For a simple mixture of barley, gourd, hops, and spice, pumpkin beer attracts impressive adulation — and scorn. If we're talking about your standard pumpkin brew, someone's taken a mid-weight amber ale and dosed it with the likes of allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and clove. The result is the Pumpkin Spice Latte of beer. One pint's a nice, alcohol-aided entry to autumn, but those spices and sweetness add up if you're cruising through a six-pack. And fatigue sets in quickly once you've tried enough pumpkin spice brews to realize most taste the same because they use the same damn spices: In the 31 years since its invention, the quintessential pumpkin ale is essentially unchanged.
Regardless of your thoughts about pumpkin beer, though — and despite the millions of bottles sold — its popularity seems to be waning. In fact, we've already passed peak pumpkin. By Google's measure, search interest peaked in 2014. According to one craft bottle shop, sales of pumpkin beer this fall won't compare to 2014, and yet another bottle shop owner recently pointed to a quintessential pumpkin brew and reported selling just three cases last year, after going through 13 in 2014.
Pumpkin beer as we know it is dying in a slow, sudsy spiral. But there's good news for both the pumpkin faithful, the haters, and the reasonable folks that drink three bottles a year and worry about bigger things. As pumpkin beer dies, it is reborn in a new, far more interesting generation of ales, lagers, and sours.
Widely recognized as the first modern pumpkin beer, the Pumpkin Ale from Buffalo Bill's brewpub in Hayward, California set the standard with its six-percent ABV amber ale — an orange-hued brew dominated by toasted and caramelized barley.
Owner Bill Owens, having read that George Washington brewed a pumpkin beer (our Colonial forefathers and mothers fermented practically everything that would turn into booze), felt inspired to recreate the ale. Like Washington, he added the pumpkin early in the brewing process, alongside the barley, allowing the starches to convert to sugar and later ferment into alcohol. But when he tasted the nearly-finished product, he discovered the fermentation had stripped out the pumpkin flavor he'd envisioned. As resourceful as any good brewer, Owens ran to the local grocery for can of pumpkin pie spices and added it to the ale before bottling.
Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale continues to hit beers stores today, alongside the contemporaries it begat like the fine Smuttynose Pumpkin, Brooklyn's Post Road Pumpkin Ale, and Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale. Their shelf space, however, continues to shrink as beer tastes change. For pumpkin brews in particular, Watson points to two deeper reasons for the decline. First, he says, it's not just ambers losing market share: seasonals — no matter the style — have been steadily losing ground.
"Seasonals used to be the way beer lovers tried something new, but today, there are numerous one-offs, collaborations, barrel-aged, and dry-hopped versions," he says. "That’s cutting into what was one of the classic reasons people reached for seasonals." Watson also points to larger pumpkin spice fatigue. "It’s possible that this is part of a broader decline in American interest for pumpkin."
While the amber ale-based pumpkin is flailing, the bigger, bolder beers march on. According to Bart Watson, economist for the Brewer's Association, the volume of amber ales has flatlined; with craft beer continuing to grow, that means it's losing ground to the likes of bolder-flavored, higher-ABV IPAs. The fragrant, bitter style has boomed in recent years, jumping by 162 percent in the same period, according to IRI Group retail data.
Following the same tastes and demand driving IPA sales, today's most successful pumpkin ales are imperial versions (beers with amplified flavor and strength) of the original. Take Southern Tier's Pumking, an 8.6 percent bruiser that impressively tastes like both spiced pumpkin and pie crust. Kraig Torres, owner of the Hop City Craft Beer and Wine chain in Georgia and Alabama, says Pumking is his best seller among the spiced brews. It's followed by Dogfish Head's seven-percent Punkin and Weyerbacher's Imperial Pumpkin, which registers at eight percent.
Torres agrees more traditional beers are dwindling, but that's due to competition replacing the more rote six-packs. "Every year we sell higher volumes of pumpkin beers," he says, "but the field is getting more crowded than ever."
Likewise, Southern Tier brand manager Nathan Arnone says the New York brewery is seeing both sides of the pumpkin beer evolution. "We’ve noticed a slight slowdown on seasonal beer orders from wholesalers, but this isn't unique to Southern Tier," he says. "Despite that, Pumking is doing very well. We’re bullish on the style."
If Arnone remains enthusiastic, Elysian Brewing co-founder Joe Bisacca is ecstatic. His Seattle brewery is the flag bearer for pumpkin beer and hosts the annual Great Pumpkin Beer Fest, which brings in 60 brewers pouring nearly 100 squash-based ales and lagers. In the run-up to this fall season, he says, about 35 percent of Elysian's brewing capacity was dedicated to its four pumpkin beers. "And if we did 60 percent, we'd sell it."
But even he admits the limitation of the gourd as a beer component. "It's a quirky thing," says Bisacca. "The mild flavor doesn't go very far." His brewery, however, has developed a blueprint, spices aside, to extract maximum pumpkin flavor in a beer. It's based, Bisacca says, on adding the produce three times during the brew process. "In the mash tun, with the barley, you get fermentable sugar and a nice mouthfeel. In the brew kettle you get a cooked flavor, and then a late addition after primary fermentation you get a fresh pumpkin flavor. You need to balance the three."
Bisacca's main worry for the style is that the seasonal creep into July saps the spirit of the beer. Elysian hits stores mid-August, but according to Torres, Shipyard's Pumpkinhead has arrived as early as July 5.
That push, says Bisacca, comes from brewers fearing they'll be stuck with pallets of unsold beer on November 1. After Halloween, he says, it's like a light switch turns off on the beer. That spirit is also the heart of its sales. "Pumpkin beer is more about celebrating the change of season," Bisacca says. "Pumpkin beer is an iconic shepherd to bring us through fall."
The popularity of Bisacca's sold-out Great Pumpkin Beer Festival is certainly helped by that embrace of autumn, but the brewers in attendance aren't resting on tired ambers, or even the more popular amplified ales. They're pushing the possibilities further, and that may be where we see pumpkin beer's future. Elysian has done its part with experimental pumpkin-ginger pilsner, malt liquor, and even an IPA in collaboration with the noted hopheads at Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing. But one of the biggest draws at the festival, says Bisacca, is Avery Brewing Company's ridiculous, 18 percent ABV, rum-barrel aged Rumpkin. For good measure, the Colorado brewery also produces the 15 percent Pump[KY]n porter aged in bourbon barrels.
Brewers beyond Seattle's Great Pumpkin Beer Festival are similarly bending and twisting the style into new forms. North Carolina's Wicked Weed Brewing made two pumpkin brews for 2016: Xibalba, an 8.2 percent brown ale with cocoa nibs and chiles, and then the nine-percent Pompeon, made with charred ginger and aged in rum barrels. The impressive duo are a far cry from Buffalo Bill's original amber.
Wicked Weed isn't alone. St. Louis's Boulevard Brewing Company — an arm of the country's 15th-largest craft brewer, Duvel Moortgat — released two pumpkin ales for 2016, and both are sours built around a funky, earthy yeast called Brettanomyces. Equally inventive, but on the other end of the flavor spectrum, Colorado-based Breckenridge Brewery released a nitrogen-carbonated (think: Guinness) Pumpkin Spice Latte stout that's far more nuanced and fun to drink than the banal Starbucks order.
Pumpkin beers might be down, but they're far from out. Watson, a keen observer of beer trends, isn't exactly optimistic. "It remains to be seen whether more interesting pumpkin beers will help a rebound in growth," he says. But number be damned. It's not more pumpkin beer we need, it's better pumpkin beers. The style, as most people know it, may be withering. But the rebirth of pumpkin beers as far more fun and interesting brew will ultimately elevate the autumn tradition beyond its caramel-colored, spice-heavy confines.