Pumpkin Beer Is Flopping Because It’s Basic

Pumpkin beer: too big and basic to not fail.

The unfathomable success of Starbucks Pumpkin Latte notwithstanding (the horrific concoction turns 13 this year, has sold 200 million units since its inception and last fall alone pulled in a cool $100 mill in revenue, according to Forbes), the American public’s thirst for pumpkin drinks appears to have been quenched.

One detail that often gets overlooked by the frenzied manner in which PSL fans greet its arrival is the fact that most consumers only buy one latte per season, according to the market research firm NPD. Many pumpkin beers are sold in minimum units of six. Perhaps the notion of having to drain at least 72 ounces of pumpkin-spiced booze is part of the backlash brewers are facing. An even bigger issue: Craft beer enthusiasts are notoriously fickle. Last year, fruit-infused IPAs, lower-alcohol session IPAs and lighter ales were all the rage; this year, sours, especially the salty-sour gose and all manner of hop-based tomfoolery, are trending.

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And year-over-year, the craft beer drinker is becoming consistently more sophisticated, craving, if not necessarily more outlandish brews, at least ones that are more than a one-note cinnamon wonder.

Still, mainstream pumpkin beer enjoyed a good run. Starting in 2005, pumpkin beer sales rose steadily, reaching a peak in 2013, going down slightly in 2014 and then tanking last year.

Nielsen data shows that while seasonal beers account for about 18 percent of craft beer sales and pumpkin beers make up about 10 percent of the craft beer market, sales fell by about 10 percent in 2015.

What has been dramatically dubbed “The Great Pumpkin Debacle” and the “Great Pumpkin Backlash” of 2015 has led wholesalers and distributors to stock fewer pumpkin-flavored brews this year, according to a report in Beverage Daily.

Brewers are also making adjustments. Ithaca Beer Co. has discontinued Country Pumpkin, which launched in 2011, and Samuel Adams, which usually cranks out two pumpkins, slashed production to just one. Southern Tier, Shipyard Brewing and Harpoon Brewing are significantly scaling back as well, according to a report in Forbes.

When it comes down to it, the problem may be in the flavor. I mean, let’s be real. It’s just so … basic. Most pumpkin beers skew pumpkin pie versus straight up vegetable (thank goodness for small miracles, right?), and there’s a limit to how much nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and allspice one can partake of without a sloppy squirt of whipped cream and a buttery crust to help keep things interesting.

Let’s face it, pumpkins are the basic bitch of the beverage world.

Still, there’s room on the farm for the pumpkin patch. Brewers, sensing a new (if much smaller) market for pumpkin heads, seem to be turning away from the pumpkin pie spice rack and back to the squash’s roots.

The company that essentially invented the modern pumpkin beer phenomenon, Buffalo Bill Brewery, is no exception, focusing on the traditional aspects of pumpkin beer production that extend hundreds of years into the past, when the pumpkin played a relatively unknown role in American beer history.

During the early colonial period, when pumpkins proliferated, good malt and other fermentable sugars did not, and with the thirst for a buzz unslakable, brainy brewers used the meat of the pumpkin in place of malt. Pumpkin beer remained a staple through the 18th century but its popularity began to dip in the 19th, when high-quality malts were a snap to source.

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery was the first to bring it back in the early 1980s. Photojournalist and home-brewing enthusiast Bill Owens was a pioneer of the brewpub movement, and he first brewed Pumpkin Ale for his pub in Hayward, California in 1984. (He sold the operation to then-brewer and current CEO, Geoff Harries, in 1994).

Harries explains Owens’ initial inspiration: “Bill read that George Washington was a home brewer and experimented with squash in his brews. Bill loved the idea of recreating a moment in time that George Washington, our forefather, had experienced.”

It seems that Owens not only helped unintentionally launch the pumpkin beer craze, but in many ways forecast the current obsession with all things craft and homegrown. “For Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, it has never been just about making a beer to sell, but growing the squash during the summer, harvesting in the fall, and spending a whole day mashing and brewing with that year’s harvest,” Harries explains. “Pumpkin Ale represents the changing of seasons, the bounty of harvest, and the brewing of that harvest into something to be celebrated with all who participated in the harvest.”

He says that like many other brewers, they cut production this year. They’ve shipped about 17,000 cases of Pumpkin Ale and 1,600 cases of Black Pumpkin and sales so far have been “very good.” As with so many other pumpkin beer makers, this year, for the first year in about a decade, isn’t about expanding lines and bumping up production, but about returning to his roots. Breweries oversaw the oven-roasting of the (organic, because California) pumpkin that landed in the mash for Buffalo Bill’s three ales: Imperial Pumpkin (10.1 percent and available on draft only), the Black Pumpkin (a rich oatmeal stout in 22-ounce bottles) and America’s Original Pumpkin (a full-bodied amber at 6 percent and available in six-packs).

They also made the beers available at the seasonally appropriate time of early August, resisting the distressing pattern of seasonal creep. (Not even the most hardcore cinnamon spice aficionado wants a pumpkin beer in July!) 

The path forward for the successful pumpkin beer producer is in simultaneously focusing on the past while embracing the move toward a more complex salty-sour and lactic-funk beer palate, leaving the toothachey pumpkin pie spice rack to the giggling teenagers and their basic palates at Starbucks.