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Thursday, October 06, 2016

Time For a Backlash Against the Backlash Against Pumpkin Beers


It's hard out there for a pumpkin ale.
The pumpkin beer category went through stable sales and volume growth beginning in 2005, spiking in 2013, but since 2014 has dipped to an all-time low in 2015, dropping 10% in sales and 13% in total volume.
As a consequence:
What has been dramatically dubbed “The Great Pumpkin Debacle” and the “Great Pumpkin Backlash” of 2015 has led wholesalers and distributors to stock fewer pumpkin-flavored brews this year... Brewers are also making adjustments. Ithaca Beer Co. has discontinued Country Pumpkin, which launched in 2011, and Samuel Adams, which usually cranks out two pumpkins, slashed production to just one. Southern Tier, Shipyard Brewing and Harpoon Brewing are significantly scaling back as well
Look. I have never been a fan of the pumpkin beer on the totally reasonable grounds that a great many were invented to appeal to people who don't like beer. They are sweet, simplistic, and most-dubiously, spiced. This is an historical accident dating back to a moment in 1985 when Bill Owens, founder of Buffalo Bill's, added pumpkin to a beer in an effort at colonial recreation. He learned then what brewers ever since have discovered: pumpkin doesn't have much of a taste. What, he wondered, would make it taste more pumpkin-y? Spices, of course (which actually makes it taste like pie, not squash, but let's not get too far afield). And thus was born an American tradition.

But that tradition was born. The thing is, humans often make or consume things seasonally that would otherwise not necessarily thrill them: cranberry sauce, Peeps, fruitcake. We do this because marking the seasons is an ancient act and it makes us happy. We do this in beer, too, but there aren't many beer types that scream, with such precision and specificity, a certain moment so clearly. Pumpkin ales are a form of harvest beer linked to our native flame-hued squashes and, sort of, Halloween. And some of them aren't too bad.

Breweries probably over-marketed these things, seeing them as a vein of autumnal lucre to mine, and if I have to see any more of the ubiquitous Elysian pumpkin ads that have been infesting social media, my head will explode. (Nothing spoils a quaint, community-based celebration more than multinational beer bucks.) But it would be a worse world that trudged on without the annual appearance of a now-classic pumpkin beer. I am never going to love them, but I would hate to see them disappear.

Pumpkin beers aren't dead (yet); long live pumpkin beers!


  1. It seems to me that recently pumpkin beers have become less attenuated (sweeter) and overly spiced. I typically like beer with bold flavors but these beers just don't work for me.

    I am looking forward to a beer I was peripherally involved with at a small Seattle brewery that had roasted acorn squash and hay in the mash along with a little bit of sage. It's currenty being fermented with a farmhouse blend of yeast and brett. Hopefully it will be tasty when it's ready in November (a more reasonable time for a seasonal squash beer to be served).

  2. The cranberry reference is spot on. I can't imagine eating cranberry sauce on a regular basis, but once or twice a year it's good. And if people feel otherwise, that's fine too.

    I'd be glad to see more space in the market for other fall beers, but there's a reasonable small niche for pumpkin spice ones.

  3. R, I would very much like to know the name of that brewery and beer. That sounds like an exceptionally well-conceived beer.

    1. Ha I can reply for R because that's my beer! We did indeed roast a load of acorn squash in a bed of hay and sage. The beer is still fermenting, running a little behind schedule but should finish in the next few days. The brewery is Urban Family Brewing and the beer will be called Imagined History, a nod to the fictionalized beer history that many like to peddle.

  4. It is a new tradition but an important tradition that is almost as craft beer itself. Maybe, there was a bit of overkill but I enjoy a pumpkin now and then between October and Christmas.

  5. Schlafly, I feel, manages to at least make a pumpkin ale that tastes reasonably good and doesn't annoy me with over-marketing