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Monday, February 27, 2012

Anyone checked a calendar lately?

Tip of the hat to Uncle Jack for this, but mostly to my friend Chris Lohring (the man behind The Notch line of all session beers that's doing so well in Massachusetts), who wrote this sad story of how he's decided -- against his will, and his heart -- to pull Notch BSA from his seasonal line-up (Jack wrote a good post on it that brought it to my attention, and for that, I thank him; you should too).

Briefly, Notch BSA was a harvest beer, a literal harvest beer. Here's how Chris explained it:
I released my BSA Harvest in late September [of 2011]. You know, that time of September when Fall actually begins? Something about an equinox, I think. The BSA Harvest is a result of a program where Notch prepays a Western Massachusetts farmer for that year’s barley crop as in incentive, which in turn encourages local agriculture [hence the name: Brewer Supported Agriculture]. The barley is harvested in August, malted a few weeks later [at Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., which I mention in the Element Brewing post below], brewed in the beginning of September, and hits retail fresh on September 21st. A real harvest beer in the season we should drinking it.
Except, as Chris relates, his retailers couldn't do it. See, Fall beers come out in August, or even July. Bring a Fall harvest beer out in late September -- when you would think harvest actually comes -- and you won't find a place on the shelf -- because of the winter beers coming in shortly -- and people have already fallen into their buying pattern for the season. At least, that's the conventional wisdom among wholesalers and retailers, Chris tells us:
They claim a September release is too late for a Fall beer, as they are making room for the Winter beers that will be in any day. This is the hand retail has been dealt, and it is certainly not their fault. So, a real Fall beer, the BSA Harvest, born of the change of the seasons that yields a barley harvest, is deemed too damn late. So unfortunately, BSA Harvest will be absent later this year, as it was killed off by the rush to shift units...
Is Chris just crying? Wouldn't you think that in the pervading atmosphere where the favorite flavor of craft beer is NEW, a new beer on the shelf in September that promised real Harvest character/story would work? Wouldn't you think actually releasing an Oktoberfest in mid-September would work? After all, I keep hearing from brewers that their seasonals run out before the season's over! And here comes 'Tardy Brewing Company's True Oktoberfest' in September, with its label proclaiming "Never Released Till We Hear The Oompah!" and you'd think that would kill, right?

Probably not. What's driving the craft market today is, increasingly, what's always driven the beer market: volume. Blue Moon is over 3 million barrels (and apparently accelerating), and whether we (or the Brewers Association) call Blue Moon a craft beer or not is pretty much immaterial: that's how the people who are selling it and drinking it think of it, and that's how the people who sell it...sell it. Likewise, when Samuel Adams seasonals come out, and when the major regional brewers' seasonals come out, that's the bulge that moves the snake.

And...wholesalers, after a short flirtation hustling smaller crafts and working hard at building brands, see that they can make volume and better margins selling the big craft brands, and it's less work. So if Samuel Adams Summer seasonals come out in April, that's what's shaping wholesalers' views of how the market is supposed to work, which in turn shapes the retailers' reactions...once the brewers have been encouraged to get their seasonals out earlier. Because then the wholesalers don't have to worry about getting the Oktoberfest all sold before November 1st.

I may be overreacting here, but there's a possibility that this is another early sign of things going back to the way they were: less choice instead of more in the beer market. ("Another" sign, you ask? The consolidation of craft brewers is one: the Magic Hat/Pyramid/North American Breweries roll-up, Goose Island, Old Dominion, Widmer/Redhook/Kona.) If wholesalers start to focus on the big craft brands, that's how things are going to go.

What to do? It's up to us, and Chris sums it up nicely:
What to do as a consumer? It is really quite simple. Stop buying beer out of season, and stop encouraging the trend. You may start to see more beers that make sense in the season. Or during today’s snow storm, sit back and enjoy that Summer Beer that was released just last week.
Is that realistic? Is it likely? No, not at all. Just remember: none of this was realistic or likely 20 years ago. Sam Adams was all contract-brewed. Over half the American breweries now in business didn't exist. You could stand on the stairs and see Harpoon's entire operation. Ten taps of microbrews at a bar was amazing news (because we didn't even call it 'craft beer' yet). There were no mass beer-rating websites. Yuengling had not done any expansion and was just barely known outside of eastern Pennsylvania. Most people had no idea what a seasonal beer was!

But the people who love beer made it happen and I'm assuming we still want it done right. If we have to shame craft brewers into this, if we have to make fun of them, if we have to appeal to their sense of tradition and call them out when they ignore it -- that's how this is supposed to work! The brewers, the passionate ones, are supposed to be running this, not the marketers and sellers of the stuff, and it's supposed to be run for us, the people who love the beer, the people who know when the hell summer and fall begin. 

Jack had a pretty pithy statement as well (He did warn us he was going to get more curmudgeonly this year):
For those of you who just want the next over-hopped, high alcohol, unbalanced mutation of a real IPA, none of this matters, of course. You gave up on beer a long time ago.
Are you one of those people who think Oktoberfest in August is ridiculous (especially when they all run out by October 1st)? Do summer beers in the snow piss you off? If you think that pumpkin beers should wait till September, if you think Maibock is for May, if you think winter beers shouldn't come out before mid-November at the earliest...say something. Tell your brewers, tell your stores. And tell your friends.


Marc said...

I could not agree with the whole Octoberfest in August thing. I am still in the summer pilsner mode in August when it is 90+ degrees. No desire to drink an Octoberfest at the pool!

Unknown said...

Amen! Well, the use of local ingredients(thanks Valley malt) will increasingly influence future changes, I hope.