Perhaps the most well-known fall seasonal beer style among American consumers, pumpkin beer has stood the test of time. Since the mid-1990s, pioneering American craft brewers such as Dogfish Head and Schlafly have released pumpkin ales year after year. So, much to the chagrin of anti-pumpkin-spice aggressors, the polarizing trend is still here — but why?
In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” co-hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe taste an early example of pumpkin ale and share their takes on why they think it continues to be a seasonal favorite.
Sciarrino also sits down with VinePair’s managing editor and resident beer expert Cat Wolinski to learn a little more about the history and changing consumer base for pumpkin beer. To cap things off, the co-hosts try Elysian’s Great Pumpkin imperial ale for the Friday tasting.
Tune in to learn more about why pumpkin beer continues to get buzz when fall rolls around each year.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: and I’m Zach Geballe.
A: Why are you still here?
Z: Can’t get rid of me.
Z: I’m like bed bugs, man.
J: I like it. We’re all in the same room.
Z: When you’re on their side, I don’t know what you’re wearing.
J: Do you have shoes on or not?
A: You’re in your basement, in your hovel.
Z: In my hovel? Excuse me.
A: Aren’t you in your little wine cellar?
Z: Yeah. I’m in a corner of my house. I don’t live in a hovel.
A: But you have a wine cellar in the basement, right?
Z: I do.
A: That’s what I thought. How many bottles?
Z: Like 400. Got to be ready.
J: For what?
Z: Come visit. You’re welcome to.
A: Did you bring any with you?
Z: I had to pay to check bags. I’m not going to do that.
A: I’m sorry about that. So, I don’t know today’s topic of the podcast because it’s been kept from me. I’m going to let one of you introduce it.
Z: Oh, that’s a lie. It’s staring you right in the middle. I figured, it’s the time of year where it’s #SpookySeason. We’re getting into true fall. It brought to mind a question that I thought we could try to answer as a team here, which is: Why is pumpkin beer still a thing?
A: I don’t know. It shouldn’t be.
Z: I know that’s your opinion, Adam. I respect and appreciate your personal aesthetic stance on this matter.
A: Everyone needs a cause. My cause is being anti-pumpkin beer.
Z: Maybe you can win a Next Wave Award sometime. In any case, it does really surprise me that a beer style that’s relatively recent and is — and I like pumpkin beers all right — undeniably gimmicky. You don’t see the same thing with any other seasonal ingredient. Well, fresh hop beer is a thing, but then again, hops are a part of beer always. Maybe that’s not the same. You don’t see raspberry or lavender beer season in spring.
A: I guess nothing’s really taken off in the same way. You have summer ales, but it’s not the same as everybody going for pumpkin.
Z: There’s not an added ingredient in those that everyone is jazzed about. Joanna, coming from the food side, it’s not like there’s a cry in food for pumpkin-flavored everything. Well, maybe there is. There’s pumpkin spice everything.
J: Yeah. I think we have to acknowledge that this coincides with the great rise of pumpkin spice and pumpkin spice lattes, candles, et cetera.
A: Zach, have you been to Trader Joe’s recently?
A: There’s literally an entire section devoted to pumpkin flavors. “Here’s our pumpkin soup. Here’s our pumpkin pasta sauce. Here’s our pumpkin spice yogurt.”
J: I think it waned for some amount of years. Now it’s kind of come back.
A: There’s a lot of people out there — I don’t know if it’s as many as summer people — who believe fall is the best season.
J: I’m one of them.
A: Keith is another. My wife is another. I was born in summer, so you know?
Z: What other season could they be?
A: June gave the world Adam. Drake literally named his company October’s Very Own because he was born in October. Just call me Drake. I mean, fall is a great season. I would say it’s a top-two season.
Z: Well, there’s only four. I mean, come on.
A: As long as we can all agree that winter is the worst season.
A: The worst.
A: People can’t convince me that skiing is a thing. Anyways, fall’s a great season. Summer has a lot of things people get excited about. I mean, I would say, you know, the equivalent of pumpkin beer. I see so many tomato pictures all the time on Instagram. Everyone’s like “tomato season.” Everyone does it.
J: It’s true.
A: Pumpkin is the tomato of the fall.
Z: That is maybe the most brilliant analogy that’s ever made on this podcast. Congratulations, Adam. This comes back to my question, which is why are pumpkins the only thing that we’re adamant must be added to beer every year?
A: It’s Charlie Brown, dude.
Z: I kind of don’t mind pumpkin beer, but I hate everything about Halloween.
A: Oh, get out.
Z: And I’m the person here with kids.
A: Halloween has become, in the course of the last 40 to 50 years, but especially in the last 20, much more of an adult holiday.
Z: Yes. It was shocking to me when I moved to New York for college because I hadn’t done a Halloween thing in years because I was a teenager. All of a sudden, my freshman year, everyone was asking, “Are you going to the Halloween parade? Are you going to the Halloween parties?” I was like, “What? No. Is there candy? What’s going on.”
J: It’s the best.
Z: I want to ask one more thing about pumpkin beer before this goes even further off the rails. This is why I don’t do these recordings in person. Who knows where we are right now.
A: I think it’s way better.
Z: It’s true. It’s more fun. Listeners, I hope you agree. What’s also weird to me about the pumpkin beer season is that not only has it remained a thing. It’s ebbed and flowed a little bit, but it remains a category. It seems like breweries are content to put out the exact same beer every year, even relatively small to medium-sized craft breweries. That strikes me as also odd. Even breweries that do creative, innovative things much of the rest of the year, when it comes to pumpkin beer season, they just decide, “Let’s dust off that recipe and make our batch.” Maybe it goes back to the pumpkin spice lattes. People want the exact same thing. It is almost like people just want their signifier of the season. They want to drink a 6-pack of whatever.
A: They want to drink the leaves.
Z: I guess so. I just wanted to talk about how strange the continued trend is. It’s not a fad. I think it’s just here, and it’s its own weird segment of beer that exists ephemerally, even more than summer or winter ales.
A: It’s the drink of fall. It’s the thing that everyone feels like they have to have at least once to say that it’s fall.
Z: Yeah, I think that’s right.
A: What’s also weird about pumpkin beer is that, to make most pumpkin beers and be in market when it’s appropriate or earlier, you actually aren’t using this fall’s pumpkins.
Z: Not pumpkin at all, sometimes.
J: Sometimes squash.
A: Sometimes it’s spice. But if you are using it, you’re using squash or pumpkin puree from last season. It’s this really weird thing.
Z: Part of that’s the season creep that happens with everything. Pumpkin beers available in August now. You definitely did not harvest pumpkins for that.
A: OK. Can we try this dumb shit, because it’s sitting in front of me. It’s making me really upset.
J: The last thing I wanted to say is that I think a lot of beer people drink Oktoberfest.
A: Yes, they do.
J: But now that craft beer is so accessible to so many more people, that there are other people who are drinking pumpkin beer.
A: Why don’t you go talk to a craft beer person? I don’t want to have this conversation anymore.
Z: We’re going to make Cat talk to us about it.
A Pumpkin Beer Conversation with VinePair Managing Editor Cat Wolinski
J: Today on the podcast, I am joined by Cat Wolinski, VinePair’s managing editor and resident beer expert. Cat, welcome to the show.
Cat Wolinski: Thank you, Joanna.
J: I’m excited to have you here because we’re talking about pumpkin beer. Pumpkin ale, I suppose, is the better way to say it. I wanted to chat with you about it because I think we’re all very curious to know if pumpkin ale is still relevant. What do you think?
C: Relevant is an interesting word. Pumpkin beer is still definitely around.
J: It’s still a thing?
C: Yeah, but I think who it’s a thing for has changed over the years.
J: Yes, that’s a good point. Why don’t we talk first about how, when pumpkin beer became a thing, how it gained popularity initially, then what happened, and who is it popular with now?
C: I think it started out as a brewpub, fun, seasonal thing. Some of the older classic craft breweries made them for the fall. It wasn’t such a contested subject then. It was just a fall flavor. That was the harvest. It’s theoretically made with pumpkin, which is associated with the season, with Halloween, and things like that.
J: Was this back in the early 2010s?
C: It was longer ago. I think Elysian has been making pumpkin ale since the late ’90s.
J: Whoa. OK. It’s older than I thought.
C: When I say brewpub, this is also the days of yore. It’s early craft beer. When I was coming up as a beer drinker and writer, it was still something fun, something you saw at beer festivals, or something that your friend who thinks they’re really into beer but only like sweet beers would seek out. One that was big around here in New York was Southern Tier Pumpking. That was legitimately considered a good beer by drinkers and beer people, too. It would be served with a brown sugar rim, and it was a special occasion.
J: Wow. Interesting. Back in 2012, I was working at Bon Appétit at the time, and we did a pumpkin beer tasting to publish on the site. That’s when I feel like it was really coming into more mainstream popularity.
C: Wow. Weird that that’s almost 10 years ago. Yeah, I think it still exists in the way that I just described it. It’s still a fun, seasonal thing for a lot of people in the way that a pumpkin spice latte is a fun seasonal thing for people. The pumpkin latte is not necessarily something an everyday coffee drinker drinks or wants, though. Even since 2012, there’s been this big anti-pumpkin beer movement. It was like this thing that everyone had to bandwagon hate. “Who wants to put baking spices in a beer? It’s not even real pumpkin sometimes!”
J: Why do you think that happened? Why did it fall out of favor with the craft beer drinking community?
C: Speaking first from personal experience, I think pumpkin beer can be an entry point to another dimension of beer flavor. In the same way that a lot of people remember their first craft beer or the first beers that made them think, “Woah, I didn’t know beer could taste like that,” I think that feeling existed with pumpkin beer.
I think it’s also something that you grow out of as you get more into beer. If you’re someone who really continues to seek out different flavors, you might learn that you love a Belgian Ale. You can find those warm caramel notes in Chimay or Belgian Strong Ale. You might find other, baked-good-associated flavors, like banana and clove in a wheat beer. It became looked down on to be forcing flavor into the beer, like with pumpkin; then it’s not “real” beer anymore.
J: It’s not the most sophisticated flavor palate.
C: Yes. But it’s also not supposed to be sophisticated. It’s literally supposed to taste like pumpkin pie. I think myself and a lot of my comrades think, “Who cares if you like pumpkin beer?” I don’t personally drink it. I’m tasting one today to remind myself how they taste. I think they’re fine. If you want something that’s sweet and spiced, go for it. At least you’re drinking beer, in my opinion. I think it’s pointless to hate on pumpkin beer. Sorry, Adam. I know he’s the biggest pumpkin beer hater. What’s the point, man?
J: Drink what you like.
J: Something that I feel like is worth noting in this conversation — or what I think is a big part of this conversation — is the pumpkin spice latte that you mentioned. I want to talk about that movement and pumpkin spice in general. I feel like, as that gained popularity, people started to think, “This isn’t cool anymore.”
C: I see what you’re saying.
J: As it became more mainstream, the edgier, alt craft beer drinkers said, “This isn’t cool anymore. Let’s all hate on it.”
C: I think that is definitely true. Despite being a precursor, perhaps, to the popularity of the PSL, as the PSL waxed, pumpkin ale waned. If that’s the argument, then what’s going to happen with fruited hazy IPAs? Why are we all up in arms about flavoring an ale with fall-themed flavors, but it’s cool to put lactose, all sorts of fruit, and things in a different beer? Those are still considered cool and worth waiting in line for.
J: Maybe we give that 10 years and see what happens. Is that too long?
C: It’s true. Ten years from now we’ll think, “Can you believe how much hazy IPAs dominated everything? Yeah, they were delicious, but that’s so lame now.” It used to be uncool to have fruit in beer. One of my other early beer experiences was Leinenkugel. I remember thinking, “Wow, this tastes like Froot Loops. That’s so weird.” That was one of the early “aha” moments of my beer-drinking life. There was also the stigma attached that, “It’s not real beer. Who needs fruit flavors in a beer?” Now, so many beers use fruit and it’s cool again.
J: I also think it’s curious because I think a lot of it is in the label and less in the flavor profile. Oktoberfests are very popular. That has kind of similar baking spices and warm notes that a pumpkin beer would have. Craft beer people may like one over the other.
C: Yeah. I love Oktoberfest. I love a Festbier. I love a Märzen. What you’re saying is true.
J: Who do you think is drinking pumpkin beer now? If it lulled a bit after its initial popularity and now it’s popular again, who’s drinking it?
C: Besides Keith Beavers, who has discovered and enjoys one of these beers that we’re tasting, I think it’s like someone who doesn’t really drink cocktails, but when they go out with friends, they’ll get a Margarita or even a vodka cranberry. One demographic here is someone who’s not a beer nerd, but someone who is interested in trying different things. Maybe they have a local brewery that they love. Like I said before, it’s also a special occasion kind of thing.
J: People love seasonal things.
C: Yeah. There’s such a draw. Maybe they’re not going to go back to that brewery for their house lager or even their house IPA. That may be why brewers and beer geeks get mad about it, too. It’s like being the person that only goes to church on Christmas and not every other Sunday. There’s also the component of seasonal creep, as they call it. It’s how CVS is decked out in Christmas decorations before Halloween and you feel like, “Oh my God, this is so stressful.” Pumpkin beer used to be something we had in October and November. Then, all of a sudden, it was September, and then July.
All these brands are trying to push theirs out to market sooner because there’s such a short window that people will want to drink them in. The same people that are excited to drink it in October are going to be over it come December. It’s a strange enigma, the pumpkin ale. There are other things, too. There’s pumpkin lager. There are some really respected breweries that do different things that are really unique, like Prairie Artisan Ales in Oklahoma. They do a sour pumpkin ale that has all the sophisticated things of a funky sour beer, but it has actual pumpkin in it. It’s cool, but it’s also not going to be their moneymaker. Right? It’s just a little fun thing.
J: There’s still some amount of experimentation with pumpkin ale. I see that you have this coffee pumpkin ale.
C: I wanted to compare them side by side because I thought maybe I would like the coffee pumpkin ale better, but it’s even sweeter than the other one. Not that I don’t like sweet. That’s just not what I go to beer for.
J: Maybe that’s why it makes such a good beer around Halloween time. People like sweet things. There’s trick or treating.
C: It’s fun. I would pair this with a Kit Kat. Why not?
J: OK, Final thoughts: Pumpkin beer, Yay or nay?
C: I say yay. If pumpkin beer makes you say “yay,” then yay.
J: Cat, thank you so much for joining me today and for lending us your beer expertise in this hotly contested area. I really appreciate it.
C: Thank you for having me.
The VinePair Team Tries Pumpkin Ale
A: All right.
Z: The moment of truth. Let’s open these.
J: We weren’t going to get through this season without making you do it.
A: It is the Friday before Halloween, too.
J: That’s true. Tell us what we have.
A: Did you bring this, Zach?
Z: I did bring this. This is all the way from Seattle. It’s the Elysian Great Pumpkin imperial ale.
A: It’s one of the more famous ones too, I think.
Z: It is. Elysian was started in Seattle. It made its way national because it was bought by AB InBev. According to the bottle, the Great Pumpkin is the world’s first imperial pumpkin ale. It’s packed with pumpkin and roasted pumpkin seeds, and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice, Adam’s favorite collection of spices.
A: For the record, I like pumpkin pie.
J: I was actually wondering that the other day. Do you like other pumpkin things?
A: I do like pumpkin pie.
Z: How about pumpkin bread?
J: For the listeners who don’t know this, Keith trolls Adam pretty hard about pumpkin spice things.
A: So annoying.
J: It’s great.
A: Keith bought me a T-shirt. It literally says “pumpkin spice and everything nice.”
Z: Have you ever worn it?
A: Once, to take a picture and send it to Keith. OK. This is gross. It tastes like drinking a candle. It tastes like drinking a cinnamon-flavored candle.
Z: I think it’s all on your head, man.
J: It does taste like pumpkin pie. It’s a lot sweeter than I thought it was going to be.
A: It’s sweet. I don’t like it. I don’t want to drink anymore. I just don’t think it’s very good. There’s an aftertaste now, too, that I don’t like.
Z: It’s so much better than the hard seltzers, because it’s actually a product that I would consider drinking. My feeling about pumpkin beer is that it’s fine and if it’s a thing that you enjoy as a drinker, great. Have fun. This amount that I am consuming here — these three to four ounces — will probably suffice for the entire season.
A: I’m good with two sips.
Z: You were probably good with zero sips.
A: What was weird about it for me, too, is that there’s a point in the experience of this beer where it tastes like an actual beer.
Z: Yes. For sure.
A: It’s somewhere in the middle. At the beginning and at the end, it’s all gross-ness.
Z: I can see what you’re saying. There’s a hint of pumpkin spice up front. Then, there’s the beer. Then there’s a feeling like I had a three-day-old pumpkin pie. Keith, you want to share your thoughts on this beer? In the many pumpkin beers you’ve had, where does this sit?
Keith Beavers: I agree. This is one of the better ones I’ve had. It actually has a creamy texture to it. It kind of feels like you’re sinking your teeth into a delicious, spicy pumpkin pie, and I like a pumpkin pie.
J: It has a lot of body.
Z: I should’ve tried to find a pumpkin hazy. We could’ve seen which force is stronger: Adam’s haze boy status or his hatred of pumpkin.
A: I saw one. It was staring me in the face at Trader Joe’s and I thought, “I’m not doing this.”
K: I think I figured it out. I think Adam’s love-hate relationship with pumpkin spice is because he loves pumpkin pie so much that when those spices are in another thing, it upsets him. He just wants the pumpkin pie.
A: I would also say that pumpkin pie is not the most superior of all pies. We can get into that close to Thanksgiving.
J: Save it for the pie episode.
A: I have major pie thoughts. We’re getting closer to Thanksgiving. We can talk a lot about pie and pairings with pies. Pumpkin pie would not be my first choice of pie.
Z: We can draft pies. That’d be fun.
A: All right, guys. Well, I’ll see you on Monday.
Z: I’ll see you guys next time I’m in town.
A: It’s been a pleasure, Zach. We’ll see you from Seattle next time.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.