Friday, July 31, 2015

If everyone hates season creep, why is it so prevalent?

So I was at my favorite beer store - Westmere Beverage - the other day, and as soon as I walked in I saw this display:


It didn't come as a complete surprise; it's not like this is the first time I've seen pumpkin beers for sale in the summer.... or Christmas beers at Halloween... or summer beers around Valentine's Day. And every season, just like clockwork, all my fellow beer lovers on Facebook, Twitter and other social media post a picture like the one above lamenting about the fact that the beer is out of season. And now I'm noticing people are griping directly to the retailers. For example, here's a comment thread on Oliver's Brew Crew's Facebook page in response to a video showing off their newly-arrived pumpkin beers on display:


As you can see, people have mixed reactions: some love it, some hate it. Though it appears that the people who are okay with this are happy about the arrival of Southern Tier's Pumking, Rumking and Warlock - not so much pumpkin beers in general. I agree that those are indeed delicious beers; that being said, I'm really not in the mood to drink a 9% ABV pumpkin beer when it's nearly 90 degrees out (or, for that matter, an imperial stout or big Belgian quad, etc.). I am one of those people whose drinking moods vary according to season. I always thought people like me were the majority of [craft] beer drinkers. So why doesn't the market cater to us?

The thing I've never understood about season creep, specifically when it comes to pumpkin beers, is that pumpkins are traditionally harvested in the fall or late summer at the earliest (I used to grow my own). So where are the breweries getting the pumpkins to make their beer? The answer is rather obvious, though, isn't it? Modern technology enables crops to grow faster and thus harvest earlier. Also the fact that when it comes to beer, the vast majority of breweries aren't using fresh pumpkin in the brew - they're using pumpkin puree, extract, or some type of artificial flavoring. Southern Tier used to have a YouTube video that showed the brewing of Pumking where you could clearly see the pumpkin puree being used, but it looks like that video has been replaced by this one:

Notice that they said they use "pumpkin" in the brew, not pumpkin puree. I don't know why they don't admit this; after all, there's nothing inherently wrong or bad or unethical about using a puree instead of fresh fruit (whether it's unethical to try to pass off puree as fresh is another story, though). When it comes to fruit in beer, the consensus seems to be that fresh fruit is superior to puree, and puree is superior to extract or artificial flavoring. As a homebrewer I've found the opposite is often true (I've made award-winning brews using a flavoring syrup instead of actual fruit). However, as a beer drinker I swear I can taste the difference between "real" and "fake" and real always tastes better. I have a feeling the majority of beer drinkers probably feel the same way.

But getting back to the topic at hand: why do seasonal beers keep arriving a full season early? With the exception of people that rush out and buy pumpkin and Oktoberfest beers in August and summer beers when there's still snow on the ground, it stands to reason that early seasonals will sit and wait until their audience is ready for them. By that time, the beer is rather old and very likely to have been exposed to poor handling; heat and oxidation. It's not just a psychosomatic affect that pumpkin beer tastes better in July, it's just a matter of Zymurgy 101! It tastes better because it's fresher.

Over to you, dear readers:
  1. Does it annoy you to see seasonal beers released so early, or do you just accept it as a normal industry practice by now?
  2. Do your preferences in styles vary according to season and the weather? If so, why do you think that is? If not, why not?
  3. Do you find that when the appropriate time for drinking a seasonal beer rolls around you notice the beer doesn't taste as good because it's old? Or does it not phase you?
  4. Is there anything we can do to convince breweries to stop releasing seasonal offerings so early?
  5. Do you think the majority of beer drinkers hate season creep, are indifferent to it, or embrace it?
  6. Is it unethical for breweries to use puree and not make the distinction on the labeling and marketing? Or should consumers be smart enough to know that most products aren't made with fresh fruit?

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