Early pumpkin beers brew dismay among drinkers

RICHMOND, Va. — It’s bad enough that back-to-school comes in June, and Halloween arrives in July. And of course we all know Christmas begins in September. But now even the craft beer industry is caving to seasonal creep. For this year, the beer drinker’s harbinger of autumn — pumpkin ales — apparently couldn’t hold off until the pumpkins actually ripened.

Labor Day may be considered the unofficial end of summer, but some craft brewers couldn’t even wait until then to roll out their pumpkin and other fall seasonal beers. Many already have been in stores and on taps for a month. And not all beer drinkers are saying, “Cheers!”

“Everyone likes pumpkin beer, but you don’t want it to come too soon. I definitely like to drink it in the appropriate season,” says Nate Marsden, 23, of Boston, who nonetheless recently gave in to the temptation of his favorite seasonal brew, Pumking, an imperial pumpkin ale from Southern Tier Brewing Co.

He’s got company. Beer connoisseurs who wanted to savor summer a bit longer have been airing their gripes on social media. Taking to Twitter with hashtags such as (hash)HolidayFail and (hash)SummersNotOver, people like Andrew Hickey let it be known they weren’t impressed with the early start.

Forget being irritated about back-to-school ads, the 33-year-old tweeted — complete with a photo of the offending brew — back on Aug. 16. “Why is there pumpkin ale already on shelves?!?”

“I think it’s just a rushing the season kind of thing,” said Hickey, of East Brunswick, N.J. “I’m guilty of drinking them but it seems like it’s getting earlier and earlier each year.”

Brewers were quick to explain that they didn’t have much choice. They said increased demand and the size of their breweries meant they needed to start making the beer earlier. And that means it gets to consumers earlier, too.

“If you think it’s too early for Pumpkin Ale . don’t go get some,” Schlafly Beer in St. Louis posted on its website in August. “It will still be on shelves for the next couple months (hopefully) and you can pick some up down the road.”

Dan Kopman, the brewery’s co-founder, said that in a perfect world they’d have their summer offerings available through the end of summer, then start selling their fall beers soon after. “When something changes that has been very traditional, you’re always going to get a comment,” he says. “It’s a great problem to have and is simply reflecting what’s going on in the market.”

Bars across the country also have weighed in on the availability of pumpkin beers when temperatures are still hovering in the high 80s.

“We will not be tapping pumpkin beers until the fall, when the season is appropriate,” says An Bui, the self-proclaimed chief beer officer at Mekong, a Vietnamese restaurant in Richmond that offers 50 revolving taps and more than 200 varieties of bottled beer. “Seasonal beers are where you taste the fruit or the flower of that period,” Bui says. “It’s so early. What’s going on?”

Those who follow the retail trade also noted a possible reason for the premature arrival, aside from needing to start production earlier: capturing early demand.

“When you’re selling seasonal merchandise, there’s only a certain profit pool available to be had from that,” says Craig R. Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy. “If you’re objective is to capture the maximum share of the profit pool, you want to have your goods out their early because you’ll be first in the marketplace.”

And Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group, says brands and businesses trying to get that top-of-mind business are “willing to risk the absurd — even earlier than expected.”

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