Sorry, squash

A once-ubiquitous holiday beer style is beginning to fade

Photo by Ty Konzak (via Flickr)

’Tis the season, once again, when your friends arrive for dinner with six-packs of pumpkin beer.

Or is it? On a recent visit to Safeway, I was shocked—though not disappointed—to see not a single pumpkin beer. Between 2012 and 2015, pumpkin beers were the hottest thing brewing each autumn. Supermarket shelves were jammed with them from September through December.

Then, last year, retailers started seeing a decline in production, mainly following a glut in the market following a surplus in 2015. Now, in 2017, the pumpkin beer department is barren.

“Pumpkin beer was very popular for a while but has probably seen its zenith,” says Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. “I think there will always be pumpkin beers, but brewers are being more limited with their production. This is true, really, with all seasonal beers.”

Raley’s director of wine, beer and spirits Curtis Mann, confirms “the trend has mostly died.”

This isn’t a bad thing. From the get-go, pumpkin beers were something of a farce—a misleading concept. This is because most traditional pumpkin varieties have very little flavor. They are watery with a vague zucchini-apricot taste, and brewed into a sweet and hoppy beer, pumpkins add next to nothing. So, to make pumpkin beers taste at all remarkable, brewers usually make them with additions of potent spices, like nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and allspice that we associate with pumpkin pie but are not in any other way related to the big clumsy squashes. A more honest label for the style might be “pumpkin pie” beer.

Labels aside, it seems the spice flavors in these beers simply don’t resonate with beer drinkers to begin with, at least not the way that, say, hops do. Whereas IPAs are a sure sell almost anywhere, anytime, pumpkin beers clogged shelves in late 2015, mainly, it seemed, because few people wanted them. That summer and fall, brewers made so much pumpkin beer, and retailers bought so much, that cases of the beer remained on shelves at many markets well into January. The conclusion among many in the industry that I spoke to a year ago was that consumers tend to buy pumpkin beer once or twice per season, then ignore the stuff.

Not all pumpkin beer is bad, of course, and there are some examples that receive rave reviews, like various imperial pumpkin stouts, funky Brettanomyces pumpkin ales, and high-alcohol pumpkin beers aged in booze barrels. Rumpkin, from Avery Brewing Co., is a rum-barrel-aged pumpkin ale of almost 17 percent alcohol—fun, I have no doubt, for a few sips. Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s Cold Press Coffee Pumking, at 8.6 percent ABV, also sounds exciting.

Certainly, the cachet and charisma of the pumpkin, the biggest and most colorful of the squashes, makes it a powerful marketing tool. In fact, it is hardly just brewers who have cashed in on the inevitable association between pumpkins, autumn and the tradition of buying stuff. All sorts of products flavored with pumpkin and spice flood supermarkets in autumn. A list produced by last year named 65 such items, including chewing gum, lattes, black tea, marshmallows, kefir, yogurt and even hummus.

However, despite the ubiquitous reality of American holidays being seasoned by pumpkin spice, there has been abrupt near-disappearance of the flavor from the beer department. And I haven’t heard anyone complaining.