Peak summer. Heavy heat, bright sun, and the lawn still has to be mowed. The moment just screams “beer!” somehow. Lots of other common summer moments do, too: firing up the grill for a Memorial Day barbecue, taking the boat out on the lake, teeing off, tanning poolside, stretching mid-seventh inning. Over years of the seasonal swell of moments like these, beer worked its way into the popular American imagination of summer. And taking on that role as quintessential summer refresher has shaped the industry that fulfills the fantasy.
The summer selling season shows up pretty clearly when measuring how much of annual beer volume is sold at different points in the year. From a low in January, beer sales nationwide can jump 40 percent to a high in July. Looking at retail sales, beer peaks in the weeks around July 4th. Last year, 9 percent of all off-premises beer purchases tracked by IRI, a firm that monitors the industry, occurred during the four-week period around Independence Day. It was followed by the periods with Memorial Day and Labor Day, when 8.6 percent and 8.4 percent of the year’s beer in grocery, convenience and big box stores were sold. Spread evenly, about 7.7 percent of sales would occur every four weeks. But that isn’t how people buy beer.
That’s not how beer can be brewed, packaged, shipped or delivered, either. While IRI’s data only covers some retail sales, beer shipment data from the federal government tracks all the beer shipped by brewers and importers to wholesalers. Naturally, shipments peak earlier in the year than retail sales. Much of that beer sold for July 4 hits distributor warehouses in June. Shipments peaked at around 9.4 percent of total 2014 shipments in June and July last year and dipped to about 7.2 percent in November.
Summer can significantly impact beer volume for the whole year. For example, last year beer shipments posted the biggest growth in June and July, up 2.5-3.5 percent each month. That more than offset a 2 percent decline in August and 3.6 percent decline in November. Beer volume ended the year up slightly, about 0.8 percent larger than in 2013. But this year got off to a tough start. So for the industry to grow for a second year in a row, this key season will need to be even stronger than last year.
That would mean even bigger seasonal variance, with an even greater portion of total sales and shipments occurring during peak. And that can take a toll. Pushing out more shipments means just that: more trucks doing more pickups, more batches to brew and package. Later, distributors working to deplete inventory at a faster rate means more runs and longer days. Delivering beer is hard, heavy and hot work, particularly in the summer, whether it requires long rural routes or fast drops on crowded city streets.
Just like putting the lawn mower away, clocking out after a long day brewing or delivering beer begs for some of its refreshment: another one of those moments that’s not only shaped when but what kind of beer is sold. Look here to help explain at least part of the rise of American light lagers, for instance. More recently, many brewers point to the above moment, enjoying an after-work thirst quencher, as the impetus for developing lower-alcohol versions of the big, bold IPAs that have become so popular. As it turns out, a lot of other people were ready for these beers that offer familiar beery refreshment alongside new or more challenging flavor profiles.
As more and more summers go by, innovative and historically minded brewers keep coming up with new brews to satisfy this old beer occasion. Snappy, dry and slightly tart Belgian styles have found some success fitting in here, including those modeled after a traditional farmer’s beer: saison. Another trend of American-hopped lagers and more traditional pilsners has recently provided growth opportunities for other brewers.
But how essential is it to put some American spin on these styles? Those holidays that book-end and punctuate the summer selling season all ask us to think about and celebrate American history and values. So beer gets caught up in that. A quick look at the beer aisle, any time of the year, shows a fair amount of red, white and blue. With fireworks in the background, we refresh and recharge with friends and family. We bond with clinks of bottles and glasses, toasts with cans and cups. We connect and feel connected to something larger. And as we break away, reward ourselves for the work we put in already and prepare to do more, someone, somewhere restocks the shelves, rotates inventory, signs off on another shipment and brings us a little bit more of summer.
Christopher Shepard is a writer and editor for Beer Marketer’s Insights, spending most of his time walking the craft beat for Craft Brew News.