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Not the Time of the Season

Not the Time of the Season

Sneakers toe the line. A roar is caught in the crowd’s throat and your head booms hot with the pulse of your heart ready to run. It’s August. It’s time to buy pumpkin beer. You have to go ahead and clobber the rest of the city, and this is single-handedly the dumbest race you’ve ever entered. You don’t even want to run it because you’re tired, because it’s summer and still hot enough to lie around wailing like a croony jazz record about the lackluster AC unit, and all you want to do is lie there drinking a nice wheat so light in your belly you can’t tell it’s there. But you get up, peel yourself off the vintage floral-patterned couch and pretend to muster some verve for the still faraway Oktoberfest— the actual one—because if you wait until then to drink its seasonal libations, this pumpkin beer you are such a fan of will be gone. There won’t be enough on the shelf to last until then. Come mid- fall, only winter beers will be in sight and it will start again, you will have to douse fall dreams early and sink into imperial stouts because, before you even get all the sweaters out, saisons will be back. And scotch ales too, and by the time you’ve ordered a couple of those you should really start thinking about pumpkin beer again.

This has been a dramatization. It reflects the opinions of some, but not all, beer drinkers, and may or may not be an accurate por- trayal of reality. It’s true that seasonal beers are released earli- er and earlier, but the entire population may not find the race to buy them so grueling. They might be okay with drinking spring beer in February. They might ask what the big freaking deal is. They might even crave it because their palates have been ritualized.

This is called brainwashing. Mouthwashing? Kidding, kidding! Still, it’s important to consider where our semi-annual cravings come from. Seasonal beers are no longer a product of circum- stance, as they were when they were first brewed. Before the Frigidaire, high-alcohol beers were made in the fall and winter after the barley harvest, and quick-fermenting beers were made from leftover ingredients in the summer and then slurped up rapidly. Seasonals were established by way of the weather and what was available.

And it seems like Nature knew what she was doing, because even now that we can make a double chocolate stout in July, it’s really not the beer we inherently reach for after hiking twelve blocks in the Phil- adelphia humidity. Just the same, we don’t crave a saison in December, because it doesn’t quite match the blanket-wrapped toasty feeling of sitting next to a fireplace. Our tastes are somewhat naturally aligned with the seasons. Or they were, until the market saw a major change over the last several years in that “seasonal” beers come out pretty much a season ahead of time. The question on the table is, why? And are these out-of-seasonals really a bad thing, or just a thing?

“New Jersey likes to release the pump- kin in mid-August, and in Pennsylvania it’s late August,” says head brewer Chris Rakow of River Horse’s annual Hipp-O- Lantern. While he explains that the sched- ule is largely driven by distributors and wholesalers who have their own needs and agendas, they aren’t the only ones in the equation. “It’s a three-tier relationship and it’s not clear-cut—but the customers are the end user, and it’s what they want.” So distributors wouldn’t push brewers into coming out with pumpkin beers in August if we didn’t want them in August.

“People want what’s new first, so they have brag- ging rights. They drive this buzz around it so other people run out and get it,” Rakow says. We want it because other people want it, or because they’ve already had it and are doting and yapping about it all over the internet. We want the new beer because we’re excited to try it, because it will prob- ably be very good, but there’s a little bit of me-first going on. A little bit of the gim- mie-gimmies.

However. Pumpkins don’t grow in July. River Horse uses last season’s crop to get the pumpkin beer in on time, and Spring House in Lancaster changed their recipe for the Braaaiins! Pumpkin ale so they could release it alongside other brewer- ies. Founder Matt Keasey says, “Originally I was releasing it in mid-September to Oc- tober, when I could actually get pumpkins out of the fields. But because the wholesal- ers over the last two years have wanted it in July and August, I’ve had to change the recipe and use canned pumpkins. It’s more of a spice-forward beer, so you do still get the pumpkin taste and it doesn’t affect it that much.”

Once the ingredients become logically available as the leaves turn, he adapts the recipe again in mid-September, switching from the can back to the field pumpkin. Spring House is a super creative brewery that plays with flavors from pea- nut butter and jelly (Lil’ Gruesome stout) to mint chocolate chip (Satan’s Bake Sale stout) for their dark beers, while using a lot of fresh fruit for their spring and summer beers. For the Astounding She Monster Mango IPA, they’re able to source man- goes from farms that produce year-round, which will allow them to sell it all year. But the Robot Surf Factory Pineapple Pale Ale remains dependent on seasonal pine- apple, and will continue to be released in mid-April; not February. Keasey notes on the pressure, “It’s also driven through oth- er breweries—Sam Adams, Dogfish Head and others drive up the release dates.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Sam Ad- ams brewer Bob Cannon, when we spoke back in February. “It was 16 degrees when I turned on my car this morning. But in other parts of the country, like California and the Southwest, they’re ready for sum-mer beer.”

He makes a very good point. Somewhere in this country, it was warm enough in February to warrant the Sam Adams Alpine Spring on tap. As for here in Philadelphia, I was astounded and con- fused to find it in a bar on South Street around Valentine’s Day.But I ordered one, because for one second it allowed me to pretend that spring was closer than the moon and the misery of winter would soon stop. Naturally, that wasn’t true. But there’s something to be said for that moment of fluttering hope Sam Adams gave me. And come the end of summer, I’ll probably be dreaming of soup and hot apple cider and hay bales for some reason, and they’ll help along my fantasy with their Oktoberfest. While they don’t serve the philosophy of trying to live in the present moment—or more appro- priately, the present season—Sam Adams is really good at indulging our chang- ing longings. With a spring beer released in February, a summer beer released in March and a fall beer released in August, they seem to be one of the leading forces behind the conflicting seasonal schedule. But even they are a part of the many-tiered relationship in which the people who sell their beer have a strong sway. “I am but a simple brewer,” Cannon says. “I couldn’t speak for the wholesalers.”

The race to get seasonal beers out isn’t just about distributors and customers wanting them as early as possible. “It has to do with the limited amount of shelf space and taps available, which more brewers than ever before are vying for. Shelf space is very finite, and the market has only so much capacity to handle it,” explains Philadelphia Brewing Co. founder Bill Barton. Most bars will keep just one pumpkin beer on tap. If a brewery isn’t first, second, or even third in line to release their pumpkin, they could lose that tap. And if a bar isn’t the first to tap it, people will go to the bar where it’s available (re: bragging rights).

Now, it’s not that big of a deal if the beer comes out later and lands on draft some-
where at the end of September. I can’t think of anyone who would protest the “lateness” and refuse to patronize that bar or drink that beer. But there’s a common theory amongst brewers, wholesalers and retail- ers that the first seasonal beer you drink is the one you’ll stick with throughout the rest of the season—we’re creatures of habit. The first one to land in your mouth plants a little flag there. The season ends though, at which time we look for our new go-to seasonal. This might be a vast assumption about the beer-drinking population, but most people aren’t interested in Christmas beer in the new year. They’re probably over the holiday ales the way they’re over Christmas roast and stuffing and small talk with great Aunt what’s-her-face. “It’s customer preference. You eat different foods at different times of the year, and beer is food,” Barton says. In the end, if the Christmas beer didn’t come out early enough to create an adequate selling period, the retailer gets stuck with the leftovers in January. There’s a common saying: “I bought it, someone else has to buy it,” Barton explains. “They don’t want to get stuck with the beer.” And so the beer is released earlier and earlier so no one gets left with it when the next seasonal comes out. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Laughing, Spring House founder Matt Kea- sey has hope: “If they keep releasing earlier and earlier, we’ll come back around and be back on the regular schedule,” he says.

While the universality of the seasonal schedule is overwhelming for pretty much everyone, there are small acts of resistance. An Ipswich session brewery, Notch makes their Valley Malt BSA—an American Farmhouse released for the fall and winter—with local grain from farm- ers in Western Massachusetts. Founder and brewer Chris Lohring says, “The BSA (Brewers Supporting Agriculture) is a riff on CSA, in that we prepay farmers for a portion of the grain at the start of the sea- son. Then it all depends on the weather. That’s the beauty of the seasonal—it’s not dictated by a product plan, it’s based on the farmer’s decision of the best time to harvest.” Since malting can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, he says, “I can’t tell my retailers when it’s going to be ready. It’s truly a harvest beer.” Two years ago the Valley Malt BSA was released in the third week of September, and last year it was almost October until it came out. Seeing a brewery that goes local for their seasonal brew, relying on the weather, also reminds us that beer is an agricultur- al product. “I think it educates folks about the fact that beer is not a commodity. We can’t have pumpkin beer year-round be- cause of the harvest. It’s especially true for grain—you have to wait and cooperate,” Lohring says. Of course, brewers can’t be expected to source locally year-round for all of their beers, or they’d never actually brew anything. “I don’t think using local grain is going to do anything to affect the seasonality of beer releases. We brew beer year-round, so we do have to continue to get grain even when it’s not growing here.”

But as for the Valley Malt BSA, we’ll get it when it’s good and ready.

Spring House has also started a new seasonal project that will land when it’s good and ready. Rustic Farmhouse is a series of saisons for which they’ve worked with local farms to source herbs and spices, making the whole series dependent on ingredient seasonality. “My sched- ule for that beer doesn’t revolve around any wholesaler. I’ll have it available to them, and they’ll get it when they’ll get it,” Keasey says. Actually, “I’m not even wor- ried if they take the beer. It’s more for our taproom. It’s a beer that I just want to have fun with,” he says.

Seasonal beers are easy to have fun with because of their small-batch nature. When brewers can make smaller amounts—especially if the beer is for their own taprooms, if they have them—they don’t run the financial risk of not selling enough, thus removing the pressure to get it on the shelf first. The stakes are lowered and they can test out recipes that may or may not fly. The beauty of the seasonal is really that it provides an opportuni- ty to play, and to make use of what’s growing around us. While that may not be possible for many larger breweries, and while sourcing locally may not change the broader time- frame of when most seasonals are released, it’s still a nice consolation to know that some brewers are out there doing it. They’re playing.

It’s not a bad thing if you want to drink a pumpkin beer in August, or a saison in January.You’re not a weirdo, you just like what you like. Just know why you want it; know why you run the race. And if you don’t like the schedule, if it irks you that everyone is tapping spring beers in February, go ahead and protest. Get something else. Listen to your body, kids. What we buy and when we buy it will ultimately shape what is available.

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