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Oktoberfest Comes Early


Today is August 25th. But head over to the beer aisle, and it's like jumping two months into the future. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was October already...


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Beer, beer, glorious beer.

LYDEN: ...or at least Oktoberfest.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Don't be afraid of it. Drink till you're made of it...

BILL DEBAUN: Lagers, Long Trail, New Belgium pumpkin, Schlafly pumpkin, you have UFO pumpkin, we've got Shipyard pumpkin.

LYDEN: To get an idea of the Oktoberfest invasion, we headed out on a shopping trip with Bill DeBaun.

DEBAUN: I'm a co-editor at DCBeer.com.

LYDEN: We met up with Bill at D'Vines, a liquor store here in Washington, D.C.

DEBAUN: So Saranac has a whole shelf here with these delightful jack-o'-lantern-looking bottles, Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Harpoon Oktoberfest, Narragansett Fest beer, Sierra Nevada Tumbler. That's got a little bit of smoke to it.

LYDEN: A whole wall of fall beers: spicy pumpkin ales, nut brown lagers, malty, toasty brews perfect for a cool fall evening. But temps have been in the upper 80s here in D.C.

DEBAUN: This is the big gripe. As soon as someone sees pumpkin for the first time in a season - and it's, you know, late July, early August - it's, oh, my God, you've got to be kidding me. It can't be this time already. Like, I really, you know, you're taking away my summer from me.

LYDEN: So enough with the griping. If they're on the shelf so early, there's got to be a reason, right?

HARRY BALZER: The one thing that the American diet wants is novelty.

LYDEN: And Harry Balzer would know.

BALZER: I'm vice-president of the NPD Group. And for the last 35 years, I have watched on a daily basis how Americans eat in this country.

LYDEN: Balzer works for a group that tracks consumer trends. He says Americans crave new foods and beverages, and the changing seasons are a natural opportunity to shake things up, but just a bit.

BALZER: The funny thing about it, it's never anything that's totally new to us. It's always a new version of the old thing, whether it's a pie that now has three or four different types of things in it or a donut that's wrapped in a croissant.

LYDEN: Or an ale flavored with pumpkin pie spice or a lager soured with cranberries.

BALZER: The most important thing is they all are beer.

LYDEN: So getting your brewery's product out early is really important. You want to catch that novelty factor. And increasingly, says Bill DeBaun, it's not enough just to have a pumpkin beer.

DEBAUN: But if you can do something like you take your pumpkin beer and you age it in a rum barrel or, you know, you make a sour beer that has some pumpkin flavors to it, there are ways to flex your creative muscles and give your fans something that maybe they haven't had before from your portfolio.

RICH MICHAELS: Brewers, our favorite time of the year is Oktoberfest.

LYDEN: Rich Michaels called us from Saranac Brewery in Utica, New York. How does Saranac distinguish their pumpkin ale?

MICHAELS: The recipe for that, the spice blend, is actually from our brewmaster's wife's pumpkin pie.

LYDEN: Now, Michaels has been a professional brewer for over 20 years.

MICHAELS: It does seem that each year there's a push to be the first one out or not to be the last one out, at least.

LYDEN: And if it's weird for us as consumers seeing jack-o'-lantern designs on our August brewskies, imagine how Michaels feels. Fall beers can take up to 10 weeks to brew. So...

MICHAELS: It's kind of strange, you start brewing pumpkin beer in, you know, June and July.

LYDEN: Michaels says they're going to start work on Christmas beers pretty soon. I'm starting to get seasonal whiplash. But back at D'Vines in Washington, D.C., I asked manager Eddy Janac...

Are you selling a lot of this Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers yet?

EDDY JANAC: We are selling a ton of them, yeah.

LYDEN: And sure enough, a steady stream of customers stop by to ponder over the fall beer selection. Customer Sarah Caruthers(ph) showed us her purchase.

SARAH CARUTHERS: I picked up some Schafly pumpkin ale.

LYDEN: And not for the first time this season either.

CARUTHERS: I came here, like, two weeks ago and noticed that they had, like, 10 pumpkin ales. And that's exactly why I came back today, because I finished the other six-pack that I got.

LYDEN: As for the weirdness factor of drinking a pumpkin pie ale when it's 85 degrees and feels like summer because it still is...

CARUTHERS: I'm OK with this heat wave being over and getting into the fall, I guess.

LYDEN: So for the rest of you who still think it's a little early to give up those summer shandies, maybe you just need to adjust your thinking a little. Instead of autumn beers...

Back to school beers.

DEBAUN: Right. Just for the parents, though, not for the kids.

LYDEN: So to all you beer lovers out there, cheers and bottoms up.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hurrah. Up with the sale of it... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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