Pugsley's Pumpkinhead packed the same punch for Shipyard. Before it was a full-fledged brewery or even Shipyard, Pugsley's solo venture was simply Federal Jack's Brew Pub and Brewery -- one of Maine's first brewpubs. Pugsley had some wheat ale kicking around one year, and he and his brewing partners wanted to do something "different and fun" for the fall. They we went to the kitchen, raided the spice rack, blended some cinnamon and nutmeg, ground up some pumpkin into juice and just started playing with it. During the first few years, supply was counted not in barrels, but in pints.
"Every year from about 1994 onward, we did this two or three kegs at a time," Pugsley says. "In 2002 we decided to come up with it as a package, but we were somewhat nervous about it taxing the consumer imagination or being too off the wall."
A decade later, pumpkin beers are nothing if not off the wall. Pugsley's 5.1% alcohol-by-volume Pumpkinhead is a buttoned-down teetotaler compared with the 8.6%-alcohol Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale brewed by Lakewood, N.Y.-based Southern Tier Brewing. That beer debuted in 22-ounce bottles back in 2007 and caught beer lovers' attention with its high-octane formulation and hints of not only cinnamon and nutmeg, but vanilla and honey graham.
Pumking production has increased between 50% and 80% since its debut, according to Nathan Arnone, spokesman for Southern Tier. This year, Southern Tier brewers have been working 24 hours a day for the past few weeks to meet a 4,000-barrel demand.
Shipyard's Pugsley took a similar turn this year, introducing his brewery's first pumpkin ale since Pumkinhead. Smashed Pumpkin, part of Shipyard's Pugsley Signature Series, is 9% alcohol by volume, brewed in small 50-barrel batches and meant to be drunk at a relatively warm 55 degrees with dessert, like a wine or cordial.
Just introducing a pumpkin beer doesn't guarantee a brewer will carve out market share. Last year, sales of A-B InBev and MolsonCoors beers decreased 3% by volume while their craft competitors saw sales jump 11%. But Shipyard and Southern Tier's growing pumpkin ale production in the past few years and Dogfish Head's overall production jump from 97,000 barrels in 2009 to 121,000 in 2010 seem to indicate that there's room for more pumpkins in the patch.
"I think that other breweries making pumpkin ale just helps," Arnone says. "It's not a novelty anymore, it's an accepted taste, and more people are aware of it, seeking it out and comparing them to one another."
For the sake of comparison,
and the folks at BeerAdvocate and RateBeer look at a few of the season's top pumpkin beers to see what makes a good pick in this fall's crowded pumpkin field: