Good Beer Hunting

Creepin’ on Summer — Is Pumpkin Beer Sneakily Returning to Success?

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August may bring the dog days of summer, but it also brings Pumpkin Beer.

Typically the first brand within the seasonal category to hit shelves, Southern Tier Brewing Company’s Pumking started popping up on Twitter last week, and the latest round of Untappd ratings are rolling in. It’s something of an annual rite of passage: fall-flavored beers show up just as the summer hits its peak. But has consumer interest in the spiced beer passed its prime, too?

Anecdotally, we're likely years past its zenith, with 2014 and 2015 cited as the timeframe when the style enjoyed its greatest popularity. Southern Tier founder Phin DeMink told USA Today last year that that period overwhelmed consumers with options, which quickly became excessive.

"The beer category was flooded with new entries, and it took a couple of seasons to kind of cycle that out and for some of the wholesalers and retailers to realize (they) can’t do 30 pumpkin beers well but can probably do five of them and get the same kind of volume," DeMink told the newspaper.

It’s not just in stores. Even the way people are searching for Pumpkin Beer has changed over the last five years.

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So, does this style actually have anything to worry about? Despite accusations of seasonal-creep in recent years, based on the way people have been spending their money…maybe not.

One of the challenges of tracking the category is that, despite its wild popularity just a few years ago, many Pumpkin Beers are typically tucked into brewers’ "Seasonal" SKUs—meaning they include the beer under a code used for all other seasonal brands. Some coverage from 2016 (“pumpkin-spiced beer” volume declined about 13%) and 2017 (“down 6 percent last year in the 12 weeks leading up to Dec. 3, 2017,”) showed broad declines for the category.

While that makes it difficult to establish a solid baseline of health, most of the top-selling Pumpkin Beers do act as standalone brands, which can guide some analysis.

By that measure, the top 20 Pumpkin Beers have mostly seen flat sales in recent years. Led by brands like Pumking, UFO Pumpkin Ale (made by Harpoon Brewery), Lakefront Brewery's Pumpkin Lager, and others, the group in 2018 sold around a combined 8,400 barrels’ worth of beer in grocery, convenience, and other stores tracked by IRI, a market research firm that compiles scan data from chain stores. That’s about the same amount that brands like Samuel Adams' New England IPA or SweetWater Brewery's Goin' Coastal Pineapple IPA sold in the timeframe.

That figure (tracked in the same way) is only a 400-BBL decline from the category’s peak in 2015, however, and some brands have even increased sales in the interim. Pumking, for example, saw its volume sales jump 45% from 2017–2018, perhaps aided by additional packaging options that shifted toward four-packs of 12oz bottles. Brand extensions of the category leader, which include Cold Press Coffee Pumking, have also been a hit.

When looking across the prime Pumpkin Beer sales season of August–October, the data reveals something of a mixed bag for many of the "best selling" brands.

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Notably, the volatile nature of this category was partially blamed for Weyerbacher Brewing Company’s bankruptcy filing. The business once relied on its Imperial Pumpkin Ale as a top-three brand, but when announcing its financial troubles in April, president Josh Lampe singled it out. “We were expecting to see double-digit growth for a number of years … and with the market saturation that happened in pumpkin and all of those other things, that just didn’t pan out,” he told Brewbound at the time.

Likewise, Shipyard Brewing Company pointed at the same challenge. In 2011, its Pumpkinhead brand amassed a volume of about 20,000 BBLs for its seasonal run, not a lot less than what 3 Floyds Brewing Company was making annually at the time across its entire portfolio. According to the Portland Press-Herald, that number doubled to about 40,000 BBLs by 2017. However, the brand now has internal competition from Smashed Pumpkin, which doubles its ABV (Pumpkinhead’s 4.5% to Smashed Pumpkin’s 9%) and ships a month before Pumpkinhead, potentially sapping some of those sales.

But there are still plenty of successes, like Southern Tier’s Pumking and its variants. New Belgium Brewing’s Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin, a Pumpkin Beer with cinnamon and habañero chilis, moves through 3,600–4,300 BBLs over its annual two-month run from August into October. And Spencer Trappist Brewery, the only Trappist producer in the U.S., announced its Monkster Mash Pumpkin Ale, released this season in 16oz cans.

[Disclosure: New Belgium is an underwriter of Good Beer Hunting's “Into the Wild” series.]

The market wouldn’t be supporting these entries if there weren’t enough interest, so proclamations of Pumpkin Beer’s demise were a bit premature.

“I know a few years ago we categorized it as ‘peak pumpkin,’ and in terms of beer sales things declined a bit overall as a category, but that presented a unique position for us,” says Josh Waldman, head brewer at Elysian Brewing Company. “I’d consider us category leaders for sure.”

It’s hard to argue with that statement from the Seattle brewery, which has embraced Pumpkin Beer to the point that its release calendar has its own pumpkin section. Deliveries of pumpkin puree arrive by the 1,400-pound pallet, ensuring the business will have enough to make about 20 different Pumpkin Beers this year, including five for packaging and retail. In October, it’ll host its 15th-annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, where visiting breweries will pour about 60 Pumpkin Beers total.

If there’s any indication that things may have swung back upward from a valley of sales post-“peak pumpkin,” 2018 was Elysian’s highest volume year for Pumpkin Beer sales since 2015. “We started to see a vacuum in the category and we decided we should double-down,” Waldman says. 

Since the 2016 national rollout of Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, Elysian's flagship in the category, the brewery also packages multiple limited releases each year. At a minimum of 240 BBLs per batch, this year's lineup includes Dark Knife, a Pumpkin Schwarzbier; Punkuccino, a Coffee-Pumpkin Beer blend; The Great Pumpkin, an Imperial Pumpkin Ale; and Dark O' The Moon, a Pumpkin Stout.

Waldman says each year’s range of releases gives the brewery the chance to offer something different with every beer, rather than simply add more fall spice-flavored brands into the market. For example, one of the brewery's top Pumpkin Beers in recent years has been its Hansel & Gretel Ginger Pumpkin Pilsner. Each brand will also use different spice combinations—Punkuccino is more "nutmeg forward" and inspired by the pumpkin spice latte, while last year's Goblin Party Pumpkin Milkshake IPA, made for Elysian's annual festival,  used a "touch" of pumpkin spice and graham cracker crumbs. Goblin Party was such a hit it almost went into production, but proved too difficult to scale for the batch sizes Waldman and his team would need.

It's this kind of eclectic approach that Waldman believes can help grow the Pumpkin Beer category again. Instead of dozens of similar pumpkin-flavored beers all centered around similar spice combinations, he says more breweries should find ways to put thumbprints on their releases, which in turn creates new excitement for drinkers. It's hard to stand out when a brewery has one of many straight Pumpkin Beers.

"I never understood the disdain for Pumpkin Beer," Waldman says. "They evoke an emotional response—good or bad—and that is fascinating. But they are clearly making people happy and that gives us potential to get the style growing again."

Words by Bryan Roth