Seasonal Creep: What is it and why does it happen in the craft beer industry?

what is seasonal creep? - pumpkins image via flickr creative commons

Image via rbowen on Flickr (Creative Commons Licence)

The late summer haze. Everyone in the food and drink industry is talking about fall menus, Oktoberfest beer, and pumpkin-flavored /-spiced /-infused everything. Which, in turn, means that everyone is talking about why everyone is talking about such things in 90 degree heat. Welcome to Seasonal Creep.

What is Seasonal Creep?

Seasonal Creep classically means ‘early indicators of the changing of seasons.’ For example, that time you saw cherry blossoms in the balmy February of 2013, or that time you got were drinking on a patio on St. Patrick’s Day. Well, spotting pumpkin beer on menus and shelves in August is another variant of that.

Why does it happen?

The reason that seasonal creep occurs in the craft beer industry is partly a supply and demand issue. Lots of people simply love pumpkin beers. For the smaller brewers especially, a hit pumpkin beer can make a big difference to the bottom line, and in order to produce the amount of beer necessary to sate demand, breweries have to start brewing early. Add to that the complicated schedules of getting Oktoberfest and Winter Ales produced in time for their demanding fans, and most craft breweries are adding their pumpkins to the mix in June and July.

It is also something of a catch 22-style loop; people buy pumpkin beer as soon as it hits the shelf, creating more demand, which breweries try and meet by beginning brewing and distributing earlier next year. This research by Jeff Wharton shows that web searches for “pumpkin beer” have been peaking earlier as each year goes by.

Anti-Seasonal Creep?

Seasonal Creep | Southern Tier Pumking craft beerSome brave folks try to buck this trend, however the danger of waiting until fall to release ‘fall-style’ beers is that a brewer can miss peak demand because so many people have already stocked up at home, or had their fill in the prior months and are ready to shift to the next season. If a brewery were to release a pumpkin beer around the Halloween-Thanksgiving window (you know, pumpkin season) they could still have product on their hands come January, and seasonal beers that linger too long often need to be sold at deep discounts in order to clear them. It’s a delicate balancing act.

When will the craziness stop?

Will we be drinking Christmas beers in July? Can you call it an Oktoberfest beer if you drink it in March?

The logistics of keeping a craft brewery producing in-demand (and profitable) beer year-round are complicated, and so leads to the creep that we are currently experiencing. Will it accelerate out of control? No. At some point, you will not be able to buy ripe ingredients in the opposing season, and the quality of a beer could suffer. Other seasonal brews will have their peak demand times immediately before and after, and the maximum brewing window will settle down and become more regular.

While some people view the drinking of autumn-spiced beers on a hot and humid summer day as blasphemous, some are acknowledging the fact that seasonal creep in the craft beer industry is a side-effect of having so many great small breweries putting out quality product. Craft brewers in turn are being open about their schedules and trust that fans will understand and remain loyal. Some are even adding a playfully honest spin to their announcements, such as NoDa Brewing Company in their video below.

So, seasonal creep is here once again, and there’s not much we can do but sit back and enjoy the choices available to us. If you are reading this in October and sipping on a pumpkin beer, good for you. And Merry Christmas!