The Pumpkin Beer Problem

Back in 2011 The Atlantic reported on “The Divisive Pumpkin Ale”, alleging that the style had become synonymous with increasingly stale and overdone flavors. This is still the (very subjective) argument for people who loathe the stuff.

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My girlfriend’s dad has a whole shelf of his downstairs fridge dedicated to pumpkin beer. He collects them with glee, then drinks them with enthusiasm — but nothing over the top, not what you’d call religious zeal. It works out fantastically: I have an easy gift to bring every couple of visits.

The problem comes when he invites me to drink them with him. Of course I appreciate it, and being a curious drinker without a lick of sense, I’m always hoping for the best. But it always ends the same. My will to drink is sapped by the time I finish half a glass. By the end, my palate’s exhausted by an overpowering set of fall spice flavors, and I feel like taking a nap and waking up when winter rolls around. It’s exactly the opposite of how fall otherwise makes me feel: refreshed, vibrant, active.

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Yes, I dislike pumpkin beer. Sometimes I dream of seeing a veritable ocean of the stuff spilled out by Prohibition agents, the orange bottles melted down and reused to make tchotchkes for the Dutch National soccer team. But that’s obviously subjective; the numbers say I’m in the minority in a big way. (And it’s not just beer: the Washington Post reported that each American eats more than five pounds of pumpkin per year.) In August of this year USA Today reported that pumpkin beers had not only flooded supermarkets well before Labor Day (and fall), but that the style is leading the fall seasonal beer resurgence, which is up 15 percent from 2012 to 2013 — and according to the Brewers Association, fall seasonal beers made $530 million last year. Which is of course good for beer and beer drinkers; pumpkin beers are a big part of craft beer’s explosive growth in the past decade.

And yet we pumpkin-haters seem to be gaining steam from all fronts. The most recent (and cheeky) attack happened when John Oliver took on pumpkin spice everything on his issue-crushing HBO show, Last Week Tonight; Oliver’s convinced it’s all in drinkers’ heads. “We tolerate pumpkin spice because we like the fall. Just about anything that reminds us of autumn is a better flavor than pumpkin spice. I personally would rather drink a cable-knit-sweater spiced latte, or a major-league-baseball spiced latte, or a keen-awareness-of-my-own-mortality spiced latte — because that’s what foliage is!” he said. And then there’s a young drinker for the Harvard Crimson with boozing on the mind who recently quipped that “You’re more likely to enter diabetic shock before you feel the slightest bit tipsy” when drinking pumpkin brews.

The rumblings of a coup d’etat have been growing for some time. Back in 2011 The Atlantic reported on “The Divisive Pumpkin Ale“, alleging that the style had become synonymous with a “liquid pumpkin pie or a treacly treat” of overwhelming nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, clove flavors. This is still the (very subjective) argument for people like me who loathe the stuff. But among brewers and beer enthusiasts, there’s growing distaste for pumpkin beer that goes beyond taste. They’re saying, with all due respect to their fellow brewers making the stuff, that some pumpkin beer practices are bad for consumers and craft beer in general.

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Complaints against pumpkin beer can be divided into three areas. First, the market seems absolutely saturated, as anyone who’s walked into a beer store lately knows. The pumpkin beer boom is enormous; according to Nielsen, one unnamed top pumpkin beer enjoyed a 366 percent increase in sales from 2012 to 2013. In September, October and November of last year, fall seasonals, overwhelmingly made up of pumpkin beers, outsold the vigorously quaffed IPA, otherwise the most popular beer style made and sold; it’s set to happen again this year. Why? Because everyone making a pumpkin beer — some make two, or, like Elysian Brewing, more than 20 — in response to off-the-charts market demand. The smart business decision is to go after the $530+ million that rabid buyers are throwing down. As Elysian Brewing head brewer Dick Cantwell recently told All About Beer, “You can sell just about any amount of pumpkin beer that you make.”

Which causes the second, more serious problem: seasonal creep, that marketing scourge that puts Santa in your local mall in September and generally makes everyone miserable. Pumpkin beers are now beginning to hit retailers in July and early August.

“It always amazes me when I see pumpkin beer at distributors in July”, says Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, based in Milton, Delaware. Seasonal creep is a problem, he explains, for two main reasons: customer confusion (“Are you releasing your summer seasonal in July, or your fall seasonal?”) and old beer in the marketplace — “a shit ton” of beer being brewed in May and June yet kept on shelves all through Halloween.

Dogfish Head and a few other stalwart brewers hold out, refusing to release their beers to distributors until fall actually rolls around. (Dogfish Head demands that distributors not put their Punkin Ale on sale until September 1 every year.) But seasonal creep only continues to get worse, as USA Today‘s August article pointed out. As long as the style maintains its popularity and the money’s still on the table, the creep will continue its march, says Pete Giannopoulos, assistant operations manager at Sly Fox Brewing Company, a brewery based in Pottstown, PA. “As the market is becoming saturated breweries are trying to get their seasonals out there earlier; their end consumers may not want to purchase their thirtieth Christmas ale or pumpkin ale”, Giannopoulos says.

“It’s not an effective pumpkin beer unless you can taste pumpkin in it. Throwing a little pumpkin in just for conceptual reasons isn’t enough. It really has to be a beer that takes into account what’s in it.”

Seasonal creep is also the villain behind the third problem, the aspect of pumpkin beer that’s perhaps most viciously attacked by drinkers: the lack of actual pumpkin flavor. The common refrain is that many pumpkin beers are nothing more than unbalanced mixtures of pumpkin pie spices, and often derive their pumpkin flavor from non-fresh cooked puree, a blander preparation of fresh pumpkin meat, or just artificial pumpkin flavoring. In August of 2012, Brooklyn-based Sixpoint Brewery, an outspoken champion of plying the very best ingredients to make unique, “outside-the-box” beers, took to Twitter to call out the growing plot hole in pumpkin beer and seasonal creep: “Any pumpkin beer on shelves now is clearly not made with this year’s pumpkin. Pumpkins are not harvested until October or November.”

This would implicate that some of the most popular pumpkin beers on the market weren’t using fresh ingredients, which, according to Calagione of Dogfish Head, adds pumpkin to the beer’s the smell but not to its taste; fresh pumpkin meat, he says, “adds an earthiness to [the taste] and the pumpkin meat flavor instead of just pumpkin spice flavor. It’s woven more into the taste of the beer instead of just the aroma of the beer.”

Some of the highest-rated beers are made with real, fresh pumpkin meat, and all of them find balance without losing the fireside comfort that cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and clove imbue; Dogfish Head’s Punkin even makes use of organic brown sugar to bump its ABV to 7% and provide a caramel-y character. But they’re the exception to the rule; some of the worst beers are loaded up with those spices, meant to cover up an otherwise mediocre brew.

Which has led brewers to make claims that would otherwise be obvious in the proud-we-brew-this craft beer culture: Elysian’s Cantwell recently told All About Beer, “It’s not an effective pumpkin beer unless you can taste pumpkin in it. Throwing a little pumpkin in just for conceptual reasons isn’t enough. It really has to be a beer that takes into account what’s in it.” In the culture of the proud-we-brew-this craft beer world, standards like this are a given. And yet when it comes to pumpkin beers, most are willing to overlook them.

“The reality is that there’s a lot of pumpkin beers. Everybody knows that. Does the world need another one?”

Less pressing, but more troubling for the industry as a whole, is the question of what beers brewers could be brewing while they instead focus their energies on the ultra-successful pumpkin beer. Brewers don’t have an endless quiver of beers to pull from, as we drinkers sometimes imagine. In fact, as Giannopoulos explained, even major craft brewers are “up against it as far as inventory”, struggling to produce the amount of beer they’ve committed to sell, because of craft beer’s expansive growth. “Tank space”, the number of unused fermenters at any given time, is key, and most brewers already don’t have enough. Brewers must decide between milking a cash cow like a pumpkin beer or taking a risk on another, less popular style — like the Oktoberfest lager, which as I remember it, used to be the beer of the fall. But now the decision is glossed over; as the Brewers Association says, “seasonal beers peak in interest and sales every October, and the only suspect worth considering for this peak is the pumpkin beer.” But Sly Fox’s Oktoberfest lager is their fastest-growing seasonal brand, which keeps them from making their own pumpkin beer: “It’d be really really difficult for us to do two seasonals simultaneously”, Giannopoulous says.

Interesting beers are still being made, in and outside of the pumpkin paradigm. (Alternative takes on pumpkin, like Cigar City’s 11% ABV Good Gourd Almighty and Elysian’s Punkuccino, a coffee-pumpkin hybrid, are part of a class of highly rated beers lauded for pushing the boundaries of the seasonal style.) Sixpoint Brewery just released their SENSI Harvest, which showcases the “wet hopped” process, wherein extremely fresh, unpreserved whole hop cones (only available during the fall hop harvest season) are added to the fermentation and finishing process to imbue a pungent hop character. Aaron Ekroth, Sixpoint’s creative director, said the brewery made a decision to focus on hops rather than pumpkin during the harvest season. “The reality is that there’s a lot of pumpkin beers. Everybody knows that”, he said. “Does the world need another one?”

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Above: The Bruery Autumn Maple, Elysian Punkuccino, Founders Breakfast Stout, Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, Cigar City Good Gourd Almighty, Revolution Brewing Oktoberfest, Sixpoint SENSI Harvest

There’s a distinction to be made. Individually, there are many fine pumpkin beers for people who enjoy the style. Taken as a whole, though, the style is in some ways a big money-carrot dangling in front of brewers who need the capital — resulting in seasonally creeping, badly brewed and uncreative beers.

Drinkers who look forward to their pumpkin-based treats every year have no reason to hang their heads — they just need to be aware of what they’re promoting, which Calagione says is already happening. “Beer lovers are so much more savvy today than they were 20 or 18 years ago when we started. It’s a crowded space, but we trust that the consumer will find the great pumpkin beers that are out there, and not return to the not great ones.”

The solution for brewers is simple, on paper: if they can’t make a pumpkin beer that competes with the very best or does something new and worthwhile, they should make something else. Breweries have been telling us it’s about the love of the beer, not the money, for years. It’s time for them to prove it.

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