Let me show you a picture that was posted today on the Facebook page of one of our favorite local bottle shops, Sam’s Quick Shop, featuring beer that they’ve just had arrive.
I have one word for this: gross.
Amazingly, that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the fact that I think that pumpkin beer is vaguely disgusting. I know a lot of people like it and they should be saying “gross” too. The date today, in case you don’t feel like looking at the byline, is July 13. We are now 21 days since the first day of summer. That’s not even a whole month. These beers are for autumn and, ostensibly, to fall in around those “pumpkin” holidays that you like to think of: Halloween, when people wear pumpkins, and Thanksgiving, the only time when people actually eat them. The nearest of those is 109 days away. The latter is 130 days away. Over 6 months.
Now, I’m all for seasonal beers. After all, I started an all-seasonal brewery. We’ve got a pumpkin-like beer in the planning, and we’ll be releasing it the week of Halloween. You know, when it’s in season. Pumpkin beers present a unique challenge for brewers and I want to talk about it here to highlight the insanity of a pumpkin beer hitting stores in July and why it is so wrong and why you, the drinker, should boycott that utter bullshit.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac which is, in my New-England-grown-mind, the best possible place to find information on farming, pumpkins have a very long growing season. 75 – 100 days. In northern growing zones, they often require starting seeds 2 – 3 weeks before the last spring frost. In North Carolina, where I am now, the last frost of the year is generally around April 15th. We are the coldest of the 3 warmest growing zones in the U.S. (Zone 7). Zone 9 (the warmest that you can grow pumpkins in) sees its last frost around February 15th.
So, for the sake of arguing, let’s use Zone 9 as the source of all the pumpkins used for pumpkin beers in the U.S., ignoring completely that we are a niche of a niche market for pumpkin production. A 90-day growing season with a last frost on February 15th puts harvest time right around May 15th. That is the absolute earliest you could possibly have pumpkins available. Let’s also assume that the entire crop was harvested in a day and that those pumpkins were then picked, processed, washed, chopped, pureed, and then sent to every brewery within, oh, 12 hours of coming off of the field. Let’s assume that every brewery had overnight shipping of their pumpkins, and that they were waiting, with empty mash tun, for the pumpkins to arrive in their brewery on May 16th.
For beer to hit the shelves with fresh pumpkin in it on July 13th, you would have had to brew, ferment, condition, carbonate, package, ship, order, pick, and deliver all of that beer in 44 days. Sometime last year, I saw a study (and I’m sorry, I can’t find it now – I believe it was something by Sam Adams/Jim Koch at the Wholesaler’s Assoc. Conference last year), that showed that, on average, for a widely distributed (ie – not local) brand, there is a 5-week lag between when beer leaves a brewery and when it arrives on a retailer’s shelf. 5 weeks. That means for beer to arrive on July 13 on a shelf, it left the brewery June 1st, which gives the brewery a grand total of 2 weeks from the earliest possible arrival of pumpkins.
Here’s a most likely scenario: This beer was brewed back in March or April using canned, drummed, or imported pumpkin puree – assuming there is actually pumpkin in your pumpkin beer and not just pumpkin pie spices. Your seasonal beer is, by definition, not seasonal as it is almost definitely not using seasonal ingredients (ie – ingredients that are IN SEASON.)
I know that might sound insane, but I hear tell that Great Lakes Brewing Company is currently brewing their Christmas Ale. In July. Wrap your mind around that as we go through the rest of the article talking about pumpkin beers.
Note: Redacted! Brewed for Christmas in July to my delight! Hooray! Fresh!
Right on. Now let’s talk about the shelf life of beer and how MOST (but not all) bottle shops, bars, and restaurants keep their beer in storage.
Beer is a perishable product. Its shelf life is short. On average, when beer is kept at a cool temperature (50 degrees is great, colder is better), the shelf life of a beer is about 90 days. 3 months. When beer is kept warm, that shelf life drops significantly and can be as short as 30 days, but usually you’re talking 45 – 60 days on average for a craft beer that’s kept at room temperature. The hotter a beer is kept, the shorter its shelf life is.
To be clear, what we’re talking about here isn’t spoilage at 60 days, it isn’t when the beer will go sour or anything incredibly disgusting. Those are infection problems. The end of shelf life is the point at which off-flavors will show up, most often oxidation and staling flavors, most notably cardboard-y/wet newspaper-y flavors. By this point, most-to-all of the hop character has diminished from the beer, and the chances of carbohydrates and proteins precipitating out in the bottle in the form of chunks or flakes is much higher. Is the beer drinkable? Sure, and it might taste okay. But it is not and can not be as good as it was when it was a fresh beer. Fresh beer is good beer.
There are a few things that can increase the shelf life of a beer:
1) High alcohol. In general, the beer will still oxidize and stale, but in the case of higher alcohol beers the staling flavors will probably be more pleasant, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes old beers, even high alcohol ones, just taste old and nasty. Aging is a gamble.
2) Pasteurization. In this scenario, you flash heat the beer in the package to kill any spoilage organisms that are in the package. This also has the effect of slightly arresting the aging process and can significantly change the flavor profile of a beer. A pasteurized beer can be good on the shelf upwards of 6 months.
Most small breweries do not pasteurize their beer. I don’t have strict numbers on this, but if I had to guess the number of breweries pasteurizing their packages, I would say “less than 10% of breweries.” I could be wrong and if anybody knows, I’d welcome that information.
Kegs are not, and can not be, pasteurized. You just can’t heat the liquid fast enough. That’s one of the reasons that beer can taste different on tap than it does in bottles – I mean, aside from age and the fact that kegs are often kept cold.
Okay – lesson in shelf life over. Let’s talk about how beer is kept. Fortunately, distributors are getting pretty good at keeping beer. That might sound a little snarky, but for a long time distributors weren’t really equipped to deal with the fact that they’ve got 500 different brands of beer to move around. They were moving 6 – 10 brands. Not 60 – 100, or 600 – 750, so for a long time distributors didn’t have great warehouse space to keep beer cold. We’re past that now and most distributors are pretty good, notwithstanding the fact that they have to order things in, get them shipped, get them in inventory, and organize them before they can sell them, and then finally deliver them which adds weeks onto the distribution process and takes weeks off of the life of a beer.
Now, think about your favorite bottle shop. The one you always go to because they have the most diverse selection of beer available. Okay, good? Now, how much of that beer is cold? The 5 of you that thought, “all of it!” are really lucky. The rest of you are thinking about shelves and shelves and shelves of beer that are sitting there, warm. Warm beer has a significantly shorter shelf life. If the same beer has been on a warm shelf for over a month, it’s probably old and stale.
So, now, you’ve got pumpkin beer arriving at a store on July 13. It is already a few weeks old. It’s a hot summer and nobody’s shopping for pumpkin beers right now so it’s going to sit on the shelf for – what? A month, before somebody even considers buying it? Two?
You’ve got seasonal beer arriving in the hottest part of the summer and sitting around until it’s stale before it’s ever being sold.
You know why? Because the sales figures show that pumpkin beers are popular, and so people make more and more pumpkin beers and, of course, instead of just making the best pumpkin beer they possibly can (challenge enough in itself), they strive to make the first.
And you know what’s most disgusting? People buy it.
So, to summarize my thesis: Seasonal creep – the fact that these seasonal beers keep coming out earlier and earlier – is training you to buy and enjoy old, stale beer.
Why do you stand for that? Do you go to the store and buy old vegetables? No! You would bring that shit back in a heartbeat and complain. You don’t buy old stale bread why do you buy old stale beer?
I think it’s time for people to take seasonality back: Stop buying seasonal beer out of season – and if something is old on the shelf, leave it there. Don’t fall for that marketing garbage. Instead, actually drink something that’s well-made, good, and fresh; don’t buy crap made with old ingredients that sits old on the shelf. You deserve something better for the price you’re going to pay for it.
There are so many great beers – and great TRULY SEASONAL beers – available fresh from your local brewery. Drink those instead.