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Does Pumpkin Beer Deserve a Bad Rap?

October 01, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, October 01, 2018

It’s not yet September as I write this and people are already bitching about pumpkin beer’s imminent arrival. Just plug the words “pumpkin beer” into Twitter’s search bar and see for yourself.

“If anyone offers me a pumpkin beer this fall,” tweets one man. “I’m gonna take it and give them an enema with it.” “Pumpkin beer should be illegal,” tweets another. “Friends don’t let friends drink pumpkin beer! First, Starbucks brings back PSL in August and now pumpkin beers are out already?! This pumpkin thing is out of control!” That Twitter user also attaches a photo of an absolutely massive display of Shipyard Pumpkinhead cases stacked to the ceiling at his local liquor store.

Yes, the only thing more predictable than pumpkin beer seemingly arriving earlier and earlier each year is people complaining about it with incredibly trite jokes. How did we get to this point? Didn’t pumpkin beer used to be wildly popular?

Pumpkins were being fermented into ale as far back as colonial times, when they were known at “pompions.” Even if Twitter had existed back then, no one would have mocked these pumpkin ales, or bemoaned “seasonal creep,” because even ye olde pompion ales were surely arriving during the late summer, when pumpkins are harvested.

In the craft beer era, the style was revived, if not completely reinvented, in 1985 with Buffalo Bill’s Punkin Ale. In making the beer—which was based on George Washington’s old recipe—brewer Bill Owens found that pumpkins didn’t really add flavor, so he added traditional pumpkin pie spices, including nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Eventually, he quit adding pumpkins to his pumpkin ale altogether. This seasonally spiced offering would set a template for the style to follow.

By the early aughts, there were hundreds of different pumpkin ales on the market. Eventually, pumpkin ales dominated the “field beer” category at the Great American Beer Festival, and later forming their own spin-off category. (Pumpkin remains the only fruit or vegetable with its own GABF style category to this day.) By 2005, pumpkin ales were proving so popular that Elysian Brewing in Seattle began holding the annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival at its Seattle brewpub.

“The first year we had a line out the door for ten hours,” brewery cofounder Dick Cantwell recalled in 2010. A line out the door to drink pumpkin beer?! Most people today would have you believe they’d be sprinting for the doors if a brewpub only had pumpkin beers on tap.

But, I can tell you, as someone who has been in the craft beer scene since before that inaugural festival, there was absolutely a time in the mid- to late-aughts when people anxiously awaited the arrival of pumpkin beers. No, these beer releases never reached the levels of insanity that infects folks in 2018 as they wait in lines overnight for a hazy IPA, but there was still a time when even self-identified beer geeks coveted many of these autumnal releases.

“We used to start getting emails and calls in June,” claims Phin DeMink, the founder and CEO of Southern Tier Brewing. Pumking arrived on the scene in 2007, right in the heart of the “extreme beer” craze ushered in by breweries like Dogfish Head and Stone. Pumking was unlike the mild-mannered pumpkin beers at the time. It was boozy, a then-whopping 8.6% ABV. It was also intense and full-flavored, truly tasting like pumpkin pie in a bottle, all the way down to a graham cracker-like crust.

“Back then, there was a mad dash whenever it first came out,” DeMink recalls. “People would buy so much and hoard it, so they had enough to get them through the fall.”

A pumpkin beer was once one of the top ranked beers in the world.”

Pumking literally doubled and then tripled its sales every single year from its debut until 2015, a date we’ll return to in a bit. Average Joes bought it at supermarkets, beer nerds drank tulips of it at beer bars like Brooklyn’s Barcade and Washington D.C.’s Churchkey. In a way, it was a bit of precursor to the dessert ingredient-crammed “pastry stouts,” those beers that don’t taste like beer that are still all the rage these days. Just look at some of the earliest user reviews for Pumking, which were universally positive.

In the beer’s first ever BeerAdvocate review, from August 31, no less, one user notes the “smell is phenomenal.” Another from that year: “You smell this beer and realize I don’t want to drink this I want to eat it .” Another: “Do yourself a favor. Get some Pumking.” The sweet and boozy success of Pumking would inspire other breweries, whose pumpkin offerings were also lauded by the cognoscenti.

Cigar City would release the equally intense Good Gourd in 2009—even upping the ante with spirit barrel-aged versions called Good Gourd Almighty. 2010 would bring Avery's 16.9% Rumpkin, aged in rum barrels. Saint Arnold Divine Reserve No. 9, an 11% imperial pumpkin stout released as a one-off in 2009, was so acclaimed it briefly made BeerAdvocate’s top 100 beers in the world list. Let me repeat that: A pumpkin beer was once one of the top ranked beers in the world!

“When Divine Reserve No. 9 was released, pumpkin beers were definitely still a unique item in the beer coolers,” recalls Lennie Ambrose, the brewery’s chief marketing officer. The beer would eventually be a yearly release renamed Pumpkinator. “At that time, I had definitely never heard of a pumpkin imperial stout, as most of them were basically brown ales with pumpkin spice, so it was definitely something out of the ordinary.”

No one was mocking these beers, no one was saying they were hitting stores shelves too early. By 2011 5,000 people attended The Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, which had been moved to Elysian’s giant Georgetown plant, and now featured pumpkin beers from such buzzy breweries as Russian River and Allagash. Though, like many things in life, the fact that pumpkin beers were suddenly becoming popular immediately lead to some people criticizing them.

That same year, in October of 2011, Clay Risen of The Atlantic reported on this phenomenon in his article “The Divisive Pumpkin Ale.” He wrote: “Some beer styles are loved, some are ardently despised, but none is more divisive than pumpkin ales.” But, at that point in time, was that really true? More divisive than, I don’t know, a funky wild ale? More divisive than the still-bitter West Coast IPA?

Up until the 2010s, pumpkin beer had been mostly loved—or, perhaps, mostly ignored, as craft beer drinking was still niche. Was the mere fact that everyone now had pumpkin beer on their radar, that every store and bar was hawking it during the Halloween season, enough to finally create this backlash?

Alas, we weren’t even at peak pumpkin ale yet. That would come a couple years later and the hatred would only intensify with it. In looking at Google Trends, searches for “pumpkin beer” and “pumpkin ale” of course spike every October, but they spiked the most in the October of 2013—and right about here is when pumpkin ale jumped the shark and its sales numbers started tanking.

The death of pumpkin beer has been greatly exaggerated.”

“Pumpkin [flavoring] in the fall of 2013-2015, it just got huge,” recalls DeMink. “It was in everything from soap to lattes. Retailers and the suppliers just overwhelmed people in every category with pumpkin spiced things. Consumers were like, “Whoa, pumpkin overload.’”

This overload included pumpkin beers, which no brewery would be caught dead without. There were just too many breweries trying to go after the easy cash-grab that was pumpkin beer. These late-comers would be punished. By the 2015 season, pumpkin beer dropped 10 percent in sales and 13 percent in total volume, according to Beveragedaily.com. It was also around this time we first started seeing negative user reviews for once-lionized pumpkin beers like Pumking.

“Overall, I just don’t get it,” wrote one BeerAdvocate user. “The way people talk it up, I’m slightly disappointed,” wrote another, while yet another noted that “[it] almost tastes like regurgitated pumpkin pie.” Many former lovers of the beer even posited that Pumking’s recipe had been altered: “What did they do to my pumking? I know our paletes change over time, but this is not the taste [I] remember at all.”

The recipe hadn’t changed in the least. Beer bros just didn’t want to be considered basic. As BeerAdvocate user rudycantfail astutely explained , “There are a lot of hipsters in the craft beer world who dislike nothing more than being part of a trend. That, plus the ‘white suburban girl’ with her pumpkin spice latte stereotype turns off a lot of people who don’t want to be thought of similarly. [Pumpkin] beer itself is objectively no better or worse than any other with one of a thousand different added ingredients.”

Still, despite all these vocal haters, the death of pumpkin beer has been greatly exaggerated.

“In my opinion, we just had a two-year reset of the total category,” says DeMink. “[Southern Tier] decided to weather the storm because we believe in the category, we believe in our brand, and we saw no need to make rash decisions. There’s a reason people have enjoyed pumpkin pie for decades.”

I think he’s right, and pumpkin beer is poised to make a big comeback. This year Pumking and pumpkin beer in general is back into growth, after small declines for the last couple of years. Breweries that had no passion for the style quit making it, while a lot of wholesalers and retailers finally figured out that they don’t need 100 different pumpkin brands on their shelves starting each August. Curating the best of the best is more than enough, which luckily now include more ambitious, esoteric efforts: pumpkin ales made from different autumnal squashes, ones that tackle more interesting styles like barleywine and sour ales. The classics are also reclaiming their thrones.

“Folks still go crazy for [Pumpkinator] around here and it always one of our most anticipated releases each year,” notes Ambrose, who adds that it’s also a mid-October release, later than most pumpkin beers.

Even the haters—the beer geeks—may reconsider the humble pumpkin ale. A recent thread on the BeerAdvocate forums asked “Is trashing pumpkin beers hypocritical for some?” Meaning, has mocking pumpkin beer just become so easy of joke—especially in a world full of cocoa nib, vanilla bean, coffee-crammed stouts—that respectable beer geeks are all but expected to make it? One user argued: “You pumpkin beer haters are the Comic Sans bashers or the beer world! While you’re at it, I’d love to hear your opinion on Nickelback.”

And maybe the regular beer drinkers out there, the ones that don’t wait in lines for NEIPAs and who don’t attend bottle shares, never hated pumpkin beer in the first place, never saw it as some cheap joke.

Today, when I go back to Twitter and search for “pumpkin beer,” the results turn up mostly normal people, not enraged #beertwitter.

“God, im such a happy girl now that pumpkin beer is back ”

“it’s pumpkin beer szn friends”

“PUMPED for pumpkin beer.”

 

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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