By Fred Crudder, Foodable Industry Expert
As summer turns gradually into fall, let’s take a minute to contemplate what’s taking place — or more importantly, what’s not — on beer shelves these days. Something unusual seems to be afoot, and I’m pretty sure that you’ve noticed it too.
Fall… It’s Beer Season!
Most of us look forward to fall for a number of reasons: Milder temperatures, the kids going back to school, football, fall foliage, a return to rich, flavorful food and drink. So as September begins to unfold, fall beers should start popping up on beer menus far and wide, right? But that’s not happening. Why? Because they are already there. On bar menus and store shelves, the fall beers are not only already here, they have been for a while.
Seasonal Skew Is Nothing New
We have all noticed it. The week after Thanksgiving used to signal the beginning of the winter holidays. Now it’s Halloween. Speaking of Halloween, I just saw a “ghoulish” themed snack assortment in the grocery store yesterday. There was no mistaking the Halloween motifs on the packaging. Scary bags of corn chips, just right for those back-to-school lunch boxes. The problem is, the date was August 29th.
It is clear that sixty days is the standard run-up to major holidays now. That is not exactly “new,” although the practice did seem to accelerate over the last few years. How do we, as a nation, feel about this?
Does It Really Matter?
That is a two-part question. First, does it matter how we feel about it? Probably not. The marketing machine knows only one thing: money. Until the seasonal skew stops generating increased revenues, it is here to stay. The marketing machine doesn’t care if you like it or not; it only cares if you stop spending money.
Secondly, does it really matter that fall beers come out in the summer? That winter beers come out in the fall? Spring beers come out in the winter, and summer beers come out on the heels of the spring beers? The answer is yes. Hell yes, it matters.
Everything Happens for a Reason
More accurately, every beer happens for a reason. Whether it’s the ingredients, the water chemistry, historic celebrations, or advancements in technology, every traditional beer style has a solid reason why it is the way it is. Food is the same way, and beer is food. People eat foods seasonally for a lot of reasons. Whether due to tradition, taste, abundance, or method of preparation, we eat seasonally. Rich warming stews in the winter just make sense. Grilled meats and vegetables in the summer just make sense. You get the picture.
With beer, more refreshing beers justifiably take center stage when it’s hot out. Richer flavors appear as the weather gets cooler. We don’t ask why, because it just makes sense. In the winter, deeper, more complex beers, stronger beers are just right for the relaxed contemplation that comes with the end of the year. It all just makes sense.
So why are those same sensibilities being ignored or bypassed when it comes to beer? One reason is because beer drinkers are just so damn happy. Picture a beer drinker on a warm summer day, enjoying a crisp pilsner or refreshing summer wheat beer. “Hey guy... you ready for an Oktoberfest?” His response: “Sure thing, friend. Why the hell not?” They don’t care if the beer is seasonally inappropriate. They’re just glad to have another beer in front of them.
This creates a situation where that insatiable marketing machine goes to work again. If the beer drinkers will buy them out of season, then a brewery might have an advantage over the competition by getting their seasonal out first. Why wait until the field is crowded with fall seasonals? Get yours out when its mere presence makes it unique. Capture attention not just for that seasonal beer, but for your entire brand. Unfortunately it works, and every year it keeps happening earlier and earlier.
Seasonal skew is not a victimless crime. The victims are not just the beers themselves, but also the beer drinkers. Sure, that happy-go-lucky beer drinker will enjoy an Oktoberfest in August. But he or she is being robbed of the transcendental experience where the first malty sip of the robust lager comes at the perfect time, each year, and with great anticipation. The overwhelming feeling that the planets have aligned, and that everything is right with the world, as encompassed in the right glass of beer at the right time, is being stolen. The beer, too, is being robbed of its ability to truly shine. All styles of beer were designed with a purpose, and we are moving them away from where they are truly meant to be.
This has created its own problem too. Why do people tire of seasonal beers so quickly? Maybe because they are being served to them at the wrong time. Think about it. If the seasonal beers got back in sync with the actual seasons they represent, wouldn’t people naturally enjoy them more? The impact of that “right beer at the right time” is greatly diminished by seasonal skew, and people are losing touch with why these beers are designed the way they are in the first place. Rich, malty beers are not good for hot weather, and they were never intended to be served in the summertime. The same is true with every type of seasonal beer. End of story.
Who’s in Charge Here?
If we all agree that we should realign seasonal beers with the seasons, the questions is, can we? I think we can. The retailers have the power. They are the gateway to the consumers. The beer drinkers won’t stop drinking early arrivals; that has been established. They are an excitable bunch, and nothing gets them more excited than something new to drink. They will only stop drinking seasonally inappropriate beers when they can’t get them. If the retailers stop stocking them, the people will stop buying them. It’s as easy as that.
But isn’t the problem rooted in the breweries? I mean, they brew and ship the beers early, so… it’s all their fault, right? Kind of. Here’s how it works: breweries solicit orders from wholesalers way out in advance to get an idea of how much beer to brew. Based on previous years’ sales and these advanced orders, they get an educated projection on how much to brew. Once the beer is ready, it ships out to the wholesalers.
A few weeks before the product arrives, a good wholesaler has the sales force out in the market, prepping the retailers for the incoming seasonals. That way, once the beer hits the warehouse, it can start getting sold immediately, and money can come rolling in. Here is where the power of the retailer is most effective. If the stores, bars, and restaurants start saying no to seasonally inappropriate early arrivals, and that beer sits in the warehouse not generating any money, these folks are not going to be happy. They now have inventory that the retailers—the gateway to the consumers—don’t want. Not yet, at least.
Care to guess how many times a wholesaler wants to get burned like that? Zero. Once is one time too many. They are quick learners. The next time a brewery is asking them to take delivery of a seasonal beer and to get it into the market extra early, they will decline to take it. Sorry brewer, but our market does not want it yet. Breweries are quick learners too. Packaged beer with nowhere to go is just as bad for them as it is for wholesalers. Don’t feel bad, Mr. and Mrs. Retailer. Nobody is being punished. You’ll take the fall beers. You’ll just wait until fall to do it.
Make It Happen!
So in order to get the seasonal beers properly aligned, it’s easy. The people with the power—the retailers—have to put their collective foot down. People are going to drink the same amount of beer no matter what. The retailers have nothing to lose. Beer drinkers are not going to turn around and walk out the door when they can’t find a summer beer in March. They will simply drink something else, and wait until the summer beers arrive, preferably after Memorial Day.
With nothing to lose, and the dignity of the American beer world to gain, let me ask the retailers out there: Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? Don’t wait too long to decide. A sales rep is headed your way to discuss some great winter beers, which should be showing up any day now.