Understanding the History and Trend Cycle of Pumpkin Beer

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In virtually every world culture, some sort of fermented beverage has become an integral part of its social fabric. There are many reasons for this, but mainly it is because people enjoy alcoholic beverages. Let’s face it, if people did not like the effects of alcohol, non­-alcoholic beers and wines would be way, way more popular.

Deep Roots

Another reason that fermented beverages are so deeply woven into culture is that they have a direct relationship to the geographic region in which they exist. Wine is paramount in French, Spanish, and Italian culture. Beer is not. It should come as no shock that the reason for this is that grapes grow well in those regions. Hops and barley do not. But head north into the cooler climates of Austria, Germany, Poland, and Belgium. That’s beer country.

These roots go even deeper when you start to consider regional specialties. Water chemistry, indigenous crops, harvest seasons, immigration, and more can all contribute to why a particular type of beer exists and thrives in a particular region and/or with a particular culture. The beer is, without question, a reflection of the culture itself.

Back to School

Then there is history. Most beer styles have deep links to historical instances that have helped shape their regions. The witbiers of Belgium have everything to do with the prominence of northern Europe during the heyday of the spice trade. The rise of pale ale over porter in England had everything to do with advancements in technology during the Industrial Revolution. The wildly popular IPAs today owe their existence to the massive breadth of the United Kingdom, most notably into the Indian subcontinent. The list goes on and on, but becoming educated on beer will inevitably take you “back to school” in both science and history. Pumpkin beers are a fine example of this fact.

Good Gourd, Get on With It

Pumpkin beers are wildly popular these days. It is a seasonal phenomenon. No other seasonal beer erupts so suddenly, and with such force, that it dominates the landscape the way pumpkin beer does. This has not always been the case though. The pumpkin beer “craze” has its origins in the 1980s. However, it did not catch fire with American beer drinkers until fairly recently. The pumpkin beer phenomenon is actually just part of a flat­-out pumpkin spice craze that has swept the country. According to a recent study by Nielsen, the sales of pumpkin spiced foods have grown by 79 percent since 2011. Think about that for a minute.

The actual origin of pumpkin beers can be traced back to colonial America. Those plucky colonists made do with whatever they had lying around. Malt getting scarce? No problem. Just find another readily available source of fermentable sugar, and get back to brewing! And that is precisely what they did. Pumpkin flesh supplied the fermentable sugar, hops were added for flavor, and one of America’s first indigenous beer styles was born. Those early pumpkin beers did not have any of the spices that modern pumpkin beers are known for though. Early pumpkin beers were brewed out of necessity. Colonists didn’t have time to get fancy with their beer. That came later. 

Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale  | Credit: Blue Moon Brewing Company

Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale | Credit: Blue Moon Brewing Company

Pumpkin Ale Redux

As the colonies became states, and villages grew into cities, the popularity of pumpkin beer waned. Most experts credit this to the collective view of pumpkins as being quaint and rustic, at a time when modernization was accelerating. People wanted to be progressive and inventive, not regressive and nostalgic. So pumpkin beer effectively died, by no fault of its own. When it returned, it did so as something that would be completely foreign to its colonial creators.

The additions of pumpkin pie spices — cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg — ­­that define modern pumpkin beers are simply a result of the endless creativity that defines American craft brewing. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, CA, created the modern pumpkin beer in the early days of craft, and deserves great recognition for pioneering this style. The late ’80s were not a time of great experimentation, so a pumpkin spiced ale would have stood out from the crowd and made a name for itself quickly. People’s reactions were mostly, “You can do this...to beer?” This was, after all, close to 30 years ago. Most people didn’t know that beer was any color besides yellow, or had any real flavor besides “cold.”

Blame Colorado?

Let’s look at the ascendence of pumpkin ales. It has been a relatively long road. Go ahead and take the old colonial iterations of pumpkin beer out of the conversation. Focus solely on the modern, pie-­spiced versions. It took about 25 years to go from novelty beer to a full­-fledged phenomenon. From its origin at Buffalo Bill’s, pumpkin beer stayed quiet until 1995 when Blue Moon released its pumpkin ale. With the coast-­to-­coast distribution and deep pockets of marketing dollars afforded by Coors, pumpkin ale burst on the scene and has never looked back. Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale still accounts for the majority of U.S. pumpkin beer consumption each year.

What’s on the Horizon?

Are pumpkin beers here to stay? Or, like they did when colonial American transitioned into the Industrial Revolution, will they fade away? No one knows for sure, but there are some indications that change is coming. According to an article in the Washington Post, the sales of pumpkin beers did something in 2013 that it had not done in over a decade: declined. In addition, the number of pumpkin beers being sold in the U.S. is on a steady increase, growing by a third in just one year.

Does this all mean that pumpkin beer is on its way out? No way. Does it mean that there is a frenzied commotion going on to capture the lucrative pumpkin beer payday? You bet. The American consumer is fickle, and is always looking for the next big thing.

But It’s So Good…

In the end, it all boils down to flavor. Do pumpkin beers taste good? Hell yes they do. That’s why people buy them. The eventual extinction of the style is highly unlikely. What is more likely is that people will stop drinking them so early in the fall season (or August for that matter), and will start drinking less of them in general. The “craze,” if you will, over pumpkin beer will gradually subside, if it isn’t doing so already. But unlike the pumpkin beers of colonial times, they won’t just go away completely — because they just taste so good. Think about it: Are we sick of the dense, rich flavors we associate with fall foods? No way. Thanksgiving is still as popular as ever and shows no signs of losing strength.

People won’t get sick of fall. They won’t get sick of fall flavors or pumpkin beer either. Pumpkin beers might retreat back some day, back into their designated time slot. And just like pumpkin pie, you might have one outside of its seasonal window, and like it. But in general we will savor pumpkin beers while they last, like fall itself, but be content when they inevitably slip away each year. Our only solace against the sorrow of their leaving is the anticipation of their return.