PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Last year brought a first pumpkin beer press release Aug. 3. This year, pumpkin beer made headlines by July.
Our colleague Tom Rotunno at CNBC reported on July 1 that Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, N.Y., would release its Pumking imperial pumpkin ale by mid-July. At a time beer drinkers are still enjoying light lagers, citrusy wheat beers, session IPA and various other refreshing brews suited to the warm weather, Southern Tier is rolling out a dark orange beer that smells like a pumpkin scone, tastes like pumpkin pie filling at the beginning and finishes like a cinnamon-and-sugar milkshake.
It's hard to blame them. Southern Tier says sales have increased 50% to 80% since Pumking's debut. Just as supermarkets will begin stocking Halloween candy in their seasonal aisles after Labor day and department stores will begin hauling out their first Christmas items in mid-September, pumpkin ales will be an end-of-summer staple. That's just how the retail and brewing calendars work.
As we've noted on several occasions, small brewers operate extremely close to the margins and don't like to have beer laying around when nobody wants it. Drinkers lose their taste for holiday beer shortly after New Year's Eve and summer styles appear about a month before Memorial Day and go into a slow fade just before Labor Day. Brewers don't want extra stock hanging around after that point and don't want pumpkin beer eating up their production capacity. Last year, in an apology for the early release of its Pumpkin Ale, St. Louis-based Schlafly told customers that increased production made Pumpkin Ale 10% of all the beer Schlafly brews. That beer's 8% alcohol by volume also took a toll on the brewery's yeast supply. That kind of alcohol content requires yeast to eat a whole lot of sugar, which makes it absolutely wiped out after two batches or so.
Also, it isn't as if small brewers are the only ones brewing pumpkin beers anymore. Samuel Adams has brewed its own Pumpkin Ale and toyed with a pumpkin stout before releasing its 8.5% alcohol by volume Fat Jack imperial pumpkin ale in 2011. Demand for pumpkin ale has grown so much within the past decade that Anheuser-Busch InBev introduced Michelob Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale in 2005 and MolsonCoors countered with with Harvest Moon ale in 2006 before rebranding it as Harvest Pumpkin Ale two years ago, when it was on shelves by July.
That increased demand and extended brewing calendar is only bringing drinkers more pumpkin ales earlier. Shipyard Brewing cranked up production of its Pumpkinhead ale from 2,100 barrels in 2002 to 30,000 a decade later while extending Pumpkinhead season from August-through-October to late July-through-Thanksgiving to deal with peak demand around the fall holidays.
With the number of U.S. breweries growing from 1,600 back in 2009 to more than 3,000 today, according to the Beer Association craft beer industry group, a brewer needs a big head start if it's going to stand out in the pumpkin patch. The following are just five examples of pumpkin beers hitting shelves around the same time as back-to-school backpacks and notebooks:
Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale
The ticker on Elysian's website just keeps counting down to the brewery's 10th annual pumpkin beer festival and reminding drinkers that pumpkin beers are this brewery's seasonal cornerstone.
Elysian Brewing founder Dick Cantwell gave his brewery no shortage of pumpkin beers to play with. The spice-laden 8.1% ABV Great Pumpkin is a seasonal favorite, while the Hansel & Gretel Ginger Pumpkin Pilsner and Mr. Yuck Sour Pumpkin Ale are Seattle pub favorites. But beer fans have a narrow window for enjoying pumpkin collaborations such as Kick, the sour pumpkin beer Elysian made with Colorado's New Belgium Brewing or the complex, woody Heavenly Pumpkin of Citricado it produced with California-based Stone Brewing and The Bruery.
When you don't feel like waiting around, Elysian's Night Owl Pumpkin Ale comes through immediately by sitting in six-packs now. Elysian's original pumpkin ale is brewed with seven and a half pounds of pumpkin per barrel and spiced ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice -- with some roasted and unroasted pumpkin seed thrown for added flavor.
The result is a smooth, easy drinking 5.9% ABV beer that's in many ways more enjoyable to drink than its heavier stablemates. The others make for great drinking, but night owl is a good start to the season.