Once a year, a rift appears among the craft beer community, tearing a normally like-minded group asunder and forcing beer lovers to pick a side: Do they love pumpkin ales or do they detest them?
Sure, there are some fence-sitters. (I’m one of them: While pumpkin ales aren’t my favorite style, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them.) But generally, if you’re a craft beer drinker, you’ve got a pretty firm opinion on the subject.
Love ’em or hate ’em, though, it’s hard to escape pumpkin ales these days. They began appearing on shelves about a month ago—and at this point, they’re everywhere. Why? Despite their polarizing effect, there’s a lot of money in the category.
Seasonal beers tend to spike in the fall months—when pumpkin beers are in vogue. In September and October of 2013, they actually managed to outsell IPAs, a coup that’s not insignificant, notes Bart Watson, chief economist for industry trade group the Brewers Association. And the number of pumpkin offerings has exploded since then.
In 2014, seasonal beers accounted for 20.8% of total craft volume share in the 13-week period leading up to Nov. 30, according to numbers from market research firm IRI. And the volume of craft seasonals sold was up 3.8% from the previous year.
Last year, supermarket sales of seasonal craft beers topped $253.5 million, according to the Brewers Association—a 12.6% improvement over the 2013 numbers. Given the big role pumpkin beers play in that surge, it’s easy to see why brewers continue to roll them out—and roll them out earlier each year. However, say brewers, the release dates of these beers are also influenced by other factors.
“Brewing and releasing a beer for drinkers to enjoy isn’t an exact science, and each brewer has their own schedule for releasing beers,” says Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., the brewer of Samuel Adams beers. “Delivery dates for OctoberFest, our pumpkin beers, and really for all of our seasonals, have a lot to do with when the previous seasonal beer sells out. We plan as much as we can and start brewing our fall beers a few weeks before we think they will hit shelves.”
If you’re in the vehemently-opposed-to-pumpkin camp, there’s really nothing that will change your mind. And that’s fine. Not all beer styles are for all people. But if you’re a fan—or a fence-sitter like me—here are a half-dozen pumpkin brews that are absolutely worth your time.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale. The pumpkin in this spice-heavy ale starts off muted, but emerges more and more as the beer begins to warm. It has a surprisingly high carbonation that works well with the flavors and expertly blends in the hops and malts, creating a very unique—and delicious—taste. (ABV: 7%)
Southern Tier Pumking. This is one of the stronger pumpkin-themed beers on the scene. You’ll taste a whole lot of cinnamon and allspice here, making a big, bold, spicy concoction. The pumpkin is joined by yam, but that has, at best, a minimal impact on taste. If you ever wanted to drink a slice of pumpkin pie, this is the best way to do it. (ABV: 8.6%)
Samuel Adams Fat Jack. You’ll taste the pumpkin more than anything in this seasonal offering from the Boston Brewing Company—likely because each barrel uses over 28 lbs. of the fruit. While the expected spices—cinnamon, clove, nutmeg—are present, they’re not as forward here as they are in some other offerings. The smoked malts make it feel very much like a fall beer. And in some ways, it seems to be a transitional seasonal, preparing your palate for Samuel Adams’s upcoming Winter Lager. (ABV: 8.5%)
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale. This beer pours incredibly hazy and has strong clove notes both on the nose and in your initial taste. It’s sweet, spicy, and malty and has a nice buttery finish, with the pumpkin taste lingering after you swallow. (ABV: 6.35%)
New Belgium Pumpkick. This ale lands on the sweet side of the pumpkin spectrum, but ends with a slight sour/bitter finish thanks to the subtle inclusion of cranberries. You’ll get strong clove/nutmeg tones from it and a good pumpkin flavor—and it has a very creamy mouthfeel. But the sweetness can catch you off guard at first if you’re not ready for it. (ABV: 6%)
Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale. There’s an explosion of pumpkin flavor in this Rogue offering, significantly more than any pumpkin beer I tasted in the weeks leading up to this column—and I tasted quite a few. While the spices you’d expect to find are there, they’re not used as a crutch—and they don’t overwhelm all other flavors. Instead, there’s a just hint of cinnamon and nutmeg at the finish. It’s a fine fall beer. (ABV: 6.1%)