Autumn is synonymous with pumpkin everything—lattes, pies and, most important of all, beer. Breweries pump out pumpkin-flavored ales beginning in August and continue well into the winter. For months, bottle shops and taprooms across the country flood the market in spicy-sweet pumpkin beer.
But two years ago, the pumpkin beer market was oversaturated. Some in the industry described it as a pumpkin beer backlash. Sales shrank by about 10 percent in the past three years for packaged fall seasons, according to IRi, an organization that tracks business trends in the industry. Competition was fierce, and as a result, many breweries stopped putting out pumpkin beers. Fred Forsley, the founder and co-owner of Shipyard Brewing, thinks the pumpkin beer market will shrink even further.
“I think it’s going to get down to a few pumpkin beers that will lead the category,” he says. “A few will survive, and others will focus on different fall seasonals.”
So which are worth tasting and which ones are worth tossing? We’ve put together a cheat sheet.
This beer launched in 1997. Based in Portland, Maine, the brewery produces 40,000 barrels of Pumpkinhead wheat ale every year, and you can find it pretty much anywhere beer is sold. It’s the perfect brew for someone who doesn’t want to go too heavy or hoppy.
“A lot of people say it’s like eating pumpkin pie,” says Forsley. “That fact and that it’s the season, and you have people embracing the fall. But people keep clamoring for it earlier and earlier. So we started stocking it in August.” $9 for 6-pack of 12-oz. bottles
If you’re looking for a heavier and darker pumpkin beer, you could do worse than Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s Warlock imperial stout, which has surpassed Pumking as the best fall brew it puts out. It’s strong but not so overwhelming as to miss the pumpkin flavors, complements of the pureed fresh pumpkin and pie spices added. Southern Tier also makes Cold Press Coffee Pumking, for anyone who likes a nice caffeine jolt to go with their jack-o’-lantern buzz. $10 for 22-oz. bottle
If you want a full meal of a seasonal, try this ale, which has been around for nearly two decades. Sam Calagione, the founder and CEO of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, said its longevity is a testament to its enduring popularity. “I think it’s because the complexity and authenticity of the recipe has remained world-class since we first brewed it,” he says. “It’s not made with pumpkin flavoring or concentrates; we use fresh all-natural ingredients, and that makes a big difference.” $14 for 6-pack of 12-oz. bottles
It tastes like a slice of pumpkin pie in a beer bottle except for one thing: There’s no pumpkin in it. Michigan brewery Arcadia makes this seasonal ale using cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, along with a generous portion of caramel and crystal malts. “We created Jaw-Jacker as a tip of the hat to the unique aromas and flavors of Grandma's pumpkin pie,” says founder Tim Suprise. $11 for 6-pack of 12-oz. bottles