By Jason Notte
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:
BeerAdvocate rating: 84 of 100.
RateBeer rating:93 of 100.
Pumpkin and spice is just fine for a bake sale. If you're trying to get into the spirit of the season, there'd best be some Halloween-style chocolate in the mix. This is where Gloucester, Mass.-based Cape Ann excels. Its dark, chocolatey stout blends in pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. There's a lot of fall aroma on the nose, tons of flavor on the finish and a somewhat strong 7% ABV behind it. When you're in a leaf-peeping mecca such as New England and have a brewery minutes away from some of the area's finest foliage, a strong fall beer such as Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout is just what slow-driving, cabin-renting tourists are looking for.
BeerAdvocate rating: 87 of 100/
RateBeer rating: 97 of 100.
A brewery named Jolly Pumpkin really should have a pumpkin ale.
Dexter, Mich.-based brewer Jolly Pumpkin didn't brew a pumpkin beer for several years, but the only pumpkin ale it brews is a beast. 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 -- remarkably low for a beer this bold. A great bring-your-own 22-ounce bomber for this year's Halloween parties.
BeerAdvocate rating: 87 of 100.
RateBeer rating: 99 of 100.
Want to get a good scare out of your pumpkin-pie-beer-drinking friends this Halloween? Show up to a party with a foil-wrapped 12-ounce bottle of 15.9% ABV brew. That'll spook them away from your spot in the beer fridge. Boulder, Colo.-based Avery pulls no punches with its pumpkin offering. Sure, there's a whole lot of roasted pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger in there, but try finding most of it behind the oak-and-molasses flavor left behind by the rum barrel Rumpkin was aged in. For lovers of stiff cocktails and rum punch, this brew is an absolute dream. For leaf peepers who love to pull multiple brews from the cabin fridge, it's an absolute nightmare.
BeerAdvocate rating: 88 of 100
RateBeer rating: 96 of 100
Perhaps the heaviest hitter out of Easton, Pa., since Larry Holmes, Weyerbacher loads up its imperial pumpkin with caramel and spice before whacking drinkers with 8% ABV. Weyerbacher's pumpkin is a big favorite around the Delaware River this time of year largely because of its caramel sweetness and hints of cardamom and clove. Generous portions of pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg mask what's essentially a pumpkin witbier, but that mix of simple sweetness and complex spice keeps it in demand from Labor Day through Thanksgiving.
BeerAdvocate rating: 88 of 100.
RateBeer rating: 90 of 100.
It's only a four-pack, but it succeeds as a pumpkin ale better than most six-packs. Dogfish Head Punkin' Ale dates back 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. The 7% ABV has been brewed every fall since and derives much of its alcohol power from 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 spice. Punkin rolls out relatively late, on Sept. 1, but is available only for as long as the batch last. Without fail, the four-packs are among the first pumpkin ales to disappear before November.
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