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Why People Love — and Love to Hate — Pumpkin Beers
By Julia Herz
I’ve yet to meet a beer style that has more people either lovin’ or hatin’ on it than pumpkin beer.
This delicious and seasonally-based style is so well liked that in the month of October it rivals the popularity of India pale ale (IPA), the top-selling craft beer style in supermarkets across America. In fact, pumpkin beers are so popular that for the first time ever, the style will have its own dedicated category at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. Yet for every fan, there’s someone else defiantly taking a stand against it.
Why do some beer lovers have their knickers in a bunch over pumpkin beers? Is it the fact that pumpkin beers (along with the rest of the seemingly endless pumpkin-flavored foods and products) are often released before fall properly begins? Or is it the flavor combination of pumpkin and pie spices that creates the divide? Maybe it’s the way some brewers use alternative forms of pumpkin that are not picked fresh from the vine and put straight into the kettle?
To these questions, I say: “Who cares?” Yes, that’s right, I said it. What is gained by bashing or dismissing a beer style or brand?
We as beer lovers are influencers, and new beer drinkers are impressionable—just as we once were. So if you don’t like a beer or style, don’t hate. Instead, let others decide for themselves.
No one objects to department stores putting out bathing suits in February, long before you’ll be heading to the beach. Everyone loves the taste of grandma’s famous pumpkin pie recipe—and heaven help you if you object to her making it with the same canned ingredients she’s been using since before you were born, kiddo. But for some reason, people think objections like these are legitimate when it comes to pumpkin beer.
Even USA Today‘s beer columnist has joined the conversation:
“Yes, it’s not even Labor Day and pumpkin beers have overrun my favorite beer boutiques. Oktoberfest fans will have to hunt through a patch of pumpkin beers to find those seasonal favorites. OK, I may be exaggerating…a bit.”
Fall is for whatever fits my fancy at the time, including Oktoberfests, wet hop beers, porters, stouts, pilseners, barley wines, and hell yes, it’s for enjoying seasonally-specific and appropriate spiced pumpkin beers made from fresh, frozen, canned or otherwise preserved squash.
Timing is Everything
Across the board, late summer is the time that retailers use to get us into the fall mood. Why should it be different for craft brewers? Brewing, packaging and marketing a beer takes time, not to mention if the beer is to be barrel-aged, or requires longer to ferment. And timing is important when brewers consider keeping up with their core brands while also adding a seasonal beer.
Plus, thirsty pumpkin lovers expect their favorite seasonal to arrive on time and in quantity. Google searches for “pumpkin beer” spike every year from late summer through the fall, exceeding searches for all other seasonal beer terms combined, as you can see in the graph below compiled by Brewers Association staff economist Bart Watson.
Watson says those searches really do correlate with the beers we buy and drink. In 2013, pumpkin beers led a surge in seasonal sales, which were lagging behind the ever popular India pale ale by about 125,000 cases going into that August. The release of pumpkin beers put seasonals at the front of the craft beer pack by 300,000 cases during September and October, and could do so again this year.
Here are just a few of 2014 pumpkin beers from small and independent craft brewers:
Boxcarr Pumpkin Porter | Starr Hill Brewery | Crozet, VA
Flat Jack Pumpkin Ale | Flat 12 Bierwerks | Indianapolis, IN
Gourd Shorts (pumpkin ale) | Florida Beer Co. | Cape Canaveral, FL
Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale | Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company | Lexington, KY
Mavericks Pumpkin Harvest Ale | Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. | Half Moon Bay, CA
Oak Jacked (imperial pumpkin ale) | Uinta Brewing Co. | Salt Lake City, UT
Potosi Stingy Jack Pumpkin Ale | Potosi Brewing Co. | Potosi, WI
Pumking | Southern Tier Brewing Co. | Lakewood, NY
Pumpkin Ale | Blackstone Brewing Co.® | Nashville, TN
Pumpkin Ale | Rivertown Brewing Co. | Lockland, OH
Pumpkinfest | Terrapin Beer Co. | Athens, GA
Roadsmary’s Baby (rum-aged pumpkin ale) | Two Roads Brewing Co. | Stratford, CT
Rum Punk (Rum barrel-aged pumpkin beer) | Joseph James Brewing Co., Inc | Henderson, NV
Samhain Pumpkin Porter | DESTIHL Brewery | Bloomington, IL
Samuel Adams Fat Jack (double pumpkin ale) | Samuel Adams | Boston, MA
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale | Smuttynose Brewing Co. | Hampton, NH
Wick for Brains Pumpkin Ale | Nebraska Brewing Co. | La Vista, NE
Witch’s Hair Pumpkin Ale | Twisted Manzanita Ales & Spirits | East County San Diego, CA
What is the Definition of a Craft Beer?
Whether you end your day with an ice cold Corona or reach for a bourbon barrel-aged stout, if you’ve cracked a beer anytime in the last several years, you’ve probably noticed a surge in the number of alternatives to macrobrews—those big commercial brewery beers like Corona, Bud, Miller Lite, etc.
These alternatives make up a category called “craft beer.” And while it’s easy to spot the difference between Miller High Life and Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre, defining craft beer generally is a murkier (frothier?) business.
American (Beer) History
The story of craft beer is the story of America’s broken love affair with suds. As we’ve discussed[link to History of Beer], brewing is an age-old art, and actually came to this country before, well, independence, with record of the first known brewery in New Amsterdam (aka NYC) in 1612. (Of course Native Americans were not only here first, they were fermenting first, in this case an early alcoholic beverage made from corn.)
As agriculture and later industrialization took hold of the young nation, so too did a love of beer and brewing. The nineteenth century saw huge growth in the number of American breweries, not to mention an influx of immigrants and other beer styles (including the German import, lager) which took an especially strong foothold). And while there was some evidence of consolidation—small breweries being absorbed into bigger ones—brewing was still a diversified industry in the nineteenth century.
But by 1920, a little thing called the Temperance Movement had mutated into the great, big, federally-mandated monster known as Prohibition. And while alcohol didn’t quite disappear during that time, small American breweries took a major hit. Nor did they entirely recover when Prohibition was repealed in 1933: industrialization saw even more rapid consolidation of breweries, all while lighter lager emerged as the dominant style. Brewery numbers shrinking, light lager appeal growing—bad news for variety in American beer.
But then a funny thing happened. With only 45 independent breweries left in 1978 (89 total breweries), a small but enterprising group of homebrewers started brewing beer themselves, reviving styles that were no longer widely available. See, by that point, due to increases in travel and a couple World Wars, Americans had been introduced to the still robust beer drinking cultures of Europe. But when they got home, beer drinking options were extremely limited. Homebrewing – legalized by Congress in 1978 – was the answer.
From Home to Craft Brewing, or Sierra and Sam
Of course, given the revelatory deliciousness of well-made beer, the leap from home to professional “craft” brewing didn’t take long. And while folks like Fritz Maytag took over Anchor Brewing in 1965 and intrepid homebrewer Jack McAuliffe opened what is sometimes called the “first microbrewery” in 1976, the two men most commonly associated with the foundations of the craft industry are Jim Koch and Ken Grossman, aka Sam and Sierra.
Yes, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada really are two of the pillars of the craft industry. Bear with us… See, in 1978, when there were only those 45 aforementioned independent breweries, an innovative college dropout named Ken Grossman borrowed some money from friends and family to co-found the (then) 10-barrel brewery he called Sierra Nevada. Success, growth, and three decades later, you see Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in almost every refrigerated case of beer. But that doesn’t mean Sierra didn’t begin—or continue—as a craft brewery (basically, a smaller-output brewery that puts quality ahead of quantity, but we’ll get to definitions in a minute).
The same story (roughly) goes for Sam Adams (The Boston Beer Company). Jim Koch was a beer lover who, like Grossman, wanted to change what beer was available to the public, so he founded The Boston Beer Company, brewed a recipe of his great-great-grandfather’s that he called “Samuel Adams Boston Lager,” and hasn’t looked back. Again, like Sierra, Sam Adams might not seem very “craft” at this point, given its massive presence in the beer world and generally set roster of styles, but compared to the big guys, Sam is still relatively craft—4.1 million barrels in 2014.
Small, Independent, Traditional (Oh My!)
We know what you’re thinking. Can 4.1 million barrel output really be “craft”? Well, yes, though the answer’s a bit more complicated. And that’s because defining craft beer is hard to do. Even the craft beer advocacy group, the Brewers Association doesn’t define it, but “rather leaves [that] to the beer enthusiast”—meaning you could down a can of Coors Light, crush it against your forehead, and declare it the most delicious, nuanced “craft beer” you’d ever tasted.
“Craft Brewer,” on the other hand, is a term that can earn a brewery certain rights, marketing cachet, and even tax breaks, so defining what qualifies as a craft brewery is pretty essential. And that’s what the Brewers Association does, with three words: small, independent, and traditional.
Of course, what these words refer to has actually changed over time, and for good reason: the craft industry is growing. But let’s take a look:
Small, for instance, used to mean a production output limited to 2 million barrels per year. By 2014, it was 6 million. And in their update, the BA added an alternative percentage measure—basically a “craft brewery” could only produce 3% of the market, meaning if the market output grows, a craft brewery can grow right along with it.
Independent means basically the same thing—only 25% of a brewery can be owned by anyone not identified as a craft brewer.
But traditional definitely changed in 2014, with the BA now defining it has having a “majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients in their fermentation.”
That last change is pretty huge, because it means not only malt but adjuncts (like rice, corn, etc., generally associated with cheap filler used by big bad macro beer companies) can be included in the ingredients of the malt bill that influence the flavor of a craft beer. This is why Yuengling now qualifies as a craft brewery—it also gives the BA access to Yuengling’s bigger budget, which it may use to fight the good fight against macro beers as fights over market shares continue. Of course, the BA has its own non-financial rationalization for allowing adjunct grains into the new definition of craft brewing: “The idea that brewers who had been in business for generations did not qualify as ‘traditional’ simply did not cohere for many members [of the Brewers Association]. Brewers have long brewed with what has been available to them.”
The basic issue is growth. And Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada are perfect examples: self-styled craft breweries that found success and grew, paving the way for the myriad craft breweries that followed (there were 3,464 independent breweries in 2014). But now that the market’s teeming with scores of local, idiosyncratic craft breweries, Boston Beer and Sierra seem closer to big business. Which, in a way, they are—because they’ve succeeded. Growth is the goal of most business, including craft. Even the BA wants to take craft beer’s share of the market to 20% by 2020. The question is, when does a craft brewery stop being craft?
Well, Congress may soon have something to say about it. A bill by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden proposes amending the definitions of breweries according to three levels of annual output: 2 million, 6 million, and anything above that. Those in the lowest and middle category would get the tax breaks afforded to craft breweries (the government levies a federal beer excise tax, at a lower rate for smaller breweries). Those in the highest category—which the Boston Beer Company is fast approaching at 20% annual growth—would get no tax breaks, basically equating it with the macro breweries it was founded to compete against.
Confusing, yes. But the basic story is there’s more beer to be had, a good problem. Whether you call a bottle of great, great grandfather Koch’s Boston Lager “craft,” well, that’s still up to you.
View Original article on VinePair.com