The pumpkin beer story starts back in 1985 with Buffalo Bill’s Brewery of Hayward, Calif., brewers of the first commercially released Pumpkin Ale in America. It was inspired by a 1770s recipe from George Washington and became a surprisingly huge hit. Thirty years later, walk through any store in America from late August to November and pumpkin-flavored everything is everywhere. From bagels to coffee to beer. Pumpkin beer went from a brewing experiment to a seasonal beer phenom.
Pumpkin beer’s unprecedented growth from craft brewing, an industry already experiencing its own exponential growth, allowed this new beer style to quickly become a major force. The pumpkin beer category showed steady growth from 2005 and spiked in 2013, but since 2014 it has begun experiencing significant declines in production and popularity, with sales hitting rock bottom in 2015 and 2016.
A couple of reasons that have contributed to the recent dip:
- We drank too much of it. The aromatic flavorings of pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg and allspice tend to have a demarcation point. People simply got bored of that flavor, and only a break from it can reset the desire.
- As pumpkin beer’s popularity grew, brewers started to push their pumpkin beers onto shelves earlier and earlier in an attempt to get there first. Southern Tier Brewing Co. of Lakewood, N.Y., actually released their PumKing Imperial Pumpkin Ale in mid-July. With seasonal beers arriving earlier and earlier, it creates a major backlash from craft beer aficionados complaining about “seasonal creep.” It quickly became uncool to drink Pumpkin beer — especially when it was still summer.
The great pumpkin backlash really started in 2015 when the combination of fewer people drinking pumpkin beer was combined with breweries actually increasing their pumpkin beer production. The results — a massive surplus of pumpkin beer that sat on the shelf into the winter, eventually spoiling. This has been the most glaring sign the pumpkin beer craze has begun to slow. As craft breweries were hit hard by pumpkin beer’s decline last year, we are seeing brands brewing less of it this fall, even though seasonal creep continues.
Jim McCune is the executive director of craft beverage marketing at EGC Group, a full service digital agency based in New York.