|Earthy, over-spiced. 3/5|
It's July. Humidity ravages the East Coast. Spent casings from fireworks liter the lawns of America. Most people you know are on vacation, the other half are preparing for a wedding. Exactly 50% of posts to Facebook or Twitter are people (such as myself) bitching about how hot it is. The other 50% are people taking pictures of their own feet by a pool or the beach, for some reason. Everyone is busy and chipper and trying hard to relax, and everyone smells like they're homeless.
So, July — guess what beer is just in season? If you said "pumpkin beer!", while excitedly mopping sweat from your brow, you are both weird and correct.
Pumpkin beers have become a very strange phenomenon in the brewing world. Many hate them, many love them. This is largely true of fruit and flavored beers in general, but as pumpkin beer gets a lot of specific attention a certain time each year, the style has become both an idol and a martyr, representing something larger than itself. Being that pumpkin beers were my original gateway into flavorful, craft-brewed beer, though now I hardly touch them, I find myself in a weird position whenever they come up in debate. I am both ready to defend them, yet often unable to do so, and more and more not really wanting to.
So, what's the deal with pumpkin beer?
1. Is It a Real Style?
You could make the argument that pumpkin beer isn't a real style with any pedigree in brewing history... but you could also make a convincing case that it's one of the few styles invented in America, and maybe even one of the few styles invented by the American craft beer movement. Modern American brewers brought something new into the world, and many are now ashamed of it. Personally, I think this recent American heritage is kind of cool. What makes pumpkin beer any less of a style than the dozens of others we've warped well beyond their original forms? And what law says new styles can't be born at any time? It seems to me that the qualifications for a new style would be, mostly, consistency and awareness. (If a brewer invents a new style, and no one ever drinks it, does it exist?) Pumpkin beer certainly has that — in fact, the style seems to be too well defined, if anything.
2. It's Actually Okay To Add Stuff To Beer
No one really believes in Reinheitsgebot anymore, do they? In my humble opinion, the concept behind pumpkin beers is perfectly sound. It's a concept born out of the desire to use native, local ingredients, and tailor beer to the season it's consumed in. There are plenty of styles doing similar things that just haven't landed in the perfect storm of cultural attention that pumpkin beers have, and thus, don't receive nearly the same amount of flack. The style is backed by noble intentions that mirror the very basis for craft beer — but unfortunately, it has mutated and grown over the years into something else.
3. Taking Advantage of Seasonal Whims
Seasonals are a huge money maker for many breweries — people want what's "in," and if you're looking for a break from the usual, it's far easier to go with a beer brewed for the season than just trying a random, unknown beer (speaking from the mindset of a Typical Consumer). Seasonals — pumpkin or otherwise — have a built-in marketing angle. Being extremely popular and a big money maker means these beers receive the full attention of distributors and sales people. Sadly, this is a major reason why the style now frustrates me, rather than making for a nice, "something different" in the fall months of the year. The fact is, breweries understandably want to sell as much beer as the public will buy from them, and when your pumpkin beer is hugely popular for just one or two months of the year, you find yourself in a position where you could sell much more than your brewers are able to provide in that time frame. So you brew early, and stock up on it, and get it out to the market a bit before the season. And then next year, maybe a little earlier. And the next year... well, it keeps getting more popular, and you keep having to make more, so what else can you do?
Beer bloggers are referring to this as "seasonal creep," and it's getting ridiculous. In years past, it was frustrating and bizarre to see pumpkin beers hit shelves in mid-August, with summer heat still lingering, but in 2013, we've seen them land in mid-July, right in the midst of record-breaking heat waves. It is, at this point, a running joke among beer nerds. And once November passes, is anyone buying the stragglers left on the shelf? Apparently not — at certain stores, I've spotted cases of pumpkin beer well into spring.
4. Gateway Beer
Maybe I'm just biased by my own experiences, but pumpkin beer does seem like a pretty good gateway into other flavorful craft options, and I don't see how this could be a bad thing in theory. It's not a huge leap from pumpkin beer into many other creative styles, and while they're very much in the minority, there are some brewers doing truly interesting, truly odd things with pumpkin in beer. I've seen pumpkin IPAs, pumpkin saisons, sour pumpkin beers, and Colonial-inspired recipes conjuring the kitchen-sink mentality of American settlers. They don't all work, but brewers are having some fun with the concept while luring in curious seasonal novelty seekers, and that's cool.
5. Sales Over Passion
One of the main gripes people offer about IPAs is that every brewery makes one, and they're just too ubiquitous. I agree with this lament up to a point — there isn't a problem with every brewer making an IPA, provided they are making it because they want to, and not simply to make money, or because they feel they have to have an IPA in their lineup. And it's the same with pumpkin beers, but I get the feeling much less passion is devoted to the brewing of this style than IPAs. I've heard tales of frustration from brewers who were coerced by an aggressive sales team into taking a stab at the style just to appease the years of the public demanding it. Or, in many cases, a brewer simply tries out a pumpkin recipe because they know it will be popular before really knowing whether they'll love it themselves.
I don't think it's always wrong to brew a style that you don't love yourself. Maybe you want to try to broaden your brewing horizons, or test your own preferences. Maybe you're driven to reinvent and improve upon something you don't typically care for. But just looking around and seeing what everyone else is doing is not the road to great beer (or great anything), I'd wager.
Pumpkin beers could be an interesting, once-a-year niche if they were just given some space. I love the thought of a few pumpkin beers as the weather turns cold in October; really, I love absolutely anything that reminds me of my favorite season. I love the lure of something derived from the season itself — but pumpkin beers emerging on store shelves in July shatters that illusion, and muddies the appeal. Back when I started drinking beer, only a few breweries made pumpkin beers, and a new one appearing was something to get excited about. Now, it's hard to think of a brewery that doesn't make one. Rather than having pumpkin beer to look forward to in a few months, I spend months avoiding them until finally caving and getting my yearly fill. They now feel like a looming obligation, and perhaps the most blatant sign that craft breweries are still businesses, and money still, in fact, talks.
If you scoff at their very existence, I would love to hear why, beyond "I don't like how they taste." Do you think there's any valid excuse for your local brewery to be dropping pumpkin beers in July? Leave a comment below, or call me a beer snob on Twitter at @bearflavored or on Facebook.