In defense of pumpkin beer
The much-maligned style is great for the craft beer industry — and it tastes good, too
You probably hate pumpkin beer. You are wrong.
Pumpkin beer has become a punch line, unfairly lumped in with all the truly terrible pumpkin-flavored products that infect our lives each fall. It's not just the Pumpkin Spice Latte. There are now Pumpkin Spice Oreos, Pumpkin Spice Eggo Waffles, and Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles. There were even rumors — thankfully proven false — of a pumpkin pie spice condom.
So maybe it's not your fault that you hate pumpkin beer. We have reached peak pumpkin, and it's not even technically fall yet. Blame the nefarious Pumpkin Spice Industrial Complex.
When it comes to beer, pumpkin-flavored offerings have also moved from the margins to the mainstream. Pumpkin beer is no longer an innovative novelty, but a ubiquitous presence on store shelves as early as August.
Understandably, drinkers are miffed about this pumpkin interloper invading their booze. But the backlash has grown so shrill it's devolved into fatuous faux-outrage and, worse, outright condescension.
Here's the thing though: Pumpkin beer is great. Not all of it, of course. But there are a number of delicious, well-balanced takes on the style.
Southern Tier's Pumking is a classic example of the style done right. It's a bit on the sweet side, but it features graham cracker notes and a hint of vanilla that give it a more rounded flavor than most other pumpkin brews. Cigar City's Good Gourd rates not just as a great pumpkin beer, but as a fantastic beer, period, with a 96 score on Beer Advocate. Even Harvest Moon, from pseudo-craft brewery Blue Moon, is a decent iteration that doesn't go overboard on the spice notes.
When done right, pumpkin beer still tastes like beer. Good beer. Subtle spice and a hint of pumpkin add a comforting, warm layer to beer's inherent goodness, making the style perfect for sipping all through the fall.
Sure, there are plenty of horrible, over-spiced, too-sweet pumpkin beer concoctions that taste as if someone liquefied a stale pumpkin pie — metal tray and all — and carbonated it. But there are also a bunch of delicious pumpkin beers. Stop impugning their honor.
And is it any surprise that more and more pumpkin beers exist each year? For all the vaunted independence of the craft beer industry, it is still an industry, a capitalistic enterprise. Breweries make what people are drinking, and what the market demands. Pumpkin beer is incredibly popular and enormously profitable. Though IPA sales typically outpace those of seasonal offerings by 300,000 cases or so per month, fall seasonals led IPA sales by 300,000 cases in October and November last year, according to the Brewer's Association. Moreover, sales of the top pumpkin beers from 2012 leapt a ludicrous 366 percent over a four-week stretch in 2013, indicating the market is still soaring.
And while you may be horrified at the thought of Natt-o-Lantern, this trend is actually great for the craft beer industry as a whole.
First, the booming sales of pumpkin beer boost the profits of craft breweries, allowing them to grow and better compete with the big guys. Craft beer sales rose 17.2 percent last year, and anything that helps craft breweries continue to grow apace is welcome news for fans of variety, innovation, and flavor.
Second, pumpkin beer is a gateway beer. It is a stepping stone from macro swill to the wide variety of styles and tastes craft beer has to offer.
The first ever craft beer (non-Sam Adams division) I can remember trying was Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale. Alongside the PBR I was used to chugging in college, it immediately vaulted to top of my fledgling "Best Beers Ever" list. Today? I wouldn't touch the stuff. But Pumpkinhead was the first brew to pique my interest in craft beer as an alternative beverage, leading me to try more good beers — including, yes, good pumpkin beers — down the road.
Writing off an entire style of beer to burnish your beer snob cred, or because you hate seasonal pumpkin creep, is misguided. And in doing so, you're keeping yourself from enjoying a drink with a rich place in American history.
So shut up and drink up. Pumpkin beer is great.