A check of retail cooler shelves and pub bar taps this fall confirms it: Pumpkin beer has arrived as sure as the changing of the leaves and the coming of the rains.
The seasonal style long ago graduated from novelty status into a full-fledged trend and is well on its way to becoming an autumn tradition.
From nanobrewers to big boys such as Samuel Adams and Coors, it seems everyone is getting in on the action. Beeradvocate.com users rate more than 350 pumpkin beers nationwide, and that certainly doesn’t include many more obscure brewers. The Great American Beer Festival broke out the pumpkin category in its contest a few years back – and it grew to 37 entrants last year.
This weekend in Seattle, the 8th Annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival will showcase the wild popularity of the style with brewers and drinkers. The event has grown from a small party hosted by Elysian Brewing featuring a couple dozen regional beers, to a highly anticipated extravaganza with 60-plus brewers represented.
Elysian, which has carved out a name for itself for its inventive use of the gourd, will serve a brewer’s dozen of its own offerings – including its Great Pumpkin Imperial Ale partially conditioned in and tapped from a hollowed out giant squash.
“Pumpkin provides a really good challenge for brewers,” said Elysian founder and head brewer Dick Cantwell. “It gives us a chance to show how serious we are and how ridiculous we can be.”
Brewers would not make more of it if drinkers weren’t buying it. The style may even dethrone the mighty Oktoberfest as the favorite autumn seasonal, said Julia Herz, spokeswoman for the American Brewers Association.
“Pumpkin beer is fun and intriguing,” she said in explaining the appeal. “It’s kind of the time of year in a glass.”
The rise of pumpkin beer epitomizes two revivals in American craft brewing: the brewing of seasonal beers and the use of seemingly exotic ingredients. You might call it “non-traditional,” but only if you are willing to overlook centuries of brewing history in Europe and pre-prohibition America.
In the New World, colonists used the native pumpkin to make ale not for its unique flavors, but because it was a cheap and plentiful barley substitute. The style was rediscovered by homebrewers and commercially revived in the first wave of 1980s craft brewing by Buffalo Bill’s Brewing, which continues to produce a widely distributed variety.
Cantwell, reached while in Philadelphia on a marketing trip, notices that the East Coast embraced pumpkin ale earlier than the West. But it’s certainly grown into a national phenomenon, with the flavor taking hold in places such as Alaska and Florida.
The most common and popular pumpkin beers exhibit a malty, even sweet foundation, counterbalanced not with the usual hops, but with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. The crowd-pleasing impression is that of pumpkin pie.
But many brewers are pushing those limits, playing with the ingredients and base styles, not to mention names. Elysian, for instance, has used pumpkin in dozens of styles, from Hansel and Gretel Ginger Pumpkin Pils to The Gourdfather Pumpkin Barleywine. Silverdale’s Silver City Brewing has gotten raves for its Punk Rauchen smoked beer (beer geeks will appreciate the name).
Puyallup River Brewing’s Eric Akeson tastes a common denominator among the varying styles: “Pumpkin gives you a huge amount of mouthfeel.” That’s the self-describing beer-tasting term for the chewy body that adds backbone to a beer.
Akeson couldn’t resist adding a fall brew – Jack O’Lahar’s Pumpkin Ale – to the burgeoning lineup of his small operation. “It’s been a hit this season,” he says. “It’s pretty much sold out.”
So Akeson went ahead with another draft-only offering, which he describes as a “9.3 percent (alcohol) saison real farmhouse ale brewed with copious amounts of pumpkin puree and spices.” The appropriate name: “Goardy Wow!”