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Monday, February 27, 2012

A Seasonally Adjusted Response

I was just talking to Dan Weirback about the $1.1 million expansion that starts today at Weyerbacher Brewing...more on that very shortly...and after he hung up, he called me back about three minutes later: his brewer, Chris Wilson, had seen the seasonals post below, and wanted Dan to make a response. Not a problem, I'm all for it.

Here's what Dan had to say, roughly (because I couldn't keep up -- he was a little excited -- but this is not a quote, it's a paraphrase, and if it's not right, I hope Dan will give me another call!).
It's a matter of demand and capacity. Weyerbacher's Imperial Pumpkin Ale, for example: to meet wholesaler pre-orders, they have to start brewing it in May and continue through to September to have enough for it to be available through the whole season. They don't have room to store it until September, so they start shipping it out in late June...and well, the wholesalers don't have unlimited room either [and I assume no one really wants to have fresh beer just sitting around; I don't] so they start releasing it. 

The same thing happens with Autumnfest. Most wholesalers in far off states only want to deal with one shipment of a seasonal. So they can ship it in late July, or they can ship it in mid-September. But the wholesalers tell them: if they get Autumnfest in mid-September, the shelves are already full of other Oktoberfest beers, and theirs won't sell.

"It’s not necessarily the way we want to do it, but if people want these seasonal beers, that’s how we have to do it." [and that is a quote.] 
I remember this is why Harpoon used to do contract brewing of their seasonals at Matt's in Utica; it was a huge bulge in their brewing schedule, and that let them get through that. Popular seasonals can be a real production issue. 

So that leaves the brewer with some unappealing choices. They can make less of a beer that their fans really want -- and lose those sales, and really piss off the people who don't get as much as they want -- or they can make the beers as best they can, and put up with the minor embarrassment of selling pumpkin beers in July (and moderately pissing off beer traditionalists). 

Responses? One that comes to mind is that beers like Hopslam and Nugget Nectar seem to do okay on limited releases (and large prices). Another is that maybe bitching about seasonals being two months early is kind of like being terribly upset about the kind of glass you drink out of...

But another one comes from thinking about what I said about Harpoon, and something else Dan said in our first conversation. He said, "I think we'll see at least two more years of this kind of growth [in the craft beer category]. But brewers can’t do much more with what they have now [in terms of brewing capacity]. They’ll have to expand, and that takes time, and money." And Harpoon? Well, they don't have to get their seasonals done at Matt's anymore. They're big enough that they take those seasonal bulges in stride now. With size comes smoothing. Weyerbacher's headed that way, but they've got a bit to go...

Meanwhile, they could do what Victory does. At Victory, seasonals come when the brewing schedule allows them. They let the yeast and the drinkers tell them what's coming out when. Of course, it helps that they do Festbier year-round...and they don't do a pumpkin beer -- I strongly doubt that they ever will.

I hear the bell for round two...


Bill said...

While I suppose that it's amusing that seasonals are early, does it really matter? I think Mr. Weirback's response more than answered the post by Notch Brewing. It's not just (or even primarily) that the sellers are jerking around the brewers, it's that it's difficult to make enough to last three months.

Many "seasonals" have nothing to do with a season other than the name -- and often, not even that. And just because something comes out at the same time each year doesn't make it a seasonal in the minds of consumers. Hopslam doesn't scream winter to me, for instance.

The call for consumers to not by seasonals early -- wouldn't that just be hurting the brewers? Small Brewer X's O-fest reaches the store in late August, and no one buys it -- how does that help things? Seems to me the more rational response by the distributor would be to not pick that one up again next year.

In the larger picture, what happens with beer seasonals echoes what happens with most retail -- bathing suits are entering stores now, Easter stuff has been on sale for over a month. No one is treating beer differently. And drinkers can still drink seasonally even if certain seasonals disappear before the end of the season. It's nowhere near as all-or-nothing as the Notch brewer painted it.

dave said...

Festbier is year round at the company restaurant. I got all excited about being able to get it whenever I wanted (I'm no where near the company restaurant).

The storage situation is an interesting point.

Chris, Notch Brewing said...

We can argue the merits of seasonal beer timing, and we'll all back what personally benefits our situation - filling the pipeline over time, shipping beer early to boost Q4 numbers, or asking for a slot in the fall for a true harvest beer. All of these benefit each brewer for individual reasons.

But, we can all agree the current situation is broken, because we all laugh at the absurdity of the timing (consumers and brewers). We should stop using Summer, Fall, Spring and Winter and simply line up limited releases as we wish. Many have already moved in this direction, including Notch (except for BSA Harvest, and the market cleaned that up for me).

Also, let's not compare durable goods (including marshmallow peeps) with perishables like beer. The durable goods are still around when the intended season finally shows up. If we do away with the seasonal names, we may enjoy beers in the time frame the brewer intended.

Phillybeerfreak said...

Who really cares when the pumpkin beers come out. If it was up to me I would take them year round. Also the last time I checked a pumpkin is an actual fruit/veg. SHould we only brew ciders during apple harvest season?

Wyerbacher and Southern Tier you can brew your pumpkin beer anytime.

Anonymous said...

I dislike seasonal beers for several reasons: I like to drink beers that are readily available, and I don't like the hysteria and ridiculous pricing that accompanies limited-release beers. I work for a craft beer retailer, and I really hate having people call for weeks to find out when Beer X will be available, and then have them show up a day too late because it sold out in one day. My remedy to the seasonal beer disaster is drinking the readily available beers from the plethora of fine craft brewers we carry and not getting caught up in the hype of seasonal and limited-release beers. I refuse to buy a 20-dollar six-pack of something we have to limit customers to one six-pack of.

Lew Bryson said...

There's a difference between seasonals and limited-release. Oktoberfest beers, for instance, are generally widely available, at least through late September... Limited release beers are deliberately limited, whereas seasonals only get tight in supply when a brewer is caught off-guard by unexpected demand.

There can be limited-release seasonals, though, I guess. But there is a difference.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the comment by Weyerbacher. If it takes you 6 months (May - Sept) to brew enough supply for your Imperial Pumpkin....just shift that 6 months around? What? It means your other seasonals will be effected? Exactly.

Notch is correct. I couldn't believe when I saw Alpine Spring on the shelf in early Feb. It's Feb! I want to drink a solid bock, and all I can find on the shelves are spring ales.