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Are Brewers Out of Their Gourds With Early Pumpkin Ales?

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We know retailers love "Christmas in July" promotions, but they push the boundaries of propriety when we start seeing decorations actually appearing in the stores before the kids go back to school. And as much I love Halloween, seeing skeletons in late summer is too much even for me. But is pumpkin beer appearing on store shelves in August or September too early?

Some drinkers seem to think so. A recent Associated Press story highlighted the shock and dismay drinkers felt upon seeing fall seasonal beers taking up shelf space alongside summer ales. Considering the official beer-drinking bacchanal that's been held in Munich every year since 1810 doesn't even begin for another week or so this year -- Sept. 21, when the lord mayor of Munich taps the first keg of Oktoberfest beer -- there may be something to this..

The AP story, though, said brewers are simply trying to capture early demand. Since such beers tend to sell out before the end of September let alone become scare by October, it suggests that we'll soon be seeing the appearance of winter seasonals even if we're basking in some Indian summer weather. 

Yet one brewer has said its Oktoberfest seasonals are out early because it ran out of its summer beers. Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM  ) has seen its stock carried aloft on the strength of its seasonal beers that to a certain extent have replaced its traditional lager as the drinker's preferred palette cleanser. In fact, its second-quarter results surprised Wall Street when it also recorded rising volumes on Samuel Adams along with its seasonals and its hard cider and teas, the first time its flagship beer has recorded an increase in sales in almost two years.

Typically, Boston Beer tries to run out of its Summer Ale by the end of July, as most brewers do, but it ran out earlier than anticipated due to accelerated growth trends it hadn't anticipated and capacity bottlenecks that are only now being addressed. With nothing else to replace the summer seasonal brews, it shipped its Oktoberfest beer instead.

Even so, it was only a week ahead of schedule. Other smaller brewers are trying to be a pumpkin thief and get ahead of the demand curve by beating the mass brewers to the punch. The popularity of pumpkin ale caused many of the big-name brewers to brew their own fall-season flavors. Anheuser-Busch InBev  (NYSE: BUD  )  introduced its Michelob Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale in 2005, Molson Coors (NYSE: TAP  )  Blue Moon Brewing's has its Harvest Pumpkin Ale, and even C&C Group's  (NASDAQOTH: CCGGY  )  Woodchuck brand of hard cider added a pumpkin flavor.

That's another trend we may also see grow, as cider already has a kinship with fall and likely accounts for Boston Beer releasing a variant of its Angry Orchard cider for the season. Since they also ran out of summer flavors early last year too, it may be more of a planned shortage disguised as a fortuitous chance occurrence. 

Actually, the AP story is not really new news, as beer drinkers have for years complained about small craft brewers turning off their warm-weather taps and opening up those targeted for the cool fall months to gain advantage. But while the brew's early appearance may cause consternation for beer connoisseurs, brewers are only doing it because drinkers do respond to the seasonal flavor. 

The blurring of the seasons seems like marketing has taken over common sense, and brewing shouldn't be like some fashion trend. But when a season ends, people tend not to want to drink any more of that seasonal flavor, so brewers need to capture what enthusiasm they can -- even if it means fall creeps into summer. For those of us who enjoy the taste of pumpkin ale any time of the year, however, every day is Christmas when we see it hit the liquor store shelves.

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