Article By: Lew Bryson
They haunt the bars, they haunt the brewpubs, they haunt your store, sometimes as early as late June, hoping that somehow their favorite fall seasonal has arrived early. The Oktoberfest hunters, with their tubas and lederhosen, have nothing on these people for blind need.
“We released ours in mid-July,” said Kevin Love, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing at Smuttynose Brewing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He’s talking about the brewery’s Pumpkin Ale. “The demand was there. It’s crazy.”
Alan Pugsley, the founder of Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine, recalls the first batch of pumpkin beer he made, way back in 1994, at Federal Jack’s brewpub in Kennebunk, and how popular it became. “We talked about doing something fun for the fall,” he said, “and Fred Forsley (now President of Shipyard) said, ‘How about pumpkin beer?’ I literally went up to the kitchen and started adding pumpkin pie spices into Export Ale. We put the spices in one keg at a time. Lo and behold, it was a success. People kept asking us the next year, ‘When’s the pumpkin, when’s the pumpkin?’” The first zombies . . . but it got worse.
“The first year we made it here at Shipyard was 2OO2,” he continued. “We made 5OO barrels of Pumpkinhead. We were skeptical, we didn’t think it would work. We sold out in 2 weeks! People were driving in from Connecticut and Massachusetts. People were coming in the brewery store and throwing money at us, I mean, they were really throwing money at us, saying they had to have it. We made 35OO bbls. the next year, then 4OOO barrels in 2OO4. Last year we shipped out 97OO barrels That’s not bad, for one brand, August to October, after 6 years.”
Out of Their Gourd Maybe you don’t realize just how far pumpkin beers have come. You’ve got all kinds of choices, so many that Elysian, the multi-award winning brewery/pub out in Seattle, is having their fifth annual Great Pumpkin beer festival in October, featuring over 25 pumpkin beers from Elysian and other brewers. There will be imperial pumpkin ales, pumpkin stouts, pumpkin pilsners, barrel-aged pumpkin beer, a sour pumpkin ale, a Belgian-style pumpkin ale . . .
The pièce de résistance, a giant pumpkin that was previously filled with pumpkin beer and sealed with wax to allow the beer to ‘condition’ in its pumpkin ‘cask’. Brewmaster Dick Cantwell will carefully hammer home a tap into the pumpkin and serve the beer to eager customers.
That is how crazy people have become for pumpkin beers. Lest you think it’s a mad west coast phenomenon, Cambridge Brewing will be hosting a pumpkin beer festival on Halloween this year. Brewer Will Meyers will have four beers, including a pumpkin saison and an 11% “Spinal Pumpkin” brewed with eleven different varieties of heirloom pumpkins, and one that will be conditioned, Elysian-style, in a giant pumpkin. Cantwell is sending beer from Elysian. It’s pumpkin beer, it’s bad, it’s nationwide.
But this has been going on for years; pumpkin beer came about pretty early in American craft brewing. In fact, it was Bill Owens, the guy who started Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub, who launched the movement in Hayward, California. I visited the place in 1986, and I’ve come to know Bill since then – he’s now involved in microdistilling, the President of the American Distilling Institute – and I got the story of the first pumpkin beer from him. It actually happened that year I visited, and I missed the beer by about two months.
In addition to being a brewpub owner and an accomplished photographer, Bill was also an avid gardner. “I grew a 7O pound pumpkin,” he said. “I was proud of it, but then I thought, I don’t know what to do with a 7O pound pumpkin! I had read that George Washington made beer and used pumpkins in the process. So I decided to do the same.”
Owens was flying completely blind here, so he fell back on basics. “I cut the pumpkin into pieces and baked it for an hour at 35O degrees,” he said. “The cooked pumpkin was then mashed-in. The boil was normal and the fermention went well. Just one problem! I couldn’t taste the pumpkin in the finished beer, because a pumpkin is in the gourd family and gourds have a very neutral flavor.”
What Owens did next was what made pumpkin beers the love of the zombie masses. “I went to the supermarket and bought a small can of pumpkin pie spice, the kind that contain ginger, cloves and nutmeg. The spices were put into a coffee filter and dissolved making six cups of spiced pumpkin water. The liquid was added to a five barrel bright beer tank, giving you instant pumpkin ale.” You can almost see the smiles as people nodded at the spiced flavor: that’s what pumpkin tastes like!
Pumpkin beers kind of ticked along, a little fall fun under the rise and fall of fruit beers, the Oktoberfest boom, the Craft Shakeout that flatlined the niche in the late 199Os. It’s hard to say what put the wind in the sales – so to speak – but it might have been a collapse of resistance. The common thread is brewers who didn’t want to brew pumpkin beers.
Tearing Up the Pumpkin Patch “One of our top wholesalers had been after us for years to make one,” Dan Weirback recalled. He’s President of Weyerbacher Brewing, in Easton PA, talking about their big Imperial Pumpkin Ale. “And I said, ‘No, that’s gonna fade away. And every year, they’d say ‘We’re selling 5O% more every year of the other guy’s pumpkin beers!’ Finally I said I’d do it, but I was going to do it my way – I’ll do an Imperial pumpkin beer. I suspect the people that aren’t making them are thinking the same thing I did.”
“We had made pumpkin beers at the brewpub and knew about the popularity of it,” said Smuttynose’s Kevin Love. “People would ask about it year ’round. But Peter (Egleston, President of Smuttynose) just doesn’t like fruit beers. We finally started making the Pumpkin Ale in 2OO3. There wasn’t anybody else making them much then, and it took off.”
“It was something we did because everyone wanted a pumpkin beer, especially our sales guy,” said Phin DeMink, founder of Southern Tier Brewing, in Lakewood, New York. “But I didn’t want to. I don’t even like pumpkin pie! But what I really didn’t want to do was a pumpkin beer that was a light transition beer for the masses. So we got a whole lot of pureed pumpkin, a ton of barley, and made Pumking.”
DeMink found the same thing everyone else has, too. “We can’t keep up,” he said. It probably helps that Pumking is the top-rated pumpkin beer on BeerAdvocate.com, but there’s a clear split in pumpkin loving, too. Some folks like that big whopping pumpkin pie effect, and some folks prefer a much lighter touch.
Shipyard offers both this year. The familiar and popular Pumpkinhead is the big seller: “It’s 4.7%, very drinkable, a wheat beer with pumpkin spices,” said Alan Pugsley. “It’s been a massive success over the past seven years.”
If you want something, well, scarier, this year Shipyard also offers Smashed Pumpkin, the latest in their Pugsley Signature series. “Smashed Pumpkin is a big brother version of Pumpkinhead, at 9%,” said Pugsley. “It’s not for the faint-hearted. Again, it’s about 35% malted wheat, definitely a wheat beer. It’s got a very big mouthfeel, good malt up front, and that alcohol comes through. Nutmeg and cinnamon spices give quite a warming effect. It’s a sipper. You’ll see it in the high-end beer stores, in 22-ounce bottles.”
A Traditional Recipe But Pugsley does not go up to the kitchen to get spices anymore; he doesn’t even put in pumpkin. “We formulated an extract, using pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg,” he said. “Then we contracted with a flavor house to make a proprietary blend. Pumpkin has a lot of pectin, proteinaceous material; that doesn’t bode well for the brew kettle.”
DeMink agreed, but Southern Tier uses the pumpkin flesh anyway. “It’s not the easiest thing, and it makes a helluva mess,” he said. “Better be ready to clean. Pumpkin flesh and lauter tuns, they don’t like each other. It gums everything right to hell. I’ve never had pumpkin flesh analyzed, but when you cook it, it deteriorates to mush.
“It’s a combo of pumpkin flesh and spices,” he said, when I asked what goes into Pumking, “and I try not to go into too much more detail. It took me two years to get it right, figure it out yourself. What do you get from the pumpkin? I don’t think you get a lot of fermentables out of it. You do get a creamy mouthfeel out of it. Kind of reminds me of adding oats – that creamy, oily thing. It’s no secret that you get most of the bang out of the spices.”
Ask about the spices, and all he’ll say is “Old Town spices, in Chicago. You need to be picky about where you’re getting your spices. Cinnamon’s a big one, there are a lot of different ones, and if you don’t handle it the right way . . . If you buy from someone who knows spices, it will show. When it comes to spices, you definitely get what you pay for.”
Jeremy Goldberg uses pre-packaged pumpkin pie spice mix for his Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout at Cape Ann Brewing in Gloucester. “We used to use separate spices,” he said, “but I recently found a spice company that makes their own blend for pumpkin pie; it’s got a lot of neat things in it, and it saves me opening all those little bags.”
He’s already got his angle: who else makes a pumpkin stout? “I wanted to do something different,” he said. “I enjoy the pumpkin beers, if you get a good one, it’s nice. But I like to do the Snuggies of beer: a blanket with arms? Why hasn’t that been done before? Every pumpkin beer’s a light ale . . . why? The flavors of stout – coffee, chocolate – that matches pumpkin to a T.”
But it was different. “I liked it,” Goldberg said, somewhat defensively. “But a wholesaler picked up a keg of the first batch, and put it on at their place, and everyone there hated it. ‘I’d be embarrassed to sell this,’ they said. So I was taking growlers around to brewers, asking them, ‘Is this really that bad?’ And you know, hardcore brewers, they were embarrassed to say they liked a pumpkin beer, but they said it was a good stout. Then our New York distributor sent some to a festival, and it was hands-down the most popular beer at the festival. That was a huge relief. It was really the first beer to put us on the map.”
Dogfish Head wasn’t on the map yet when they first brewed Punkin’ Ale, believe it or not. The beer was first brewed as a tribute to the Punkin Chunkin Festival, a nearby Delaware event that has paralleled Dogfish Head’s career to some extent. Southern Delaware, where Dogfish is located, is largely agricultural, and after Halloween, there’s usually a lot of pumpkins left over. Local folks decided to have some fun seeing how far they could throw the leftovers. Owner-brewer Sam Calagione liked the idea, it was fun and a little goofy, like what he was doing in 1995, so he brewed a beer for the fest.
Fourteen years later, Dogfish Head is nationally-known, and has some eye-opening, huge and unconventional beers. The Punkin Chunkin Festival has evolved similarly: there are now three categories – catapults, trebuchets and air cannon – that attract contestants from across the country, who fling pumpkins as far as 4483.5 feet, the current record.
“It’s a loving connection,” said Claus Hagelman, National Sales Manager for the brewery. “Punkin’ Ale is a brown ale made with spices: allspice, cinnamon, pumpkin meat, and brown sugar go in it. It’s 7% ABV, but it’s a very easy-drinking pumpkin beer. It’s almost like a Belgian golden with a pumpkin flavor. It hasn’t changed a lot, but we’ve had the time to find that unique flavor Sam wanted.”
It’s been a great seller for the brewery. “We always made 4O to 5O% more each year,” Hagelman said, “and this year we doubled production. It’s about 65,OOO case equivalents, and it’s already sold. It’s usually sold off the shelves by the end of October, but when it’s done, it’s done.”
Carving it Up How do you sell pumpkin beers? Folks agree: it’s not hard. With the pumpkin zombies around, it’s mostly a matter of getting in the right beers for your clientele and standing back. “You don’t really have to hand-sell them, compared to other beers,” said Nick Demjen, the beer manager at Bauer Wine and Spirits in Boston. “They walk in wanting a good pumpkin beer.
“But you have to plan ahead, months in advance,” he said. “Pumking, you better get as much as you can in the beginning. Dogfish Punkin’ does well for us while we have it. Post Road always sells well, and it will be there through the season; you’ll see more Smuttynose, but the smaller production pumpkins will disappear. Shipyard Pumpkinhead is probably the most popular pumpkin beer, and you’ll see that through Thanksgiving.”
You know a type of craft beer is popular when the majors jump in, and they have on pumpkins. A-B’s Jack’s Pumpkin Spice did well the past couple of years, and is back again. The Blue Moon Pumpkin beer is back, re-labeled as Harvest Moon, though Mark Kadish at Sunset Grill in Allston thinks that might be a mistake.
“I try to buy up a lot,” he said, “because they go quick. Typically, one of the first is the Blue Moon, but that’s fallen off. They don’t call it Blue Moon Pumpkin anymore, and I think that loses some of the appeal. Harvest Moon? People don’t know what that is.”
Kadish knows his pumpkin beers, because he’s found them to be big sellers at the Sunset. “This year we’ll probably do 2OO kegs of pumpkin beers,” he said. I called him because Phin DeMink at Southern Tier had told me that Kadish had ordered 86 sixtels of Pumking. Kadish just laughed when I mentioned that. “Yeah, we went through over 4O logs of it last year. I could sell pumpkin beers year ’round. They start asking for them again as soon as we run out!
“There’s probably going to be 3O different pumpkin beers in the market this year,” he said, speaking as a man who knows his pumpkin beers. “Shipyard, Southern Tier, Southampton . . . a good number of brewers are picking up on the pumpkin beers. We’re trying to pick and choose the top ones. We probably have the best selection of pumpkin beers you’ll find anywhere.”
Cindy French, the beer manager at Spirit Haus in Amherst, sells mostly the popular brands. “Shipyard Pumpkinhead is number one,” she said. “It’s not a hard sell. Harvest Moon is popular. Jack’s Pumpkin Spice does really well. Post Road always does well. Saranac, okay; Smuttynose is okay. The others I just get a few cases of. But my God, people are still asking for them well into the winter. They’re very popular.”
Plenty of variety, sell themselves, bigger sales every year, almost always sell out by the end of the season. Maybe the pumpkin zombies are onto a good thing. Carve often, carve early!
IT’S HOW YOU GROW THE PUMPKIN Wolaver’s is known for their organic beers, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve got an organic pumpkin beer, Will Stevens’ Organic Pumpkin Ale. What might be surprising is where it comes from.
Will Stevens’ Golden Russet Farm is less than 15 miles from the brewery, and it’s been organic for over 25 years. To the best of their knowledge, theirs is the first and only certified organic pumpkin beer.
“They’re good people at Golden Russet,” said Wolaver’s brewer Mike Gerhart. “We get the pumpkins the year before we brew the beer. We get everyone at the brewery in shifts, chopping and peeling, and roast the pumpkins in the oven. Then we put them in vacuum-sealed bags in a huge freezer. The bags are about 25to 3O pounds each. We chop the pumpkin up pretty good.” It’s a lot of work, but that’s how it is with most pumpkin beers: there are very few shortcuts when masses of pumpkin are involved.
Other than being organic, things are pretty much the same. “We mash in with the pumpkins and transfer through to the lauter tun,” Gerhart said. “All the organic spices go in about 15 minutes from the end of the boil. The seeds stay in the lauter, and all that fiber stays behind with the spent grain. The pumpkin isn’t the predominant flavor, but when it’s steaming in the kettle, you definitely get the pumpkin smell.”
Wolaver’s had a bit of luck finding organic pumpkins so conveniently close, organic malts are available, and it’s getting easier to find organic hops, although there’s a price premium. Not all the hops are required to be organic for certification, simply because there just aren’t enough at this time. That’s changing. “It’s getting so much better that if you’re going to be making organic beer,” Gerhart predicted, “in a couple years, you will have to have all organic hops.”
But organic spices? “That’s pretty easy,” he said. “Anything you want, you can find. We use ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, all organic. Last year, the majority of the brews were done with powderized organic ginger, and we ran out. We got some fresh organic ginger locally, and we pureed it. It was so much more aromatic we had to have it; now we’re sourcing organic ginger puree from Hawaii. It’s like picking basil fresh from the garden instead of dried from a jar.
“But we’re still dealing with the pricepoint problem on the spices,” he said. “Your average cinnamon triples in price when you go organic.”
That’s where the whole organic issue becomes personal. “A lot of people support farmers doing it right,” said Gerhart. “They say, with fair trade organic coffee, for instance, ‘I’d rather buy this coffee than a Folger’s, because if it doesn’t have support it won’t go further.’ And yes, you have to pay a little more to stand behind your beliefs. We’re not really passing all of that on to the consumer; our sixpacks are only about a dollar more. Our organization is taking on the brunt of that. But the more there is, the more the price will come down. These are beginning years; we have to buck it up and push forward.”
“If it’s a great beer, that’s good,” he said. “If it’s organic, that’s a second plus.” It’s true even when you’re talking pumpkins, and Wolaver’s must be good: Gerhart said they’re brewing 1OOO barrels this year to meet the demand. That’s 4OO more than last year. That’s a plus, too.