Beer

How Brewers Are Shifting Their Approach to Summer Beers

Producers share their latest tactics for positioning seasonal beer in a crowded market—and broadening its year-round appeal

Photo courtesy of Left Hand Brewing.

For 23 years, the recipe for Samuel Adams Summer Ale has remained static. The blend of lightly peppery grains of paradise and lemon peel established itself as a quintessential warm-weather refresher, a staple at BBQs and beaches alike. “For me, Sam Summer is like summer in a glass,” says Jim Koch, the chairman of Boston Beer Company, the maker of Samuel Adams beer.

Summer, though, has a built-in expiration date, as do individual brands of beer—two years, much less two decades, is an eternity in today’s fast-moving marketplace. To stay in tune with modern tastes, Boston Beer recently revised the formula for Summer Ale (around $10 per six-pack), adding orange, lemon, and lime puree to create a sunnier profile. It’s part of a larger, industry-wide approach to boost sagging sales in the seasonal sector. “Many seasonals have fallen off the shelf,” Koch says. One example is Leinenkugel’s seasonal shandy line—its dollar sales declined nearly 13 percent in 2018, according to the market research firm IRI.

Breweries have long calibrated their portfolios according to calendars. Core lineups were complemented by quarterly seasonal releases, whose arrivals heralded a change of taste. Nowadays drinkers needn’t wait three months for selections to shift. Each week welcomes new beers, double IPAs, and dessertlike stouts that are divorced from seasonality. We live in an on-demand beer world, with an endless selection streaming onto store shelves and into fridges. Seasonals “used to be where beer drinkers went for variety,” Koch says. “Now the shelf is laden with variety.”

Fruit at the Forefront

To better position hot-weather offerings—key for a stretch when sales spike around the Fourth of July and Labor Day, with summer accounting for around 35 percent of off-premise dollar sales for domestic beer, according to Nielsen—breweries are debuting splashy summer brews that prominently feature fruit. They twin refreshment and broadly appealing, easily recognizable flavors.

Sixpoint Brewery, based in Brooklyn, New York, now offers its salty and tangy gose, Jammer, in a 15-pack (around $20), with new fruity flavor profiles, including citrus and berry. Fruit also stars in the Tangerine Wheat (around $10 per six-pack) from NOLA Brewing Company in New Orleans, while Detroit’s Atwater Brewing uses native cherries in its tart Ledergosen (around $10 a six-pack).

Jason Ingram. Photo courtesy of Left Hand Brewing.

Raising the seasonal stakes, Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colorado, is offering two fruited summer beers. “That suggestion wasn’t met with the greatest amount of enthusiasm at first,” says the brewery’s national sales director, Jason Ingram. The dubious response, he says, was caused by “an absolute gluttony of seasonal beer sitting in distributor and brewery warehouses.”

Left Hand spent nearly a decade doubling as a beer wholesaler, selling large brands, including Lagunitas. “We never lose sight of what it’s like to be a wholesaler,” Ingram says. “We don’t want to be one of those problem children that you have to figure out what to do with the beer when it’s close to [date] code.”

The Colorado brewery rebooted its seasonal program by creating separate lines geared to its strengths. One focuses on nitrogenated beers, while the other explores fruit-forward, culinary-inclined beers. Says Ingram, “We want to approach styles that we’re known for.”

This year, there’s the citrusy Push Pop Party Nitro (around $10 for a four-pack), evoking the childhood frozen dessert, and the cocktail-inspired Peach Beerlini Radler (around $10 per six-pack). More importantly, production is limited and “we’re totally fine with those beers selling out,” Ingram says. Production of Peach Beerlini is in its second year and is up around 25 percent so far, to 1,100 barrels, with stock gathering little dust. “We want 98 or 99 percent sell-through at the distribution level,” says Ingram.

Rob Burns and Lime Lite by Night Shift. Photo courtesy of Night Shift.

Step into the Limelight

Summer beer’s most favored fruit is the lime, whether squeezed into a Corona or incorporated into Bud Light Lime. Increasingly, independent American breweries are releasing citrus-accented summertime lagers, like Lake James Lime (around $11 per six-pack), from Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, North Carolina, and Lime Lite (around $14 a 12-pack), produced by Night Shift Brewing of Everett, Massachusetts.

Night Shift released Lime Lite in April, and by late May it was the brewery’s fourth-best-selling beer. “We’re selling more light lagers than our double IPAs,” Rob Burns, Night Shift’s cofounder and president, says of Lime Lite and its sibling, the Nite Lite light lager (around $14 a 12-pack).

That would be a massive launch for any seasonal, but Night Shift views Lime Lite in a different light. “We’ve always referred to [light lagers] as rotators,” Burns says. “We’ve always avoided the term seasonal. I think that concept is sort of dead.”

So many different options are now available, Burns says, that there might be no need for a seasonal program. “You might want a darker, heavier beer in the winter,” he says, “but there are still plenty of stouts that get sold in the summer months.”

Traditionally, Lime Lite would sell fast during summer and then fade until the following year. But Burns sees another path for Lime Lite, which will be sold for at least six months—right now, April through October. “But Bud Light Lime sells year-round,” he says. “Are we just going to lose consumers to the company that we’re trying to directly compete against?”

Jim Koch and Sam Adams beer. Photo courtesy of Sam Adams.

Boston Beer Company has no plans to ditch its decades-long seasonal program. Instead, it’s creating extended occasions to encourage the consumption of Summer Ale; in May, the company launched a jokey Change.org petition to bump up summer’s official start from the solstice to Memorial Day weekend. Though Boston Beer doesn’t disclose sales data, Koch says that “sales are up, so it’s working so far.”

In a beer world obsessed with newness and overwhelmed by options, summer seasonals can provide continuity for breweries and consumers alike. They’re what you stock when you return to the family lake house, filling coolers at annual BBQs and beach getaways. At their best, seasonal beers accompany celebratory moments and salt them away in a flavor memory. “People remember summer moments where Summer Ale was part of them,” Koch says. “Mind-sets change with the seasons, and beer changes with the seasons, too.”

Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of four books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, and the just-released Homebrew World.

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