Is pumpkin out? Local brewers react
Dogfish Head quality technician Jeremy Lum delves into the quality control aspect of the company's bottling and packaging process inside the brewery in Milton. Produced by Joe Lamberti
Bright orange pumpkins are everywhere in October.
They preside over porches with faces carved into whimsical grins, they dance across restaurant menus and beckon from every grocery store's candy aisle.
Pumpkin beers in October, however, are nearly impossible to find — not that they weren’t around earlier in the season. Some were released as early as July. And whether or not the spicy-sweet combination of clove, malt, cinnamon and nutmeg suits your personal palate, the pumpkin beer explosion has been hard to miss.
But there's a larger trend at work.
Pumpkin has become a sought-after taste, embedded into American culture as the star of the fall season. The flavor has flooded the market in the form of lattes, bagels, ice cream, potato chips, pastries, vodka, even tooth paste. But the pumpkin beer craze, in contrast, is on the decline thanks to overproduction, over-saturation and overly hot autumn temperatures.
Nielsen data shows pumpkin-spiced beer sales fell nearly 10 percent in 2015, and in terms of volume, the decline was more than 13 percent.
Now, mass quantities of pumpkin beer sat on the shelves months past their sell-by date and a lot of breweries, wholesalers and retailers lost money. As a result, many decided to cut production this year.
Eric Camper, head brewer at Tall Tales Brewery, only made one-third the amount he produced in 2015. The single batch (roughly 600 gallons) of his Midnight Pumpkin Ale will be enough for the brewery and this season's fall festivals though.
"The market just isn't the same," he said. "We didn't see the need to make more than that."
Camper believes "too-early" release dates have accelerated the decline of the pumpkin beer craze.
Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, revered for its Punkin Ale, normally holds its release until Sept. 1, but sold as early as Aug. 8 this year for stores that set up early pumpkin displays. Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale became available for purchase in some markets as early as July. Southern Tier's Pumking was also released mid-July.
"It puts pressure on everyone else in the industry," Camper said. "Everyone wants to be first. So, a lot of breweries push them out earlier."
As a result, fewer pumpkin brews are available when the consumer actually wants to drink them. Unless they stockpile early, those hoping to crack open a full-bodied, dark caramel brew on Halloween will probably be out of luck, he said.
However, for Dogfish head, president Sam Calagione said their Punkin Ale is doing as well as ever.
“We have heard from a couple retailers that certain pumpkin beers are not selling so well," Calagione said. "That’s not the case for us. We have been brewing Dogfish Head Punkin Ale every year for 21 years, since long before there was a whole category of pumpkin beer, and we have grown sales of this beer every year. It is our best-selling seasonal beer and I think that is because the complexity and authenticity of the recipe has stayed world-class since we first brewed it."
While Dogfish Head still has its wildly successful pumpkin brew, other brewers are taking a stand on when to release their own pumpkin style.
Andrew Harton, head brewer at Big Oyster Brewery, released his Shuckin' Pumpkin beer during the first week in October. Additionally, the brew will be distributed throughout the state for just a month.
"When people are bombarded by something they aren't as excited about it," he said. "We release our pumpkin beer when the weather changes, when people start craving those classic fall flavors. And our customers love it."
Shuckin' Pumpkin is one of Big Oyster's Brewery's most popular beers, he said.
While some breweries play around with nailing the right release date, others try to make their mark through distinctive styles. Dewey Beer Company recently debuted a sour pumpkin beer, made with zero pumpkin spice and a lot of tart, earthy, rustic tones instead. Mispillion River Brewing in Milford has a sweet potato pie beer, called Miss Betty, brewed with fresh, locally grown sweet potatoes. And each fall in Cambridge, RAR Brewing releases Big Lizz, a beer made with roasted butternut squash from Emily’s Produce.
As for the classics, Dogfish Head uses real pumpkin meat, freshly ground spices and organic brown sugar, which Calagione said makes a difference for their ale.
That being said, this year's pumpkin beer production took a hit.
Byrd Dog Wheeler, sales manager of Kelly Distributors, said this shift is a chance for breweries to reevaluate.
"The strong will survive," he said.
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