Seasonal Change and Shifting Preferences: Breweries Look for New Ways to Keep Portfolios Fresh

The Business of Beer by | May 2017 | Issue #124
Illustration by Jade Schulz

Choice is a good thing. Variety allows us to be more educated in our decisions and—potentially—happier with their outcome. But how much variety is enough?

In recent years, as the craft brewing industry has grown exponentially, the options from which customers can choose has followed suit. There are more breweries, brands, and ways to shop than ever. According to estimates by market research firm Nielsen, an average craft beer consumer drinks 24 different kinds of alcoholic beverage brands annually, a figure that has nowhere to go but up.

So with a record amount of flavor and experience options available, what happens to a “style” of beer that once relied on its exclusively for consumer interest? Today, something new can be found every time we wander down the beer aisle, which is making the idea of “seasonal beer” feel rather old. It once was exciting to finally see a spring Bock after months of cold or a pumpkin ale after a sweltering summer. Now, consumers only wait a few days instead of a few months for new beers to appear.

In 2014, sales of seasonal brands from craft breweries increased 10.9 percent over the prior year, but growth fell dramatically in 2015 to just 0.9 percent, according to data tracked by Nielsen. In 2016, there was an 11.6 percent decrease in dollar sales compared to 2015. Slides have been seen across seasonal brands from Alaskan and Big Sky to Sam Adams, Deschutes, Harpoon, and Abita.

The outlook for some of the most popular seasonal brands may not be too good, either. Of the top 100 seasonal craft brands, as defined by Nielsen, only 37 saw dollar growth in 2016. Three years prior, twice that many grew in dollar share.

According to Danelle Kosmal, vice president of Nielsen’s Beverage Alcohol Practice, the reason for the precipitous drop is increased fragmentation within beer—smaller and often newer brands are capturing attention. “In many cases,” Kosmal points out, “seasonal brands that are doing well are part of a brand portfolio that [is] doing well.”

One of the most successful seasonal beers comes from Bell’s Brewery in Michigan, a company led by one of the most popular IPAs in the country, Two Hearted. In mid-2016, the last time Bell’s made sales data publicly available, Two Hearted accounted for 51 percent of the company’s sales. Oberon, Bell’s summer release wheat ale, was second with 28 percent. In terms of sales percentage, nothing else was close—the brewery’s Amber Ale was third at just 4 percent. And from 2013 to 2016, Oberon’s year-to-year dollar sales grew 11 percent or more, according to Nielsen.

Oberon drives so much interest, CEO Laura Bell says, that the company tries to enter new markets as close to its annual March release as possible. “For those of us in the Midwest, the arrival of spring is one of those things we get most excited about, and Oberon is a representation of that,” she says.

The beer has proven to be such a powerhouse over its 20-year life that it now stays on shelves for six months, arriving as spring days get sunnier and sticking around through the summer. “It’s something people identify with that time of year,” Bell adds.

But while Oberon has built up cachet over two decades, the experience of having a certain kind of beer during a certain time of year isn’t necessarily “tradition” anymore. There’s no need to wait until summer to have a wheat ale or winter for a barrel-aged Stout. Everything is right at our fingertips, ready to be consumed. You can drink what you like, when you like it.

These days, succeeding with a seasonal may be about trendiness as much as trying to match a style with the weather.

“Within the IPA category there is so much variation, there’s a great place to frame and anchor a seasonal series,” says Melody Crisp, director of marketing for Coronado Brewing Company. “It seems like a natural idea to merge IPA and seasonal together to offer what consumers are demanding.”

Coronado has long focused on its bread-and-butter IPAs as part of its rotating brands, but 2017 gave the company a chance to add new life to its seasonal lineup with North Island IPA. The New England-style IPA was among the first of its kind to be made available across a large swath of the country—17 states are within the California brewery’s footprint. North Island led off the 2017 seasonal lineup that also includes Belgian-style, Imperial, and winter IPAs.

“We didn’t sit down and say ‘we want our seasonals to be IPA driven,’” Crisp reveals. “Our marketing and sales teams and brewers have a say in what we’d like to see on the calendar and all IPAs rose to the top, which is telling for what consumers are asking for.”

The initial run of North Island proved so popular, in fact, that the brewery may also make it a sporadic specialty draft release to appear other times of the year. Of course, Coronado isn’t the only one using hops to fuel seasonal interest.

Firestone Walker’s Luponic Distortion series—released in a seasonal format with a new hop profile every time—is already one of the company’s best-performing brands. In 2015, Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey introduced a quarterly series of IPAs called The Hop Freshener. Stone now has its own version, a series called “Hop Revolver,” and Great Divide (Hop Disciples) and Sweetwater (Hatchery Series) are also in on the act.

In a way, IPA is the perfect seasonal beer to “replace” seasonal beer: take the country’s top craft style, give it a tweak every few months and you’re offering a new experience to keep promiscuous drinkers coming back, excited to complete a set in every new series.

With any style we want readily available to us nowadays, there has to be some kind of change to hold our interest. For every beer novelty, there’s another reason to forget the hyped style that came before it. Seasons change, and so, too, must ambitious brewers.