A sampler at Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Ore., features all six… (Nolan Hester )
As total beer sales continue to slip, seasonal beers are getting serious attention from some of the nation's largest brewers.
Blue Moon sells four seasonal variety packs every year that historically have consisted of four beers, one of them a limited-time seasonal offering. For 2012, the brewer is including two seasonal offerings in each pack. Spring's introduction was Valencia Amber Ale, brewed with orange peel. Agave Blonde Ale, brewed with cactus nectar, is slated for summer.
Blue Moon, a division of Chicago-based MillerCoors, will select its new fall seasonal offering based on voting on Facebook. Three flavors developed from consumer suggestions were taste tested at a Chicago bar recently as part of a tour of select cities. MillerCoors Chief Executive Tom Long has referred to seasonal beers as one of the best business opportunities for the company.
Seasonal beer sales, measured as a segment of craft beer sales, have posted dollar sales increases of 15% to 26% for each of the last three years, according to SymphonyIRI, a market research firm. Seasonal beer rang up $245 million in grocery, liquor and convenience store sales for the year ended March 18, up 18% from a year earlier.
The data do not include Wal-Mart, club stores or bars and restaurants, where seasonals sell better, said Brewers Assn. Director Paul Gatza.
"Customers see [seasonal beer] as something new and fresh," prompting them to think, "'I'd better try it before it goes away,'" Gatza said.
Seasonal beers are often lighter in color and flavor for spring and summer, with darker, heavier brews for winter and fall. The beers are geared to match the weather as well as food choices like summertime brats or dead-of-winter beef stews.
At Boston Beer Co., which makes Sam Adams, founder Jim Koch isn't surprised with the interest in seasonal beers.
"It's become a popular thing in the last three to four years" in the industry, Koch said, adding that he's been making them for a quarter-century. "It's grown to be a bigger piece of the business" and grown each year, he said, but the company's own seasonal sales have fallen slightly.
Sam Adams' Seasonal remained the top-selling craft beer product in grocery, liquor and convenience stores for the 52 weeks that ended Jan. 1, but its sales declined 0.4%, to $61.3 million, according to SymphonyIRI.
Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer's Insights, pointed to increased competition for the slight decline.
"The big brewers are getting more effective at playing in these spaces," Steinman said.
Bob Lachky, former chief creative officer of Anheuser-Busch, said that adding another flavor or variety of beer is often "the only way to get extra taps" in bars.
Chicago-grown Goose Island Beer Co. has geared up seasonal production since being acquired last year by Anheuser-Busch.
"Our growth in seasonals has continued every year and continues to grow," said Goose Island brand director Adam Lilly. Seasonal sales increased 22% in 2011 compared with the prior year, he said.
Goose Island makes four seasonal beers each year: summer, fall, winter and Christmas, bypassing spring, which is most brewers' worst seller. Lilly said the company has made its Summertime and Christmas Ales for many years and debuted a Harvest Ale in fall 2008 and its Mild Winter Ale in 2009.
Josh Deth, managing partner of Revolution Brewing, a craft brewer, said he welcomed the competition from the big beer companies.
"It's a lot harder for a large brand, when they're used to old ways of doing things, to diversify so much, but they do have deep pockets to get their seasonals to the chain stores," Deth said.
Deth's Revolution, a brew pub, will open a brewery this month with an initial capacity of 25,000 barrels annually. Deth expects to brew 20 beers in the first year, and seasonals will be an important component. Revolution's fall seasonal, an Oktoberfest, is the brew pub's bestselling beer when it hits taps every September.
Gatza, of the Brewers Assn., underscored that seasonals are just one way big brewers are elbowing at more space on the craft turf. Ciders and shandies (beers mixed with lemonade or soda) are other areas of interest.
"We're seeing more [research and development] by large brewers," Gatza said. "They're trying to expand in as many directions as possible, but there's a limited amount of shelf space so if there's a new product on the shelf something else is going to lose a spot."
However, as sales of seasonals continue to outpace growth in the overall craft category, big brewers don't want to sit on the sidelines.
Craft beer sales volume increased 13% in 2011, to 11.5 million barrels, according to the Brewers Assn., accounting for nearly 5.7% of the beer industry. Total beer shipments declined for the third consecutive year, the longest streak since Prohibition, falling 1.4%, to 210 million barrels, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.