Seasonal and Limited-Edition Brews are on the Rise Across the Country — Learn How to Stay Afloat
The hot weather is here and no doubt your summer beers are flowing. From Samuel Adams Summer Ale to Sierra Nevada Summerfest, customers can’t get enough of the refreshing flavors of the season. In fact, the last thing you’re probably thinking about on an 80-degree day in July is an Oktoberfest or pumpkin ale showing up from your distributor, but really, these seasonals are just a couple of kegs away. And just when you acclimate to the flavors of fall, the holiday beers start rolling in, usually around late September, and while the snow’s still falling fast, the spring releases come pouring in. If it seems like seasonal beers are showing up earlier and earlier, you’re right — they are. Not only are they being released sooner by the brewers, but there are more of them, too. Tapping into the popularity of the trend, many brewers now offer multiple seasonals, somehow managing to stretch four seasons into as many as seven.
As exciting — and profitable — as it is to herald the arrival of the next season in beer and entice patrons to come to your place for a taste or perhaps upgrade to a seasonal brew on their regular visit, the enthusiasm can wear thin when you’re constantly bombarding them with new selections. While a mere blip on the beer radar just a few years ago, the onslaught of seasonals now presents a dilemma: Do you take them and run the risk of overstock or seasonal malaise? Will you run out? If you say no to a seasonal brew, will you miss out on a great new beer, one that your competitor may carry?
Finding the balance between maintaining a well-rounded seasonal list and avoiding product overkill can seem impossible at times, but it can be done. And if done well, these craft brews can be seasonal sales boosters all year round.
Seasonal beers are nothing new. For years, breweries have been delighting beer aficionados with popular seasonal offerings. So where’s this population explosion coming from?
Sam McNulty, owner of McNulty’s Bier Markt in Cleveland, says the first wave in craft beer popularity happened about 15 years ago and resurfaced recently. “There was rapid expansion and then a sort of culling of the herd, as many small craft businesses failed or merged with larger brands and things cooled off,” he explains. “Over the last few years, though, there’s been renewed growth in the category, and this has fueled the rise in seasonal and limited releases.” It’s also vaulted seasonals out of the realm of the beer geek and into the mainstream.
A seasonal beer offers a small or new brewer the opportunity to create a niche and generate product buzz. But with an influx of offerings in a tight market, things get competitive quickly. “In some respects, the release dates for seasonals are driven by competition — you don’t want to be the last seasonal to hit the shelves or the tap lines because there won’t be any shelf space or taps left,” explains Thomas Wilson, director of sales and marketing for Portland, Maine-based Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Company, which brews its own beers for sale at its three brewpub locations and in retail stores, restaurants and bars in the Northeast. “It does seem to get earlier and earlier every year, but most of our beers have had the same release dates for several years.”
The early-on-the-scene trend doesn’t work for everyone, including David Wollner, owner and brewer of Willimantic Brewing Company in Willimantic, Conn., which was named Beer Bar of the Year in the 2010 Nightclub & Bar Awards. “I find it ludicrous how early the seasonals come,” he says. “It seems foolish to me to shorten the cycles; the beers go out of date because [bar owners are] sitting on them. I see where the distributors are having issues.”
Renowned for his beer selection — 14 Willimantic Brewing Company beers are available throughout the year as well as nearly 30 others — Wollner isn’t averse to refusing a beer. “I don’t want to have what everyone else around me carries. I may turn something down that’s popular but that I don’t love. However, if I can get a good one-off, I’ll bring it in. I try to carry beers people may not be able to get elsewhere. It’s more about what I feel my selection should look like.”
Get With the Program!
Seasonal beers are, by definition, short-lived and relatively limited. If you’re like most bars, you probably get your first summer brews in early April. But if it’s a hot seller, will there be any left by July? Nothing’s worse than 86ing a popular beer well before the season’s over. Conversely, what if you take on too much and are stuck with a glut of something you can’t move, like a Christmas beer in March? The best solution is to work with a brewer with a strong seasonal program — essentially a business plan. “It is very common for a bar or restaurant to ask the brewing company to do promotions, set the release and return dates, how much of a specific seasonal beer is available for them to get, etc. We do it all the time. It’s how we support the sales of our seasonal beers,” says Gritty’s Wilson. “It only makes sense for a bar owner to want to know when the seasonal will be available to them, how long they can get it, if they will have enough of it to last through the season and if the brewery offers special promotions to help inform the bar’s customers about the beer; that will in turn help sell the seasonal beer. It makes good business sense.” Gritty’s four seasonals are Vacationland Summer Ale, Halloween Ale, Christmas Ale and Scottish Ale.
For Kip Snider, director of beverage for the Irvine, Calif.-based Yard House chain with nearly 30 locations, a well-run beer program that includes crafts and seasonals is paramount. “Seasonals are the hot thing — most breweries can have anywhere from two to seven a year. It’s important to look at what’s in a brewer’s program. Have they been consistent with it through the years? Samuel Adams does a phenomenal job with its seasonal program, both executing it and forecasting. When we change a tap handle, they track it from last year to this.” According to Snider, the Craft Brewers Alliance, a national sales and marketing company consisting of Redhook Ale Brewery, Goose Island Beer Co., Kona Brewing Co. and Widmer Brothers Brewing Co., has a very good program as well.
Snider notes that many programs ask the operator to buy in with allocation and pre-commitment. Allocation has pros and cons, Bier Markt’s McNulty says. “Typically, there is a commitment/allotment [agreement] made between the brewer/distributor and our account. However, I don’t like committing to something I haven’t had or someone can’t vouch for. If it’s no good, you’re up a creek.”
Allotment is a double-edged sword when it comes to profit building, so it’s important to find out what works best for your establishment. “A downside to an allotment is that it discourages a store’s ability to corner the market on a beer they know will help them get more business through the ‘hype/anticipation’ network,” McNulty points out. “On the other hand, allotment works to ensure that enough product gets to everyone.”
Keep the Buzz Going
Managing the beer list is a balancing act. You want to set yourself apart with a diverse list but not take on so much that the product doesn’t move. Of course, having these special brews creates interest in your bar, and it’s always good to have a little buzz. For Wollner at Willimantic, Oktoberfest is one of his most popular seasons. “We do a huge beer tasting in the autumn, and I’ll carry a dozen or so Oktoberfests for it,” he says, explaining that the brews come out in August so he has to hold on to them. “I try to have our own release come out when it does in Germany, but we always run through it.”
Bier Markt holds a “Christmas in June” party featuring several draft Christmas ales that have been cellared since the holidays. “The first year we hosted the event, we went through eight kegs on the first night — and it was a Tuesday,” McNulty boasts.
Additionally, special limited-edition releases, or “one-offs,” are tremendously popular and yet they often can be difficult to market. “Limited releases don’t get the same run because they aren’t annual, and there usually isn’t much information about them before they’re ready for sale,” McNulty says. ”But they do benefit from the ‘missing the boat’ phenomenon that distributors pressure retailers with. Past credibility of the brewery plays a major role in deciding to get involved.” Some operators can trade on their own brewing credibility; both Willimantic and Gritty’s feature their own special releases in their pubs, which are big draws.
As long as the seasons keep changing, there will be seasonal beers, and they’ll continue to spark customer interest. In fact, brewers and distributors are always going to be tempting you and your guests with these new offerings. Clear communication between you and your supplier is one of the fundamental keys to seasonal success. Be upfront about your needs. Tell them not only what you want, but also what you don’t want. They should be receptive and proactive. And if something doesn’t suit your needs, don’t be afraid to say no — an untouched tap obviously isn’t pleasing guests’ tastes, and, worse, it isn’t making you any money. NCB