Yes, here we are, the weather is getting cool, the days are getting shorter and we are inundated with pumpkin beers. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay. What is interesting, however, is that they date back to the first settlers landing in the northeast. While beer was a staple in Europe, settlers in the New World didn’t have access to fields of barley, or other grains, nor did they have access to malted grains. Pumpkins and other gourds, however, were plentiful. These were used for their fermentable sugars, providing a key ingredient in many early American beers.
Interestingly enough, as malted barley became more readily available, the use of pumpkins to make beer declined and eventually disappeared, until the advent of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, from California. They make the claim of making the first modern pumpkin beer in the late 1980s. While their initial test batches used real pumpkin, when it came to commercial production they focused on pumpkin pie spices for flavour, starting both the “pumpkin in the beer” and “pumpkin pie spices in the beer” trends that are the talk of the category today.
For those who have tasted the real thing, it should be noted that pumpkin has very little native flavour. As such, the development of the category in beer has focused largely on using pumpkin pie spices to justify the name. While we are dispelling pumpkin myths, I should mention that most pumpkin beers do not actually use real pumpkin in the making of the beer, and of those that do, few to none use fresh pumpkin. The time needed to harvest and process fresh pumpkin from field to brewery would preclude the brewing of pumpkin beer much before January. To maximize the pumpkin-fall season pairing, most breweries choose to use canned pumpkin instead.
Where does this leave us with pumpkin beer? It is really quite a mixed bag. We have beers that are light in style and fuller bodied, darker and lighter in color, heavily spiced and lightly spiced, with and without pumpkin, as well as those that venture off in unexplored directions, like pumpkin porters, stouts and doppelbocks. In short, the pumpkin beer phenomenon, like everything else in the craft beer world, is focused on creativity, exploring boundaries and producing a wide range of styles with some common characteristics (in this case the pumpkin spices) tying the concept together.
This whole trend, led by the folks at Shipyard, has taken on a life of its own, with the style growing exponentially year after year, not just in amount produced and consumed, but in variations, styles and producers. To touch briefly on a topic from a previous post, one of the troubles is that pumpkin beers, like seemingly all seasonal styles, seem to be coming out earlier and earlier every year. This year, a brewery which shall remain nameless, offered me delivery of pumpkin beer the Monday after July 4. I simply refused.
Last week I was discussing this topic with someone in the store, and was asked an interesting question: “Is pumpkin beer the new IPA?” I don’t remember how I answered at the time, but will endeavor to do so here. First of all, I should define what I mean by “the new IPA.” We know what an IPA is, stylistically, and the differences between an English style and the East Coast and West Coast American variations of the IPA style. What I am referring to, however, is the influence, the place and position of the IPA in the market. Namely, IPA has become, on a regular basis, almost a cliché. Practically every brewery “has to have” at least one. A typical store, in the craft section, will have more IPAs on a regular, year round basis than any other craft style. It is an industry driving monster of which people cannot, it seems, get enough. It has a broad range of styles, from malty to hoppy, to balanced and the most recent additions, the Black IPA and the White IPA. It has delicate, subtle versions like Fuller’s IPA or the Berkshire Lost Sailor IPA, it has over the top monsters like the Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, beautifully balanced versions, like the Avery Maharaja. From light to extreme, and everything in between.
So, is pumpkin beer the new IPA? To start with, “Is pumpkin beer the new IPA based on popularity?” I would have to say that a case can certainly be made for this. How about versatility within the style? Again, I would have to argue yes, and then some, because it can comfortably be done with a brown/amber/copper, a stout, porter, lager and numerous other styles. Add to that list the mix and blend of spices, such as allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves, with some or all in each beer and the similarities between those spices and the versatility of various hop combinations and intensities in IPA, and one can see further parallels.
One take on the question which will not make a lot of people happy is: “Is pumpkin beer the new IPA because it is becoming cliché?” As noted, it is almost a prerequisite for a brewery to have an IPA, but while there are some exceptional ones, many IPAs do not impress me. They leave me with the feeling that they exist so the brewery can claim an IPA in its portfolio. I could, quite literally, have hundreds of IPAs in the store.
Each year more breweries are releasing yet another pumpkin beer. On this, too, I feel that pumpkin beers are becoming the new IPA. There are now pumpkin ciders, even. Every year I hear that a brewery is planning their first release for “next year.” It is sometimes all I can do to not say, “please … don’t.” Every year the style is growing. I have all the pumpkin beers I can fit on my shelves, yet more and more breweries want to get in the game. Every year the consumers are wanting more and more and more. It is, I think, fair to say that pumpkin beers have replaced the original fall beer, Oktoberfest, in terms of consumer demand, possibly making it one of the most popular styles of the year.
The only thing I really see as differentiating pumpkin beers from “the next IPA,” is that pumpkin beers are still seasonal, so they don’t have the year round demand or pull of IPAs. They are extremely versatile when pairing with a wide variety of foods. This is largely due to the wide range of styles of pumpkin beer and the seemingly endless combination of spice in various amounts. Pumpkin beers, being seasonal in nature, do not have the nationwide appeal, at this point, of IPAs, however a quick search showed me pumpkin beers from over 20 US states plus British Columbia in Canada.
No matter where you stand on the pumpkin beer question, they are here to stay. In the business we talk about how the market has to cap off at some point, but that point hasn’t happened and does not appear to be in the immediate future. In the meantime, perhaps partly driven by the limited release and seasonal nature of pumpkin beer, demand keeps growing, supply keeps growing.
From modest beginnings as a substitute fermentable, pumpkin beers have become one of the biggest seasonal styles going. The pumpkin beers are trending like IPA in terms of growth, popularity, versatility and viability. The weakness with them is the seasonal aspect. Some fruited beers have overcome seasonal limitations and this year it is interesting to watch a fall shandy take off. One must ask if pumpkin beers would retain their viability as a year round offering or if they would suffer due to large scale availability. Is a key component in their sales strength and popularity the short term and limited nature of the offering? We will have to watch the development of this style and see what answers present themselves.