It’s in light-hearted moments with a beautiful, brimming pint in front of me that my thoughts turn to days when things were not nearly so cheerful for flavorful beer lovers. In those dark days, which largely passed before my legal drinking age, things were grim. With the tales of our beer elders ringing in my head, I picture a Orwellian world where brewers painted with only a single, bleak color, one in which a fizzy yellow monotony reigned until craft brewers, as in Apple’s classic 1984 parody ad, threw their mash rakes through the glass ceiling of low expectations.
In distinguishing themselves from mainstream, macro beers, early microbrewers tried all sorts of ideas. Some added extra hops to their beers, while others sought refuge in passive, ubiquitous ambers. According to beer lore at this point, one of the earliest craft brewers, Fritz Maytag, initiated the program of releasing specialty beers into the market at different times during the year. Starting with his super hoppy Anchor Liberty Ale in 1975, the grandfather of all American IPA’s to follow, and continuing with his paradigm shattering Our Special Ale, Maytag and the Anchor Brewing staff appreciated that consumers would be interested in experiencing a departure from their regularly scheduled beers. Like a restaurant changing its menu to reflect new seasonally appropriate fare, early craft brewers offered their own products designed to suit the seasons. With deep roots in European brewing history, the seasonal brewing practice was often the result of necessity, such as when brewers produced heartier beers to sustain themselves when brewing wasn’t possible or in honor of religious and political occasions.
As with the changing of leaves for Vermonters and the first snow fall for Minnesotans, beer enthusiasts often greet today’s seasonal beers as just another event in a calendar year. And while some of these beers spark quick flurries of excitement upon initial release, beer snobs spend more time lamenting perceived recipe changes from year to year than celebrating their good fortune in having such a rotating selection of diverse beers. Despite this attitude, seasonal beers remain one of the most potent tools in the craft brewer’s marketing arsenal. While other alcohol producers are stuck with constant, year-round products, ingenious craft brewers get to inject more enthusiasm into their customer bases every couple months. Beyond the beer geeks, the general public’s excitement over the release of Summer and Pumpkin beers isn’t something craft brewers should take for granted, especially as such sales now constitute the fastest growing segment of the craft beer marketplace.
Accordingly, brewers should take care not to slay the golden egg giving goose. As with the presidential campaigning cycle, the seasonal beer release calendar starts earlier and earlier every year. Where cooling Octoberfest beers once only appeared in early to mid September, we now start hearing about them amidst August’s summer heat and Summer beers seemingly appear out of nowhere in the rainy, dreary days of early April. As distributors and retailers clamor to get earlier access to these specialty releases, some of the magic of their seasonality starts to fade, like the appeal of a ski vacation in July. Just as brewers take care in the naming of their seasonal beers—try selling a Christmas Ale come New Year’s Day—they should also take care in respecting the role of the seasonal beer. And while many beer enthusiasts would love to get their hands on a malty Octoberfest in May, such ubiquity takes away from the special nature of these releases.
Craft brewers should always remember the role seasonal beers have played in expanding their customer bases and their bottom lines. For craft brewers tempted to focus their attention on high priced, limited edition beers that appeal to a tiny fraction of beer lovers, it’s telling that the original craft brewer, Anchor Brewing, has not embraced the high alcohol and hop bomb craze. These days, craft brewers might do well to inquire, WWFD: what would Fritz do?