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Welcome to January’s winter-seasonal beer slump

Why do our appetites for seasonal beers lag after New Year's?

WEB_20170117_BetweenSeasonsMarketWatch writer Jason Notte put the seed of a question in my head a few weeks ago with this Tweet:

His follow-up Tweet, below, spurred a quick back-and-forth between us in which we both agreed that Christmas- or holiday-themed offerings such as Anchor Christmas and Ninkasi Sleigh’r still taste great once Dec. 25 has come and gone, especially in the cold Western climates where he and I live.

Indeed, there are plenty of barleywines and old ales and luscious stouts to be had after Dec. 25 or even Jan. 1. So I wondered: Is there really a seasonal beer slouch in January?

I put the question to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewer’s Association, a trade group that represents what it defines as small and independent craft breweries. The data he drew are from six years (2011-2016) of off-premise sales (meaning retail, not restaurant or bar or brewpub), and they show a measurable slowdown in craft seasonal sales in the first eight weeks of the year. He adds that this time of winter is a slow period for craft beer in general, not just seasonals, but that seasonal releases fare even worse than craft sales as a whole.

The numbers: In the first four weeks of the year, seasonal beers account for 16.3% of craft volume sales; the average for the rest of the year is 19.7%. The next four weeks get even worse. For the second four-week period of the year, seasonals account for 16.1% of sales, 3.6% less than the rest of the year’s average.

Overall, he concludes “the numbers show that even in a weak period for craft, seasonals are less important in Jan/Feb than in the rest of the year,” though Watson adds that “some of this” could be due to a maturation effect (read about the maturation effect in his post on the subject.)

Why the slowdown? I have a few theories. First is the possibility of post-holiday winter beer doldrums, when consumers might find it weird to buy a six-pack of a gingerbread-spiced holiday ale but don’t see other compelling winter offerings. So, the usual amber ale it is, then. (A related tangent here: If you’re of the opinion that holiday-themed seasonals shouldn’t hit shelves until November, then you’re almost compelled to keep drinking them into January, right? Most other seasonal beers have a full three months to do their thing.)

Second, the beers that could traditionally be considered seasonal in January/February/March are tough to consume in quantity: old ales, barleywines, big stouts. Session IPA or Vienna lager six-packs disappear from my fridge faster than I can stock them, but bottles of rich, higher-ABV winter ales linger longer.

Though they don’t say it’s specifically to combat this seasonal slouch, some breweries have taken to releasing spring seasonals in January. New Belgium’s Whizbang, a Mosaic-hopped blonde ale, is available now through March and is billed in a press release as a “sessionable spring alternative.” Harpoon’s spring seasonal, Fresh Tracks, a single-hop pale ale, likewise debuted this month.

Is this good or bad? Does it matter? Many breweries, especially small ones, eschew the core/seasonal/specialty release tiers anyway, releasing small batches of brewers’ whims without much thought to the calendar or barometer. So are we currently living in a post-seasonal beer world? The release of a hoppy blonde spring beer in January points to yes.

One Comment

  • joanne says:

    Another reason may just be that breweries take an end-of-year “breather” around the holidays after working super hard all year long. Employees take time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas / New Years, so it’s harder to schedule staffing. Many brewers I know take considerable time off around the holidays, traveling back to visit farther-flung family or even using that time to take longer trips to other beer regions. Businesses also use December to tackle year-end or once-a-year projects, whether reorganzing the brewhouse, top to bottom cleaning / sterilizing, etc. It’s a general time to step back and assess, versus launching a new seasonal and/or marketing initiative around a beer. It’s a challenge for breweries to compete with post-New Year’s messages in the marketplace, when consumers are encouraged to abstain and get healthy (that “new year’s resolutions”). So overall, I think less of a “slump” as a prudent decision to not release something into a marketplace when there isn’t attention, interest or demand. The question is, do breweries turn it back up in February? My sense is yes.

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