5 Reasons to Pick Pumpkin Beer

PORTLAND, Maine ( MainStreet) -- Pumpkin beer is growing into a patch full of competition and a sophisticated seasonal beer for discerning beer drinkers.

Since Shipyard Brewing of Portland, Maine, introduced its Pumpkinhead pumpkin ale to the masses 10 years ago, production has grown from fewer than 2,100 barrels in 2002 to 19,000, Shipyard's co-founder and master brewer Alan Pugsley says. During that decade, enough craft brewers have poured out their take on pumpkin ales and pumpkin stouts to attract the attention of their bigger brewing brethren.

Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD) weighed in with its Michelob Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale in 2005, MolsonCoors ( TAP) topped off its Blue Moon series with Harvest Moon ale in 2006 (and rebranded it as Harvest Pumpkin Ale this year) and even big craft brewer Boston Beer ( SAM) just added Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale to its selection in 2010. Even as the market crowds and brewers' pumpkin vines tangle, there's still enough demand to force Shipyard to extend Shipyard's August-through-October release season to Thanksgiving and to increase production to an estimated 30,000 barrels -- or more than 413,000 cases.

"We thought we just about maxed the deal last year when we sold 19,000 barrels of Pumpkinhead," Pugsley says. "That was all in a compressed time frame in August, September and October, but somewhere along the line it caught the imagination with the flavor or the headless horseman on the package."

Pumpkin ale is nothing new in the craft brewing world, but its popularity has taken a while to ferment. Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Del., traces the roots of its popular Punkin' Ale back to 1994, when founder Sam Calagione took his spiced pumpkin homebrew to Delaware's Punkin Chunkin festival six months before Dogfish Head opened for business. At an event where slingshots, catapults and air cannon launch pumpkins through the air for more than 4,000 feet, the beer recipe contest judges were impressed enough to unwittingly make it one of Dogfish Head's first beers.

"They were all 'Pumpkin and beer?' and we were all 'Yep' and they were all 'First place, we love it,'" says Dogfish Head's Calagione in the brewery's beer bio video. "Soon after that, we opened in 1995 and this became a staple -- we started brewing in the fall of 1995 and we've brewed it every fall since."

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, TheStreet 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:

Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale
BeerAdvocate rating: C
RateBeer Rating: 35 of 100

Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
BeerAdvocate rating: B
RateBeer Rating: 88 of 100
There are two big complaints about Pumpkinhead: Those who love it tend to have a hard time finding it, and those who hate it feel it tastes of a whole lot of cinnamon and fizz but little to no pumpkin.

For the former who like their malted beverages a little bubbly and spicy, Shipyard started brewing Pumpkinhead in July and won't stop until November. That's great news for casual pumpkin ale drinkers who are big fans of Blue Moon-style wheat beer in the summer, but like a pumpkin ale with sugar and cinnamon around the rim of the glass in winter.

For the latter, the 5.1% ABV Pumpkinhead is going to bear little to no resemblance to the mortar-and-pestle pumpkin concoction Pugsley first made in a brewpub kitchen more than 15 years ago. These folks might want to go with a foil-wrapped 22-ounce bomber of the bigger 9% ABV Smashed Pumpkin. It has far more kick than Pumpkinhead, a much more balanced blend of spices, a subtle touch of hops and the overall flavor of spiked pumpkin pie.

"Unlike Pumpkinhead, this is a sit-down, sip-by-the-fire type of beer," Pugsley says. "I almost liken it to a port as a fun, nice after-dinner type drink."

While a $9 to $10 sixer Pumpkinhead would go just fine with candy corn and fun-sized Snickers, Shipyard suggests pairing a similarly priced bottle of Smashed Pumpkin with sharp cheeses, nuts, flan or pumpkin pie. Cooking with it isn't out of the question, either.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
BeerAdvocate rating: B+
RateBeer Rating: 90 of 100
Don't look at that four pack like it's trying to steal your lunch money.

Beer lovers are getting one of the original big pumpkin beers at 7% ABV when they buy Punkin', and a lot of that alcohol is coming from organic brown sugar. Dogfish Head throws in pumpkin meat and ground co-op grown spices such as cinnamon and allspice during the boil to give it just the right balance of sugar and kick.

The best part is that while it may not be as "sessionable" as some lower-alcohol pumpkin brews, it's also not as potent as its bomber brethren. A beer drinker stands a chance of having more than one of these without having the room spin once he or she stands up. Their biggest worry should be finding some Punkin before it runs out.

"Few things get Dogfish die-hards as pumped as the smooth hints of pumpkin, the organic brown sugar and the savory spices in Punkin Ale," says Justin Willams, spokesman for Dogfish Head. "Punkin rolls out every Sept. 1 and is available 'til it's gone, which is usually around Thanksgiving."

Southern Tier Pumking
BeerAdvocate rating: A-
RateBeer Rating: 98 of 100
Pumking is about as subtle as smashing your neighbor's pumpkin with a mortar round.

It's very potent at 8.6% ABV, but there's little about its flavor that even suggests alcohol. It's 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 can be really overwhelming and taste more like a baked good than beer, but that's exactly what Southern Tier is shooting for. Four batches of Pumking are brewed in Southern Tier's 50-barrel brewhouse before they can ferment. Once they're in the 200-barrel fermenter, they don't come out for another 16 to 18 days.

It's labor- and ingredient-intensive, but it's a heavy hitter that brings in big returns. Southern Tier spokesman Nathan Arnone estimates that the 4,000 barrels of Pumking produced this year will grow 50% to 6,000 by next fall. That appetite for high-potency pumpkin beers may not last, but Southern Tier and its fans seem to be squeezing it for all they can.

"Right now, pumpkin is where it's at," Arnone says. "Five years from now, who knows?"

Jolly Pumpkin Brewing's La Parcela
BeerAdvocate rating: B+
RateBeer Rating: 97 of 100
When you have pumpkin right there in the name of the brewery, brewing a weak pumpkin beer isn't advised.

Dexter, Mich.-based brewer Jolly Pumpkin didn't brew a pumpkin beer for several years, but the only pumpkin ale it brews doesn't disappoint. Though teeming with touches of cinnamon, allspice and pumpkin, La Parcela can taste a bit like an orange-infused wheat beer when it first hits the tongue.

A little bit of cocoa in the mix makes a lot of difference in this surprisingly sweet brew, but the underrated draw is its 5.9% ABV that's remarkably low for a beer this bold. It's good for savoring on a cool fall evening, but much better as the bring-your-own sixer for a friend's Halloween function.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
BeerAdvocate rating: A-
RateBeer Rating: 95 of 100
Anheuser Busch's Michelob Jack's Pumpkin Ale is deceptively decent for a big brewer's pumpkin beer, but it's not even the best pumpkin in St. Louis.

For beer drinkers who like pumpkin ale less as an ale and more as pumpkin pie in a bottle, it doesn't get better than St. Louis-base Schlafly's Pumpkin Ale. Nutmeg, brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, clove and vanilla are all front and center, but don't overpower the pumpkin or even pumpkin-saturated-crust flavor.

It's available in six packs, but tread lightly: This is a big beer. At 8% ABV, it packs a much heftier wallop than grandma's pumpkin pie and isn't the brew to take swigs of between Halloween apple-bobbing sessions.

It is, however, one of the more limited runs of pumpkin ale in the country. It's only available in September and October, and brewmaster Jim Ottolini is hard-pressed to keep it in supply. If you happen to have one on hand, hold it more tightly that Linus holds his blanket while waiting for the Great Pumpkin.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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