By Jason Notte
The Street

If fall doesn't start until Sept. 22 this year, why have craft beer drinkers been seeing pumpkin beer on shelves since August?

Without fail, this is one of the most common messages that fills a beer writer's inbox around this time of year: Why is [fall seasonal beer] already out when I'm not done with [summer seasonal beer] yet? There are two answers to that question, and folks who still want a witbier or summer ale aren't going to like them.

The first is that craft beer brewers operate extremely close to the margins and don't like to have beer laying around when nobody wants it. Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer and the Samuel Adams brand, last year drew a similar parallel to Samuel Adams' Old Fezziwig holiday brew. People love Old Fezziwig just before the holidays, but want nothing to do with it once the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.

"The basic reason -- and it's not that we can't get enough of the ginger or cinnamon or anything -- is that freshness is a big deal for us and this is a beer that has a season," he said. "Beer at its foundation is a performance art that exists in the moment of its creation and that's it, and Fezziwig is very much in that situation of being perfect for a certain time."

Samuel Adams now brews its own Pumpkin Ale and toyed with a pumpkin stout before releasing its 8.5% alcohol by volume Fat Jack imperial pumpkin ale last year. 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 this year. All brewers are being taxed by that demand, as Maine-based Shipyard Brewing cranked up production of its Pumpkinhead ale from 2,100 barrels in 2002 to 30,000 last year while extending Pumpkinhead season from August-through-October to August-through-Thanksgiving to deal with peak demand around the fall holidays.

The jump in number of brewers making pumpkin ale is the other reason the style is so visible in late summer. There were only about 1,600 breweries in America back in 2009, but there are more than 2,000 now and roughly 1,300 in the planning stages, according to the Beer Association craft beer industry group. That's a lot more craft beer flowing into the marketplace, and it's increased the chances a pumpkin beer of some sort will be coming to a bar or store cooler near you.

Before you go diving into a patch of pumpkin brews willy nilly, however, we've put together a list of the season's top pumpkin beers with the help of our friends at BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. It's tough to go wrong with this style, but solid brews such as these make it even tougher:

For more of the Best Pumpkin Beers
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