Pumpkin beers: Love them or not, they're here to stay
A few common spices are all you need to mimic the flavor of a Starbucks PSL. Reviewed.com
It is the time of the year when many if not most beer drinkers engage in the annual celebration of (or railing against) pumpkin beers.
The earliest of the fall seasonals already are on the shelves of your favorite shops and many more will be released in the coming weeks. By mid-September there will be pumpkin tap handles at your favorite bars, and by October you’ll begin wondering whether anyone makes other kinds of craft beer.
Or at least that’s how it seemed last year.
In 2016, there was something of a pumpkin ale glut as both the number of breweries making them increased and those who already were making them bumped up production. In fact, the high production numbers, coupled with a lackluster 2015 pumpkin harvest, made it look as if there wasn’t going to be enough pumpkin to go around. That meant that this time last year there were nearly equal numbers of beer enthusiasts warning that there might not be enough pumpkin for beer as there were complaining about market oversaturation. The internet does make us a little silly at times.
On the pop culture front, McDonald’s got back into the pumpkin latte game and went to war with Starbucks for early August market share, and it felt as if there was not an edible product in 2016 that didn’t have a pumpkin option. There was a palpable cultural pressure (even when we weren’t thinking about beer) to make a pro or con pumpkin stand.
It’s easy to see why, by September, there tends to be some hyperbole about pumpkin hatred both in person and online. But there is something particular about pumpkin beer that’s easy to overlook and that makes it an important part both of craft beer and American identity generally.
Pumpkin certainly was one of the earliest American beer ingredients, used by colonists for flavor as well as to increase the sugar needed to ferment the beer. It also may have been the first exclusively American beer, given that pumpkins were native and widely cultivated in the colonies.
Even though pumpkin fell out of mainstream favor for much of the 20th century, it always has been a popular additive among homebrewers, who really are the original craft beer tinkerers. As craft beer’s most recent revival took hold, it was spearheaded by homebrewers who all had their own twist on this classic ale.
To put it in context, with craft beer growing from 1,500 breweries in 2009 to more than 5,000 in 2016, it really isn’t much of a surprise that pumpkin beer seemed to explode on the scene.
More important, both for the economics and the culture of craft beer, pumpkin ales cultivated a new audience.
Each new beer brings another group of people who previously didn’t like craft beer into the fold. For instance, odds are you know someone who had their first sour beer this summer and lost their minds over it. For every beer style, there is someone who says, “I usually don’t drink beer, but I really like X.” By 2014, X = Pumpkin Ale for thousands of drinkers. That, more than anything else, is what separates pumpkin ales from the rest of the annual pop culture pumpkin sniping.
For lots of people, pumpkin ale is more about the access to craft beer culture than pumpkin-ness, a way of being able to participate in the craft beer culture without becoming an IPA convert.
On the other side, there is a school of beer purists who like to point out that no pumpkin grown in 2017 is in a bottle distributed in 2017. Others who worry that their favorite beers might get bumped from taps and shelves during the next three or so months of pumpkin mania.
Really, though, there are two different things going on, I think, when it comes to pumpkin-hate. The first is what might be called “Christmas Creep Preseason,” which is the bizarre notion that other people’s fun has to affect yours. I can take or leave pumpkin beers, so my response to the early release of pumpkin beers is not to buy one unless I want one.
Sure, it’s a simple solution, but it also is effective.
The second is a little more tribal. It is an overriding concern about being left out of something everyone else seems to be enjoying. As with so many other things, people who put themselves in the “no pumpkin” camp feel as if the “yes pumpkin” folks somehow are their adversaries. As far as I can tell, the plan is to have open contempt for the concept of one of the oldest beer styles until people stop liking them. We’ll keep you posted on this developing story.
In the meantime, there are a lot of pumpkin beers out there and more on the way. If you’re among those who are not into craft beer, this very well might be your style. If it isn’t, no sweat; this absolutely is the golden age of beer and there totally is one you’re going to love. Just keep plugging away.
Drink what you like and be happy.