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.
Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale
Released: Late July
As Shipyard celebrates 20 years of brewing in Maine, this headless horseman once again rides into taprooms and packaged goods stores that wouldn't mind seeing him all year round.
It's isn't the most serious of pumpkin ales out there: It's light, fizzy and loaded with cinnamon well before New England pubs line the rim of its pint glasses with even more sugar and cinnamon. The 5.1% ABV Pumpkinhead bears little to no resemblance to the mortar-and-pestle pumpkin concoction that Shipyard founder Alan Pugsley first made in a brewpub kitchen more than 15 years ago, but Pugsley has reached the conclusion that this is a far different beer. The Applehead and Melonhead varieties that followed bear that out, as does the fact that Pumpkinhead is one of the few pumpkin ales you'll find in a 12-ounce can.
Pumpkin purists might be more at home with a foil-wrapped 22-ounce bomber of the bigger 9% ABV Smashed Pumpkin, which is also released in August and has far more kick than Pumpkinhead. It's also a much more balanced blend of spices, and a subtle touch of hops. It's not Pumpkinhead's pumpkin pie, but it's more of a true pumpkin ale than its beloved, sugary sibling will ever be.
Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream Pumpkin Ale
Well, this is a first.
Burlington, Vt.-based Magic Hat has been kicking around for 20 years, but hasn't wide released a pumpkin ale in that span. Did somebody forget to tell them they're in New England? Were the turning leaves and cars filled with New York-area leaf peepers not a clue?
Well, they finally got around to it and named it after a stock movie sound effect for falling characters that's been used in multiple films since 1951. It debuted Friday and hasn't been nearly as excruciating as its namesake.
A malty mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, caramel and some actual pumpkin, Wilhelm Scream is on the smoother end of the pumpkin ale spectrum. It eases into the season with a bit of Northern New England fresh-baked sweetness and settles in as the temperature drops.
Given Magic Hat's growth, takeover of Seattle-based Pyramid and buyout by North American Breweries, we're kind of surprised it hasn't produced an accessible pumpkin seasonal before. It's picking a fine time to drop one, though.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
July 17, to be exact. This Easton, Pa.-bred pumpkin ale has been so popular in recent years that Weyerbacher moved it up on the production schedule while acknowledging that, yes, it's a bit early for pumpkin ales.
It wouldn't push this high-octane pumpkin brew, though, if there wasn't demand for it. Imperial Pumpkin is a big Mid-Atlantic favorite even early in the season for the basic fact that it smells and tastes like pumpkin pie and has enough alcohol behind it to make it similarly warm.
Loaded with caramel and spice before and packing a 8% ABV punch, a little cardamom and clove give it a witbier-style bite without any of the citrusy tartness. Weyerbacher's ample portions of pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg boost this brew's overall flavor and give it a taste off fall well suited the first days of football season.
Terrapin Pumpkin Fest
In Athens, Ga., pumpkin ale season arrived around July 14, when the first batches of Pumpkin Fest went into the bottle.
Loaded with cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and pumpkin, Pumpkin Fest is backed with Munich and Vienna malt to give it a smooth German-style consistency. It's light on the hops and heavy on the pie-style sweetness that makes its pumpkin name just a bit of a misnomer.
This is pumpkin pie beer, and there's a large contingent that absolutely loves it that way. If Weyerbacher's beer calendar revisions are any indication, there's absolutely nothing wrong with spicing up a fall seasonal.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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