest beer after October and the distributors and liquor stores are left sitting on product they can’t sell. Most consumers won’t buy a Winter Ale when the snow is melting outside or a hefeweizen when the leaves are falling from the trees. By starting to sell these beers earlier, they can increase the time in which people will purchase them which increases profits from these brews.
So why can’t these guys just settle for a shorter selling season and less profits? Well for some brewers, this is the deciding factor for if it’s even worth releasing their seasonal at all. While big guys like Sam Adams could continue to produce Oktoberfest along with others, with a shorter seasonal release time small brewers may not be able to. A good amount of tank space at these breweries needs to be devoted to these special brews. That space takes away space that could be used for their year-round brews so they have to be able to sell enough of it to make up for any loss from taking away from their normal brewing.
Ingredient costs for many of these brews are more than your typical brew including pumpkins, spices, wet hops, and more. To get a decent discount on these ingredients, a brewer may have to purchase a significant quantity. That means they must also brew and sell a significant quantity of the beer to make even brewing it in the first place viable. A longer season in which they can sell the beer may be required to move all of it.
In addition to increased cost of ingredients, breweries also have to purchase packaging for this seasonal craft beer. Why waste the expense in having the packaging printed if you aren’t going to be able to order enough to get a decent price on it. Additional consideration has to be given for brewers that can as unlike bottling breweries which can just get a small run of labels made, can printers typically require an order of 200k cans or more per run. Brewers don’t want to have to store those unused cans around the brewery for a whole year until the season returns again.
Many of the bigger beers like many winter ales and bocks, require longer aging time. This additional time takes up tank space for longer. Brewers may not be able to justify taking up this space from their normal brews when they could likely move several batches of higher profitable beer through them in the same time unless they have a long enough period of time in which to sell the seasonal beer.
There are many reasons brewers are releasing seasonal beers earlier. Just some of them are explained above. We hear many people claim they won’t buy a seasonal beer until the proper season has begun. While you may not want to drink your pumpkin ale until the leaves are changing color, understand that the brewers do have reasons for releasing these beers when they do. They aren’t just doing it out of spite or because they don’t understand when the season begins. You may choose to wait until the time you find acceptable but why not consume the beer when it’s fresh and at it’s best. And be aware that you are risking getting none should you wait until you’re ready. While some seasonals are around for several months, others are snatched up quickly each year. Don’t miss out.
In the end, you choose what you drink and when you drink it. Still, please lighten up on these brewers and their seasonal release schedules. They’re just trying to make great beer for all of us to enjoy and earn an honest wage for themselves at the same time. Enjoy these brews while you can because we all regret not drinking enough of them during the short time they are around, even if that amount of time has grown for many of them.