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Love or Hate: Pumpkin Beer

Love or Hate: Pumpkin Beer

In late October, bright orange pumpkins are everywhere. Presiding over stoops with faces carved into whimsical grins. Dancing across restaurant menus in forms of soup and pie. Beckoning sugary indulgences from plastic bags piled along supermarket candy aisles.

In late October, pumpkin beers are near impossible to find.

Not that they weren’t around earlier in the season. Quite the opposite. Whether or not the spicy-sweet combination of malt, gourd, cinnamon and nutmeg suits your personal taste, the pumpkin beer explosion has been hard to miss.

There’s a larger trend at work. Pumpkin has become a sought-after taste, a meme in American food culture, a star in the seasonal flavor canon that rotates in and out of stores as the calendar makes its inexorable advance. Pumpkin now shows up in lattes, bagels, potato chips and cat food. And beer. This year, in greater abundance than any time in history, pumpkin-festooned labels propagated along beer store shelves like weeds after rain.

They also arrived earlier and sold out more quickly than ever before. For pumpkin beer drinkers, the pumpkin beer boom can be something of a double-edged sword.

On the good side, fans of the style can now choose from a huge variety of options for their pumpkin fix. According to Nielsen, 13 new pumpkin beers entered the market last year alone, bringing the total to 65 different pumpkin brands, a 900% increase when compared to a decade ago. The phenomenon builds upon itself, because as breweries across the nation observe the growing success of other pumpkin brews—especially the style’s power to attract new customers from among a demographic that doesn’t usually drink beer—they decide to enter the fray with their own creations.

The bad side for drinkers, if there is one, is that the intensity of demand has ramped up exponentially as the market segment expanded. Demand still well outpaces supply, which can lead to early sellouts.

Weyerbacher’s well-loved Imperial Pumpkin Ale, for example, this year became available for purchase in some markets as early as July, a month earlier than in 2013. And it sold quickly, as expected. If you were hoping to crack open a bottle of the full-bodied, dark caramel brew on Halloween to enliven a night of doling out candy, you’re probably out of luck…unless you happen to have a stockpile already waiting in your basement.

As the growing pumpkin beer fanbase scrambles to scoop up the limited releases and buy up cases as soon as they’re available, release dates slink earlier and earlier. Why does this “seasonal creep” occur? Customers hound retailers for news on pumpkin beers, wanting to be the first to get their hands on it. Retailers beseech distributors for deliveries, wanting to be the first to make the sales. Distributors beg breweries for shipments in increasing quantity. Brewers, on their end, begin production sooner to accommodate bigger batches, and then rush to fulfill as many orders as possible.

Because while the situation might not please all drinkers, if you’re a brewer, there’s very little downside to a booming demand.

“Fifteen years ago, all the beer salespeople were saying, ‘who the heck is going to drink this pumpkin beer?’ And look at it now. People are crazy for it,” says national Weyerbacher sales manager Bob Fauteux. “We sold a decent amount of Imperial Pumpkin before, but in the last three years those numbers have at least tripled.”

Overall sales of pumpkin beer in the U.S. spiked more than 30% from 2011 to 2013, according to Nielsen, and last year the style brought in more than $22 million nationwide.

Elysian Brewing notched a full doubling of pumpkin beer sales from 2012 to 2013, and marketing director Matt Thompson expects to tally another 45% jump this year. The company, which is based in Seattle but sells most of its pumpkin beer to distributors on the East Coast, now produces 15 different pumpkin varieties. They range from a new Stumptown-Coffee-containing ale called Punkuccino to the original Night Owl—a light-to-medium-bodied ale made with both raw and roasted seeds plus the flesh of actual pumpkin. It’s been brewed with the same recipe for a decade, ever since the start of the famous annual Elysian Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, which sold out in minutes for its 10th anniversary.

Dogfish Head’s offering in the style also has a pumpkin fest to thank for its genesis. Sam Calagione entered Punkin Ale as a homebrew in Delaware’s famous Punkin Chunkin event back in 1994, a whole year before he founded his brewery. His recipe hasn’t changed much since then, but sales certainly have. In the past six years, the brand has experienced a 214% leap in sales volume. In 2008, the company shipped 3,500 barrels of Punkin Ale, compared to the 11,000 expected to have shipped this year.

Dogfish Head’s full-bodied brown ale is not only beloved among drinkers, it’s an employee favorite. “We get a case of beer with every paycheck, and everybody gets pretty excited for that Labor Day case of Punkin,” reveals brewery spokesperson Justin Williams.

Newcomers to the style are seeing the same kind of growth. This is only the second year Philadelphia Brewing Company has bottled Kenz O’ Lantern, a relatively low-alcohol, spiced, russet-colored ale that “tastes and looks like pumpkin pie.” As of late August, sales were already up 25% year over year, and co-owner Nancy Barton had plans to brew additional batches throughout September.

“Initially we thought it was a silly idea to brew a pumpkin beer,” Barton says. “But it is has turned out to be very popular.”

Part of the explanation for all these chart-topping sales is that people who don’t usually drink beer are finding a soft spot for brews adorned with pumpkin.

Most pumpkin beers are much mellower than other brews: sweet like a Belgian without the aggressive yeast kiss, toasty like a stout without any burnt grain aftertaste. But mostly, it’s the spices, which serve to mask the regular flavors of beer. Those that do not enjoy swigs of pilsner (and would under no circumstances attempt a bitter IPA or mouth-puckering sour) will happily suck down a tulip of pumpkin.

If you read into figures recently compiled by the Brewers Association, pumpkins also enjoy wide appeal among regular beer drinkers. Autumn is the only time seasonals outsell IPAs, a category that handily beats the groups “summer seasonals,” “spring seasonals” and “winter seasonals” throughout the rest of the year. People who don’t much swoon over summer shandies and refuse to fête bières de Noël appear to hop happily into Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage. (It’s worth noting that these “fall seasonal” numbers do include sales of another popular autumn beer —the Oktoberfest Märzen—but pumpkin is the overall star.)

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Most people in the industry credit Buffalo Bill’s with bringing the first modern pumpkin beer to market. In September of 1985, the California brewpub sent out a press release with a photo of brewmaster Bill Chengalis and assistant brewer Jon Paxman hoisting a 65-lbs. pumpkin into their mash tun. Their resulting 7% ABV ale was packaged in 24-oz. champagne bottles that sold for $3.50 apiece (or $10 if you wanted one shipped to you).

It is widely considered the original commercially-sold pumpkin beer, but it wasn’t the absolute first of its kind.

Pumpkin beers were first brewed by American colonists, for whom barley was in short supply. The abundant squash were an easily-gathered source of fermentable sugars, the only real requirement for making some kind of brew. However, these precursory pumpkin beers didn’t taste very much like what we drink today. A 1771 recipe for “pompion ale” published by the American Philosophical Society (the renovated library of which you can visit in Philadelphia), had no allspice, no ginger, no nutmeg, no cinnamon and no vanilla in its ingredients list.

It’s an important divergence to note, because the main flavor we associate with pumpkin beers of today is really not “pumpkin” at all—it’s the taste of pumpkin pie. It’s the dessert, not the actual gourd that we can thank (or blame) for the signature aroma currently threatening to wend its way into every facet of our lives.

Distinction notwithstanding, over the past 200 years, the comforting nuances of the warming spice blend have become indelibly associated with the prosaic squash. So when drinkers debate the merits of beer recipes that use fresh pumpkin versus those that use canned, or argue that brewers who throw whole hunks of roasted pumpkin in the tanks are being more authentic than those who pour in cans of purée, it’s mostly beside the point. In the end, that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what makes a pumpkin beer good or bad.

“Pumpkin itself has little to no flavor,” asserts Philadelphia Brewing’s Barton. “It’s all about using the proper amount of spices and brewing technique.”

Some breweries don’t use any pumpkin at all. “Our Maple Mistress is not brewed with pumpkin,” clarifies Matt Lindenmuth, founder and brewer at Kutztown’s young Saucony Creek Brewing. Roasted butternut squash, real maple syrup and rum spices are what make up the tawny 9.8% ABV ale, but that doesn’t stop it from being a hot autumn seller. The 500 barrels produced for the 2014 season will comprise approximately 25% of the brewery’s total annual production, and make up more than 50% of Saucony Creek third-quarter sales.

“From a business perspective, our brewery relies greatly on the popularity of fall pumpkin beers,” Lindenmuth says.

Beau Baden of Fegley’s Brew Works echoes that sentiment nearly word for word. “The popularity of pumpkin ales has helped our company grow and get exposure, which is great for a small brewery like ours,” says the Lehigh Valley brewmaster. He’s only been making his 5.2% ABV mix of pumpkin, clove, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon for four years, but has seen 20% growth in every single one.

Year-over-year spikes have been even more noticeable for Luke Bowen at Kennett Square’s Evil Genius, where he has watched Chocolate Pumpkin Porter sales escalate 50-75% each season since it was first introduced in 2011. No other Evil Genius seasonal is more popular than pumpkin, a fact that holds true for a majority of breweries mentioned here, from Dogfish Head to Weyerbacher to Shipyard to Iron Hill.

“Pumpkin is by far our biggest seasonal beer,” says Mark Edelson, Iron Hill co-founder and director of brewing operations. “Company-wide, we brew something like 300-400 different beers each year. Not a single one sells more than pumpkin.”

This year, every single one of Iron Hill’s 10 locations kept at least one pumpkin beer on tap all the way from Labor Day through Halloween. Iron Hill’s standard pumpkin ale and The Great Imperial Pumpkin were joined by dozens of creative varieties developed by the brewers who run each outpost of the mini-chain. There was a pumpkin weiss, a pumptoberfest, a bourbon barrel-aged pumpkin and a pumpkin porter, among many others.

“Why do we make all this pumpkin beer? Because people want it. Do the brewers like making it? They better, because pumpkin beer pays the bills.” Edelson makes no secret of the reasons his company goes gaga for gourds during autumn: “Our customers ask for it!”

“How can you hate something that sells well?” he muses. “Why would you dislike something that brings new beer drinkers into the fold?”

Keeping pumpkin beer around until the end of October is a promise most production breweries simply cannot make, since they don’t have the flexibility offered by a flock of brewpubs. Once a batch of pumpkin is done and off the bottling line, large brew systems are devoted to preparing the next release on the schedule.

Scheduling is the reason Hershey-based Tröegs had never released a bottled pumpkin beer prior to 2014. “By this time of year [late summer/early fall], we’re brewing Mad Elf already,” explains co-founder John Trogner. Mad Elf—the absurdly popular winter warmer made with cherries, honey and chocolate malt—takes up a huge portion of the brewery’s attention and time. It was only after the company moved into larger digs in 2011 that the smaller “scratch” brewing system allowed a bit of playing around.

The Tröegs’ brewhouse is right near several farms, and it was seeing local pumpkins piled at farmstands that first inspired John and his brother-partner, Chris Trogner to give pumpkin ale a try, back in 2012. They had no intention of letting their experiment be served outside the brewery, and for two years, it was a tasting-room-only specialty.

This year, there was a different plan. In the spring, Chris and John helped their farmer-neighbor sow the seeds that grew into the pumpkins they eventually brought back and handed to their chef this fall. The cook roasted the orange flesh and puréed it before returning it to the brewers, who used it to produce their first commercial-scale (albeit, still very small) pumpkin run. The result, a Belgian-style spiced ale called Master of Pumpkins, had the honor of being the first beer to go through Tröegs’ new champagne-size corked and caged bottling line, a delicate operation that requires workers to load and pull bottles by hand.

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Even the largest craft brewery in the country isn’t immune to pumpkin fever.

Jim Koch’s Boston Beer doesn’t officially break out production or sales by beer style, but director of brewery programs Jennifer Glanville does relay that anecdotally, she has definitely noticed an increase for both of Samuel Adams’ pumpkin offerings. (Harvest Pumpkin was first released in 2010 and Fat Jack came to market one year later.) What’s more, Glanville does not foresee a drop-off coming.

“The only way I can describe [the pumpkin beer craze] is—it’s WILD, in a good way! We even have bars who have asked us if we can brew it year-round. People love pumpkin beer that much. And I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” she predicts.

“When we first started playing around with pumpkins, it wasn’t very popular,” Glanville remembers. “Being in New England, I was fascinated by the history of brewing with pumpkin. So when drinkers caught on, it was exciting for me and exciting for drinkers. It’s one of those times where things really line up!”

Maine-based Shipyard is another New England brewery that enjoys being in a region known for its fall harvests. First brewed in 1996, Shipyard Pumpkinhead is one of the most popular pumpkin brews out there, and is definitely the most popular seasonal that comes out of the Portland brewhouse. In the Mid-Atlantic alone, sales of the golden wheat pumpkin ale have increased 201% over the past five years, and are still on the rise.

In 2009, Shipyard added copper-toned Smashed Pumpkin to its autumn roster, and this year released it in 12-oz. bottles for the first time (previously it was only available in 22-oz. size). “Yes, we love the popularity of pumpkin beer,” confirms Mid-Atlantic sales manager Fred Chapman.

So, are there any noticeable drawbacks for breweries embracing pumpkin beer?

Fegley’s Beau Baden was able to come up with one.

“Ground spices make a hell of mess.”

 

About Mat Falco

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