You know pumpkin beer has become an American holiday tradition when it starts showing up too early.
Even now, with summer temperatures lingering into early October, it’s hard to get into the pumpkin mood. But, in a trend similar to Christmas Creep (the marketing imperative that demands holiday displays be installed the day after Labor Day), pumpkin beer started showing up on store shelves in July. That’s early even for our cold-climate neighbors.
“I think it’s just a rushing-the-season kind of thing,” Andrew Hickey, of East Brunswick, N.J. told the Associated Press. “I’m guilty of drinking them, but it seems like it’s getting earlier and earlier each year.”
Pumpkin beer has flooded the craft beer market in recent years, though for many it’s still an acquired taste, no matter the season. It’s not only a fruit beer; it’s a spiced fruit beer — nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla. That’s a lot of odd flavors for some, though for others it’s a nice change of pace and a mood-setter for autumn.
Even for fans of the style, it’s easy to get your fill pretty fast. But if people are willing to buy it early, brewers are willing to make it. Which is why it shows up months before our palates are ready. After Thanksgiving, pumpkin beer sales fall into an abyss.
Greg Rapp learned that the hard way last year. He didn’t open his impressive Pinellas Park brewery until September, so his pumpkin beer was seasonally appropriate.
But it remained on tap for months. He hasn’t exactly rushed to brew another one this year.
Too bad because the first time I tried pumpkin beer, three years ago, was also the first time I had a Rapp beer. It was during a Total Wine class on fall and winter beers, featuring samples from craft breweries across the country, and as is often the case with his beer, Rapp’s (made with fresh pumpkin) was the best of the bunch, even as a home brewer.
Cigar City has taken the opposite approach, going big and early. Three years ago, CCB’s Good Gourd Imperial Pumpkin Ale was draft-only, available at the brewery and a few local craft beer bars. The following year it was widely released in 750 ml bottles and draft. And it was good. So good it is now the number one pumpkin beer according to beeradvocate.com. It’s a high-gravity dark amber ale that is complex but well-balanced, made with canned pumpkin infused with Ceylon Cinnamon, Jamaican allspice, Zanzibar cloves and nutmeg. This year it was released in July, and now that pumpkin season is near it’s almost gone. (There’s talk of another round coming soon.)
Pumpkin beer is a decidedly American style dating back to before the founding of the country, when pumpkin was more plentiful than barley. Like so many other styles, pumpkin beer all but disappeared under the crushing uniformity of the commercial brewing industry, but was revived in the 1980s by Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, Calif. (based on George Washington’s recipe). It remained a marginal style for years. Today there are reportedly 400 pumpkin beers on the market, and probably more.
So how to choose? If you prefer a sweeter taste, go for the higher alcohol versions — 7 percent and up. After all, pumpkin will never be a session beer. Check the label for the spices you like, and whether it boasts of real pumpkin flavor.
Dogfish Head has been making Punkin Ale for nearly 20 years and it’s still one of the best. A brown ale with pumpkin, organic brown sugar and cinnamon, it’s a smooth 7 percent ABV. Tampa Bay Brewing Company waited until mid-September to tap its Gourds Gone Wild. It’s a dark amber; at 5.5 percent ABV it’s not too sweet, with notes of nutmeg. Cycle Brewing has its annual PumQueen ale on tap, another solid offering from the Gulfport/St. Petersburg brewery. One of the popular national brands worth trying is Southern Tier’s Pumking, though at 8.6 percent ABV it pushes the sweetness quotient for some palates.
The only way to find out, though, is to try a few. We still have a little over a month before the Thanksgiving abyss.