Joshua Bernstein's picture

For the Love of Gourd

Pumpkin beers have broken free from their seasonal shackles, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Pumpkin Beers
Pumpkin Beers (Photo credit: www.bitterrootmedia.com)

Mega-pregnant and massively irritated by last summer’s sweltering weather, my wife made a serious demand. “We need to get out of Brooklyn,” she said, her face mere millimeters from our third-floor apartment’s sole air conditioner.

Outside, the city was broiling beneath a grueling heat wave. To my exceedingly expectant wife, it was as if hell had swallowed Brooklyn whole. “We’re going to New Hampshire,” she said. “Start packing.”

Lickety-split, we steered north to friends, family and cooler weather. Upon arrival, I required beer. Lots of them. In rapid succession. I headed to a convenience store, salivating at the prospect of aromatic Allagash White, crisp Smuttynose Vunderbar or Rising Tide’s bright Daymark pale ale. Heck, perhaps I’d buy them all! In-laws and a pregnant wife can give a man a deadly thirst.

Great Pumpkin Festival at Elysian Brewing

Inside the shop, my field of vision filled with orange. As far the eyes could see, there was a sea of Shipyard Pumpkinhead, the Portland brewery’s wheat ale spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Ignoring them, I grabbed a couple four-packs of Allagash White and a 12-pack of Sierra Nevada’s Summerfest.

“Sure you don’t want some Pumpkinhead?” the cashier asked, ringing me up.

“Maybe next month,” I replied, grabbing my cargo and hurrying back to the fall seasonal sitting in my wife’s stomach.

When Violet squirmed her way into the world, about a week before Thanksgiving, a pumpkin beer was seasonally appropriate. Still, it didn’t really seem right. Instead, I cracked a Sierra Nevada Celebration, a festive holiday IPA—its label features a snowy cabin festooned with a wreath—that’s often released right around Halloween. Then I followed that with Firestone Walker’s hopped-up Pivo Pils.

Was I drinking according to the calendar? Hardly. To me, taste trumped an arbitrary date, a rule I’ve long followed. In August, I’ve imbibed potent imperial stouts, while saisons have hit my stomach in February—long before farmers’ rev up their reapers for harvest season. No one has ever bad-mouthed my beer selections as out of step with the seasonal march. I scratch my taste buds when they itch.

Lately, though, the specter of seasonal creep has sent beer drinkers and brewers into a tizzy. And the boogeyman is pumpkin beer. No sooner do the Fourth of July sparklers fizzle out than pumpkin ales alight on shelves, ready to burn bright throughout fall. From Terrapin Pumpkin Fest and Southern Tier Pumking to Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Schlafly Pumpkin Ale and Elysian Night Owl, gourd-inspired beers crop up long before growing pumpkins leave the patch.

And for good reasons: It takes a while to rev up production. And these beers sell. Schlafly’s pumpkin beer accounts for around 10 percent of its annual production, while Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead Ale is about 30 percent of the brewery’s annual business. No brewery forces consumers to buy beers. Customers crave them. Who can blame brewers for making a buck?

And it’s not as if pumpkin beers have a lockdown on seasonal creep. Spring beers regularly roll out in winter, summer beers debut in spring and winter beers arrive in fall. So why do July-released pumpkin beers incite the Twitterati and cause bloggers to grab pitchforks? Perhaps it’s their populism. From the get-go, craft beers were contrarian and unique, salmon swimming upstream against mainstream Coors and Bud. There’s nothing anti-mainstream about pumpkin beers, which often rock flavor profiles that hew closely to Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte or pumpkin-y Pop-Tarts. Pumpkin beers are a crowd-pleasing nostalgia ride, conjuring up old-timey Americana, of a Norman Rockwell mom plucking a steaming pie from the oven.

“It’s a vegetable that represents this idyllic farm life, and the best sort of moral virtue. And Americans have become attached to that,” Cindy Ott, the author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, told NPR last year.

Look, I’m no great lover of the pumpkin beer category. Too often, the offerings are strong, sweet and highly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, leaving them tasting like pumpkin pie run through a Vitamix. However, I do favor a pumpkin stout, such as Cape Ann Brewing’s Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout, Elysian’s Dark o’ the Moon or Saint Arnold’s Pumpkinator. (To me, the dark base and chocolaty flavors are a better foil for the fleshy pumpkin meat and spices.)

But those are my taste buds, not yours. Who am I to judge what beer you should drink, and when it should be consumed?

Pumpkin beers need not to be confined to fall. Go ahead and make them as much an all-year staple as a kölsch or hefeweizen. Don’t like it? Don’t drink it. There are plenty of more beers in the sea. Whether during the prickly heat of summer or the cool kiss of fall, let pumpkin-beer lovers savor their favored style. When it comes to beer, drinking is always in season.

(Editor’s note: Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food and travel journalist. He regularly contributes to Bon Appétit, Men’s Journal, Details, New York, Saveur and Imbibe, where he is a contributing editor. Additionally, he’s the author of Brewed Awakening and The Complete Beer Course. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter and dog.)

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