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As the dog days of summer crest upon the beer world, a familiar collective roar gathers volume.
That’s right, it’s once again time for the seemingly perpetual beer complaint of late summer and early autumn: Beers like marzens—various takes on Oktoberfest offerings—are being released earlier than many believe they should. A beer-soaked city like D.C. is, as you might expect, not immune from such grumbles.
“We all know that no one actually wants to drink these beers when it’s 95 degrees out,” The Washington Post opined last summer. Asked about their thoughts on the practice of starting fall early in the beer aisle, 64 percent of ARLnow’s readers said that they “hate it.” The horror: having to drink good beer mere weeks before we’re supposed to.
But here’s something to consider: If it’s such an issue, where’s the uproar the rest of the year?
Saisons were originally brewed in winter and stored to be consumed in the summer months—today, you can find dozens of saisons year-round made by dozens of breweries at dozens of D.C. bars. Typically, maibocks were only released in late spring. Now, there are dozens of helles-style lagers available to the consumer at any point during the year. Are imperial stouts really meant to be consumed anytime when the humidity outside outpaces the heat barrel-aging provides?
Let’s go even further back. In the pre-refrigeration age, many lagers and ales were simply not made at all in warm weather due to the heat’s effects on fermentation. Even ancient Egyptians carved things into walls that outlined when they thought it was proper to drink certain styles.
Does this stop anyone from ordering a saison at ChurchKey, sipping a refreshing lager on the Jack Rose Dining Saloon rooftop, or buying a bottle of a wonderful fruited ale at Whole Foods? Does it cause anyone to complain that these experiences are diminished for being seasonally inappropriate?
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The production of beer and the ways in which we consume it are ever-malleable. It’s what helps make beer a representation of our culture, not just a commodity. The time to drink certain styles of beer is increasingly “anytime” despite the fact that producers are well aware some people still think they should release certain seasonal offerings at certain times.
“It’s a good thing that people feel strongly about your beer that they really want to drink it at certain times,” explains Chris Van Orden, manager of marketing and beer strategy at Port City Brewing Company, whose Oktoberfest release—delicious as it may be—can be an easy target for seasonal scorn.
“But an amber lager can be drunk anytime,” he adds.
Of course, that’s little comfort to breweries like Great Lakes—one of the best producers of traditional lager styles in the country, whose brewers likely needed a stiff drink after attempting to explain over social media last year why they decided to release their marzen early.
“I think some people feel strongly about Oktoberfest in particular because they associate the style directly with a festival that takes place at a particular time—late September,” explains Van Orden. But does the seasonal sound and fury signify anything when it comes to people’s purchases?
“Breweries have figured out that it’s beneficial to release these beers early and try to corner the market, or else they wouldn’t do it,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director at Meridian Pint, Brookland Pint, and Smoke & Barrel, who says he tries to merge seasonal appropriateness with a desire to pour “glorious” styles like festbiers. “I imagine the average consumer doesn’t really care,” Gonnerman adds.
But beer isn’t produced in a vacuum. Whether to release a beer “on time” or not is often a false choice. For brewers of a certain size—many of which lead the burgeoning D.C. beer scene— the decision is often either to release a beer earlier than some might like, or don’t release it at all.
From conception to release, the runway for any given once-per-year beer is strikingly long—as much as 12 months—and in an increasingly competitive seasonal market where less than 9 percent of marzen sales occur after Halloween, that means taking every step to make sure a beer gets enough market share to make that significant investment worth it.
“The reason that we have to release Oktoberfest in August is because retailers want it for an allotted amount of time,” Van Orden explains. “We want to brew enough that it’s worth it for everybody and people can feel confident they can find it.”