Bored Out of Their Gourds: How Pumpkin-Flavored Beer Became a Craft Beer Casualty

It didn’t take a Super Bowl commercial to turn pumpkin beer into the drinking public’s punching bag. Even before Anheuser-Busch InBev took its million-dollar dump on craft brewers with its peach pumpkin ale diss, gourd-infused brews earned more haters with each passing autumn, falling victim to evolving tastes and seasonal creep. Now, though, in the first fall after peak pumpkin, North Texas has seen a less crowded, more sophisticated crop of pumpkin-laced releases.

According to a recent article from Forbes, breweries from coast to coast cut back on production and delayed release schedules for pumpkin beer in 2016, reacting to an especially unresponsive market from last year. DFW was no exception: We saw stylistic stalwarts like Southern Tier’s Warlock and Pumpking sitting on bottle shop shelves for months, sold at $2 a pop, and besides Lakewood’s Punkel, area breweries appear to have cut pumpkin brews from their brewing schedules.

Several factors contributed to pumpkin beer's fall. The chief crusade has come from America’s swelling number of craft beer snobs, who regard it with the same disdain coffee culture holds for the pumpkin spice latte (best summarized by this how-to guide). Pumpkin and its attendant pie-friendly spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice) aren’t as sexy as tequila staves or brettanomyces, apparently, and the sweet, malty base beer that traditionally suits them don’t appeal to either IPA partisans or the pilsner-and-chill crowd. Pumpkin beer may have played its part in craft culture of yore — pumpkin beer was the first indigenous beer recipe, and Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale has been in production since 1985 — but now that extreme tastes are the mainstream, the only place some drinkers want to see it is on the shelf.

Seasonal creep has also played a part in the cull. Just as Christmas decorations now go up around Labor Day, most seasonal of beers can be bought in some places at the beginning of summer vacation. This creep is especially irksome in Texas, where seasons are more a myth than a meteorological reality. In monoclimates like ours, merchandising and menus give us seasonal cues, not changes in the leaves. Ergo, when pumpkin beers start showing up on bottle shop endcaps by the Fourth of July, there’s precious little cultural capital left by the autumnal equinox.

Despite such blow-back, several DFW breweries have found a way to sidestep traditional recipe pitfalls and stake out new and interesting territory for the much-maligned pumpkin. Lakewood's aforementioned Punkel, despite being a slight misnomer (it contains nary a shred of pumpkin), dashes classic pumpkin pie spices into a classic German dunkelweiss recipe. The resulting brew sidesteps the sugar-heavy trap that befalls other recipes; it's designed to wash down a slice of Thanksgiving dessert rather than replicate it.

Punkel split the difference with seasonal creep — six-packs hits stores in August — but DFW’s other two pumpkin beverages held on until September. Two weeks ago, Martin House Brewing Co. released the Cuvee Pumpkin Latte, which pulls double duty as the brewery’s first pumpkin and first coffee beer. The recipe added 300 lbs. of pumpkin and milk sugar to the batch, then added a Brazilian blend from Austin’s Cuvee Coffee to the beer shortly before canning. The resulting beverage goes down like your favorite Turkey Day nosh.

Down in Arlington, Legal Draft Beer Co. doubled down on the style with their Roasted Pumpkin Spice Lager — it’s been selected as an Original State Fair Brew and is served at the State Fair of Texas with a cinnamon-sugar rim. Like Lakewood, they chose to brew a lager to ensure it tasted light and finished clean. According to head brewer and owner Greg McCarthy, it smells like a pumpkin pie and tastes like a beer.

Despite the bruises to its public perception, craft brewers should be taking notes on the tactics of North Texas’ pumpkin beers this year. Eventually, be it through economic woes, changing public tastes, or both, the entire industry is going to face contraction. If and when that happens, after AB-InBev decides craft beer isn’t even worth mocking any more, it’s only those breweries that can keep delivering artful brews with a real commitment to craft’s DIY roots that will make the cut — and any beer that can survive a Pilgrim winter and the scorn of craft beer elitists surely can be called a smashing success.
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