Pumpkin beers are flooding US stores in August

Pumpkin beers, amber harvest ales and Oktoberfests are flooding back onto shelves this month, prompting social media outrage from beer geeks griping about "seasonal creep," and how these beers are showing up weeks too early.
Pumpkin beers, amber harvest ales and Oktoberfests are flooding back onto shelves this month, prompting social media outrage from beer geeks griping about "seasonal creep," and how these beers are showing up weeks too early. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/FRITZ HAHN

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - If you have been to a grocery store or liquor store in the past week, you know that the perfect thing to sip over the long weekend is . . . a spicy imperial pumpkin ale flavoured with "cinnamon, nutmeg and a touch of cardamom and clove".

Pumpkin beers, amber harvest ales and Oktoberfests are flooding back onto shelves this month, prompting social media outrage from beer geeks griping about "seasonal creep," and how these beers are showing up weeks too early. Guilty as charged.

And yet, if you are the kind of beer lover who does most of their drinking in bars, you would never know it is spiced gourd season. Barroom taps are still pouring mango hefeweizens, goses and blonde ales. A survey of menus at beer-focused bars revealed pumpkin beers are nowhere to be found on draft lists.

Jack Rose beer director Nahem Simon, who recently won the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington's RAMMY award for Best Beer Program, is not surprised.

"Right now, there's nothing worse than tying up a (draft) line with something that's not palatable at all." He laughs. "It's 90 degrees, 66 per cent humidity. How much would you hate yourself if you were sitting on the Jack Rose roofdeck right now drinking Flying Dog's the Fear (imperial pumpkin ale)?"

As summer begins inching toward fall, Simon says, he hears from brewery representatives and distributors trying to get him to sign on for beers well before he thinks guests are looking for them.

"We're approached by brand ambassadors who say, 'This is going to sell out so fast.' Well, we don't have the cooler space" to store beer until the season is right.

"We don't want to have anything that could come close to" going out of date while waiting for the right time.

"I tell people, 'Come back in October and if you still have some, we'll talk.' I'm going to focus on what makes sense right now. Talk to me when I'm wearing a hoodie outside."

Even the stores do not seem completely all-in on the fall beverages: At the Total Wine in Ballston, Virginia, six-packs of Shipyard Pumpkinhead and Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale sit above signs nudging customers to "refresh with summer brews," and displays at Whole Foods juxtapose Schlafly Pumpkin and Smuttynose Summer IPA. You know, just in case you are not willing to give up the seasonal drinks quite yet.

"What you're seeing is very typical," says Lester Jones, the chief economist at the National Beer Wholesalers Association. "The beer business has a long supply cycle. Grocery stores have more wiggle room to play with inventory, to get things on the shelf. Bars and restaurants, not so much - they're more of an on-demand business."

Jeremy Danner, the ambassador brewer for Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing, recently went on a mini-tweetstorm after a customer asked why fall beers were out so early. Danner said that seasonal creep is "consumer, retailer, distributor and brewery driven," but his explanation seems to put most of the blame on breweries wanting to keep their products on shelves.

"As summer beers sell out, breweries need to have fall beers ready to hold shelf/tap wall space to avoid losing placements. Here's the deal. If we waited too long after our summer beers sold out, someone else would just have a fall beer ready to take that spot."

In a phone interview with The Post, Danner said that the ever-earlier sale of seasonal beers is often a product of the three-tier system of alcohol sales: Breweries sell their beer to distributors, who then sell to retailers and bars. Because of the logistics of shipping, warehouse space and storage, the schedule at larger breweries, such as Boulevard, is meticulously planned and not terribly nimble.

"Production is based on pre-sales," Danner says, and the number of beers going to retail (known as "shelf sets" or "cooler sets") is "at least six months out". Even if breweries wanted to release more summer beer at this time of year, Jones says, they could not get it to market fast enough. "They coordinate what they expect the market to demand," he says, and there is no upside to making extra beer just in case.

"You can store cabernet or Captain Morgan in a warehouse (if you produce too much.) But with beer, freshness is important." Of course, we might be seeing less pumpkin beer this fall anyway.

Last October, Bart Watson, the economist for the Brewers Association, a trade organisation for craft brewers, said: "It's pretty clear that the bloom is off the pumpkin," pointing out that seasonal craft sales in August and September 2016 were 8.5 per cent lower than in the previous year.

"A lot of weakness clearly stems from pumpkin beers, which weren't ordered by distributors at the same level as previous years and are clearly generating less interest than in recent years."

Jones, of the wholesalers association, is more bullish. "I think 2017 is a much different year," he said. "The beer market does follow the general economy, and I think we'll see a little more enthusiasm for pumpkin beer and seasonal beer."

Where the beers are sold can also make a difference: Between July 2016 and July 2017, sales of seasonal craft beers fell 5.1 per cent at grocery, convenience and other stores tracked by market research firm IRI. But sales of craft seasonals increased 4.9 per cent at on-premise locations, such as bars and restaurants, between March 2016 and March 2017, according to a report from Nielsen. IPAs, still the largest driver of craft sales, increased 1.6 per cent over the same period.

Boulevard's Danner thinks that people make too much about drinking a beer at the "wrong" time of year. "Refreshing beer doesn't have a seasonality," he says. "I'll drink a Pilsener in winter." But seasonal creep? "It's cyclical. I don't know if it's ever something that's going to go away."