Seasonal Beer Management: Best Practices for Distributors

Specialty and seasonal beer sales from small and independent craft brewers are arguably the most diverse and exciting group of brands that beer distributors bring to market. However, what do you do when your loudest customers want those bright and shiny objects, but you need to make a living on cool brands by selling more than one keg to an account? Here are some ideas and guidelines that will help one make informed decisions, allow for repeated success, maximize market capture and minimize exposure.

The Numbers

This powerhouse group of beers makes a major impact in the chain and convenience channels. Nearly 20 percent of sales from craft brewers are made up of seasonal beers. In the five months between July and November, nearly 60 percent of all seasonal beers are typically sold. There is nothing like this category in any other alcohol category. In 2015, the total sales in this segment, which is only a small window into craft, almost eclipsed $17 million dollars!

To keep great products fresh on the shelf and the dollars rolling in it is critical that this is a collaborative effort. We need to work together to understand what, how and when.

Categories

What is specialty and seasonal beer, really? There are several classifications that these beers fit in. These differ if the beers are tied to a holiday, time of year, a brewing whim or market demand.

Seasonal

Seasonal beers tend to be more traditional styles that tie directly to a time of year. Some examples include Winter Warmers, German-style Oktoberfest (Märzen), Pumpkin and Biere de Mars. These beers are typically only produced in enough volume to get to the very end of the season. For the remainder of this article this category will be divided into seasonal (tied to a season) and holiday (tied to a holiday). Seasonal beers have 3-4 month window, and holiday beers are generally a 1-2 month window.

Specialty

This category consists of beers produced once or possibly a few times a year. They are not tied to a season but they are reoccurring. They can be the same beer with every release or are completely unique every year. Examples include: anniversary beers, extra BIG IPAs and barrel aged beers. Although these styles are free form they are reoccurring and generally aren’t brewed again until they are completely sold out or a specific release date comes around.

One Off

Anything goes here. These beers are completely unique. Generally they don’t come back and you reserve that volume to play around every year. On occasion these beers move up the ranks to specialty and in some cases to a year round product.

Determining How Much

This is highly variable for every brand in your portfolio. Factors like total production volume, brand history, capacity, distribution footprint, packaging capabilities and market demand all need to be considered. To avoid any liability, these three metrics will greatly reduce the risk of over or under commitment:

  • Promote synergy with suppliers and distribution ahead of time to get an idea of how the segment has sold for in the past on a brand by brand basis.
  • Consider any new brands in the portfolio that will be contributing to volume in the category with new release.
  • Get a good count of your accounts and make sure you can provide the buyers with what they expect. Try to get some commitments ahead of time.

If you are able to numerically quantify the above you will be leaps and bounds closer to hitting the inventory numbers you need to have successful depletions. Data is your friend here; don’t be afraid to get out a calculator or a spreadsheet!

Best Packaging for Product

As your supplier grows, packing options expand as well. Have a good understanding of what your brewers are capable of and are planning to do. Help control and use the volumes determined in the above process to come up with a mix that works. The caveat here is that, depending on your market, consumer behavior is shifting rapidly from 22 ounce bottles to six pack bottles and now cans. The shift in this behavior creates potential for more packaging options that are chain and volume friendly as consumers become more comfortable with craft beer purchasing.

Seasonal

Since these beers tend to have a longer window for availability, larger kegs and 6–12 packs are a viable option. Higher volume packaging is more common.

Holiday

These beer styles are going to call for a more even mix of small and large kegs. As for packaged (bottles or cans), if you are working with a lager retailer like Kroger or Costco you might opt for 6 packs, mix packs and what a smaller brewery might offer, which is more likely 22 ounce, 750 milliliters bottles or another single serve unit. Some breweries might offer draft only.

The Specialty

These beers will tend to slide down the packaging scale again to smaller kegs, more 22 ounce bottles or 750s and higher prices. Bottles or draft only is not uncommon. Pick one package mix and consider sticking with it. This will help with predictability in the future and consumer expectations.

The One Off

Anything goes here, but typically these beers will follow the same model of the specialty category. Every brewery and every beer is different and needs to be treated appropriately. Below are some examples on how to approach the topic of timing, release and sales dates.

Timing

Below are examples on how to approach the topic of timing, release and sales dates. Note: Every brewery and every beer is different and needs to be treated appropriately. These time frames are not set in stone, but are based on some common brewing and release dates in practice today.

Category Brew Date Release Date Out of Stock at the Brewery Out of Stock at the Distributor Avoid
Holiday (e.g. Christmas Themed) 60 days before season (Sept – Oct) In-between preceding holidays (Early November) November 21st December 15th Any inventory left after the holiday
Seasonal (e.g. Winter Themed) 60 days before season starts (Oct) 1 month preceding season (Nov) Halfway through season (Jan) Beginning of the last month of season (early Feb) Inventory left the last 3 weeks of season
Specialty (e.g. Double IPA) 45 days before release Anytime Within 2 weeks of release As quickly as possible (less than 30 days). Inventory exceeding the brewery shelf life  dates
One Off (For example, Barrel Aged Stout) 12-6 months before release Anytime especially between seasonal/holiday releases. Within 2 months of release Style Dependent

Marketing Resources

Qualitative Market Research

CraftBeer.com has the Internet’s most robust content program dedicated to seasonal beer releases from small and independent craft brewers.

Release Schedule and Calendars

These are a must! The more your customers and distributors are informed the better you will fair at meeting demand and matching production rates. See some examples.

Sell Sheets

These are more applicable to seasonal beers and specialties that are reoccurring. One off beers are often hand sold to accounts.


This article was written by the market development committee as part of the BA Insider—a free email publication sent quarterly by the Brewers Association. Each issue covers topics relevant to craft beer distributors.