Pumpkin Beers Emerge as Fall Approaches

There’s still more than a month left in summer but already, pumpkin beer patches are growing on store shelves.

The rollout started early this year: New York’s Southern Tier Brewing bottled its popular Pumking offering on May 28 and the first cases of it appeared at a Pennsylvania retail store on June 30.

One month later, pumpkin varieties from Shipyard Brewing, Elysian Brewing and Traveler Beer, among others, began shipping to distributors across the country.

It’s a phenomenon that has become known in the industry as “seasonal creep,” a term used to describe the early release of products intended to be drunk during specific months of the year.

“It’s a game,” said Suzanne Schalow, the co-founder of Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, Mass. “It’s about leading a market and it is about getting into the market first with a product.”

But it’s a game Schalow isn’t willing to participate in. In fact, last year Schalow took a chance and a stance against seasonal creep, refusing to stock any fall or pumpkin SKUs until September 1.

“Some of us do not want to drink pumpkin beer in the summer,” she said.

The decision garnered Craft Beer Cellar some local media attention but it came at a cost. The company purchased $30,000 worth of beer and left it sitting in the basement for the entire month of August.

“We wrapped up a lot of money that didn’t go anywhere for 30 days,” said Schalow.

Despite the risky decision not to follow other craft-savvy retailers with early seasonal sales, Craft Beer Cellar said it sold about 800 cases of pumpkin beer in 2013, an increase of 23 percent.

Now the company, which has expanded to 11 additional franchise locations, has altered its approach to pumpkin purchases. It’s working more closely with brewers and distributors to manage orders and won’t be storing pre-purchased product for an entire month. Still, no Craft Beer Cellar location will be selling a single pumpkin beer until Sept. 1, Schalow said.

“With more locations, we have a little buying power now,” she said. “We are kindly asking breweries to consider seasonal creep. Stop making pumpkin beers in the spring so it is available in the summer. Make it a little bit later.”

Craft Beer Cellar will likely sell about 1,000 cases of pumpkin beer at its Belmont location alone, but that still won’t be enough to slow down sales of India Pale Ales, Schalow said.

“Hoppy beers are by far our no. 1 seller,” she said. “IPA is our no. 1 selling style every day, every week and every month. It always has been.”

Indeed, sales of IPA are currently more than 40 percent higher than seasonal SKUs, according to data supplied by the Brewers Association. But October and November are especially important months for seasonal sales.

“Come October, pumpkin beer is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the seasonal world,” Brewers Association economist Bart Watson wrote on the organization’s blog.

In the post, Watson cross-references IRI data and Google searches for “pumpkin beer.”

During two four-week periods that “touched” October, searches and sales for pumpkin beer were the highest of any style. Being the statistics geek that he is, Watson argues that there is in fact a correlation between Google searches for the words “pumpkin beer” and a surge in sales.

“Given the dual spike in sales and searches in previous years, it seems safe to assume that pumpkin beers will once again be the darlings of the fall,” he wrote.

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