It was a million-dollar idea—make everything taste like pumpkin pie—and in the last few years, that’s more or less what food and drink producers have done in America. They’ve sold pumpkin spice renditions of chewing gum, kefir, marshmallows, black tea, yogurt, hummus, coconut milk and lattes, to name just a few of the 65 pumpkin spiced products listed recently by Eater.com.
Craft breweries also cashed in on the craze. While a handful of pumpkin spice beers have been well-known for many years—even decades—the trend gained speed, and then exploded, just several years ago when seemingly every other brewery concocted its own amber-hued ale brewed with pumpkin and steeped with spices like cinnamon, coriander, mace and allspice. These beers gushed into the market each fall. They’ve even begun showing up in late summer—the result of the “seasonal creep” phenomenon by which producers release products well in advance of the target season to boost shelf time, exposure and sales.
According to the market research firm Nielsen, sales of pumpkin-flavored foods climbed by 79 percent from 2011 to September 2015, and Forbes predicted early last November that “you can certainly expect to see more pumpkin-flavored beer produced and sold next autumn. The trend is only on the upswing.”
But pumpkin beers may be going flat.
A large influx in production in 2015, following the surge in interest in prior years, led to so much pumpkin beer that many breweries and retailers couldn’t move all those bottles, according to interviews with brewers and beer vendors. On top of the flooded market, the novelty of imbibing pumpkin beer had lost its luster. Sales dipped while six-packs of pumpkin beer remained miserably on the shelf past New Year’s. It took sharp discounts in some outlets to clear the supply.
Now, the craft beer market is casting a wary eye at pumpkin beers. Some brewers have eased off on production. Others have quit entirely. Raley’s, a Sacramento-based supermarket chain, bought about half as much pumpkin beer as it did last year, according to the company’s “beer expert” Anthony Dyer.
BevMo!, a beverage retailer on the West Coast, is similarly scaling back.
“We brought in 15 new items in 2015 because people thought pumpkin beers were going to be the next big thing, and they were the next big thing in 2014,” says Amy Gutierrez, a certified cicerone and one of BevMo!’s beer managers.
Even one of the most well-known pumpkin beers on the market—Buffalo Bill’s “original” pumpkin ale, made since 1989—may be losing its customer base, Dyer says.
“A lot of the decline in sales is going to happen in bigger brands like that,” Dyer says.
Many Whole Foods locations have stopped selling Buffalo Bill’s entirely. Claude Ruau-Choate, the retail chain’s specialty foods coordinator for the southern California region, says the pumpkin beer craze really began to accelerate about six years ago.
“But customers are getting a little tired of it,” Ruau-Choate says. She says there are too many pumpkin beers out there, and most of them taste more or less the same.
Pumpkin beers aren’t just a wince-inducing chore for modern craft brewers. Their history in the United States goes way back to the colonial era, before a reliable grain industry had been developed in North America. Pumpkins and other squashes provided brewers of the time with a source of fermentable sugar.
The modern take on the category “is kind of ridiculous,” says Dick Cantwell, one of the very people who helped fuel the recent pumpkin beer frenzy. Now, he looks at the waning trend with something of an I-told-you-so shrug. Cantwell, a co-founder of Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle, managed his brewery’s annual pumpkin beer festival for ten years before he left the company in 2015 after his partners sold the business to Anheuser-Busch.
“There were years when I had to tell brewers they couldn’t join in the festival if they didn’t brew something creative,” Cantwell says. “The last thing I wanted was a festival with 75 beers that all tasted like pumpkin pie. That would be incredibly boring.”
But that’s pretty much what the wider marketplace’s pumpkin beer inventory now looks like—countless beers that taste like America’s favorite autumn dessert.
“I’m not surprised that excitement has waned,” Cantwell says.
In recent years, Cantwell collaborated with 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco in brewing a pumpkin porter and a pumpkin Belgian-style tripel. However, because of the increasingly crowded pumpkin beer category, which has made selling the beers more and more difficult, 21st Amendment’s co-founder Shaun O’Sullivan decided to back out of the game.
“When I told my sales people that we probably weren’t going to make a pumpkin beer this year, there was a sort of sigh of relief,” O’Sullivan says.
Perhaps the most serious marketing obstacle facing pumpkin beers is the harsh reality that, for the most part, people don’t really want them—at least not much more than once.
“They aren’t a repeat purchase,” Gutierrez says. “They’re not a go-to beer, like a Corona or some IPA.”
Brendan Moylan, owner of Marin Brewing and Moylan’s Brewing companies just north of San Francisco, has been in the beer business for almost 30 years. He has likewise observed that virtually no beer drinker is crazy about pumpkin beers, the way many people are diehard fans of IPAs, lagers or stouts.
“There’s no one who says, ‘I’m a pumpkin beer drinker—that’s all I drink,’” says Moylan, who claims he has never even tasted a pumpkin beer. “I’ve just never been interested,” he says.
Ruau-Choate notes that the average pumpkin beer’s sweetness coupled with pie spices makes them appealing to the general consumer—at least for a few weeks of the year—but not so much to people serious about beer.
“A true beer geek is not drinking much pumpkin beer,” she says.
On Twitter, beer drinkers expressed disgust for pumpkin beers on October 12. Davita Joo warned her significant other, "If you bring home any pumpkin flavored beer I'm kicking you out." Suvi Seikkula ranted, “Here we go again. Pumpkin pumpkin pumpkin pumpkin. Pumpkin beer here and pumpkin beer there. Just kill me already.”
On October 7, Eater.com ran a story titled “Most Pumpkin Beer Sucks—But There’s Still Hope.” The article, by Matt Allyn, highlighted brewers releasing creative renditions of the otherwise monotonous style.
While Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale is a fairly standard pumpkin beer, the explosively popular Delaware brewery’s president Sam Calagione tells us via email that the seasonal release is selling better than ever. Ruau-Choate confirms that Punkin Ale has remained a top seller.
Dyer says the same thing. “Punkin Ale is sort of an anomaly,” he says. “It’s not that different from a lot of others, but it’s a high-quality beer, and people wait for it.”
Overall, though, Dyer thinks brewers will need to up their game with pumpkin beers to keep consumer interest—and there are plenty of brewers already thinking outside the box. For instance, Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s “Pinchy Jeek Barl” was aged in bourbon barrels. Belching Beaver and Four Peaks breweries now have pumpkin porters on shelves. Almanac Brewing, in San Francisco, has made a sour pumpkin beer. Timmermans has a pumpkin Lambic. Elysian, which Cantwell says sometimes brewed 20 pumpkin beers each year prior to its October festival, is now offering, among others, a coffee pumpkin ale and a chocolate pumpkin stout. Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon, has released bottles of an 8.9 percent ABV pumpkin beer called Great Gourds of Fire spiced with chili peppers, cocoa and a few of the more traditional pie spices.
“It’s kind of a mole blend,” says brewer Christian Ettinger.
Cantwell thinks that such innovative pumpkin beers represent the category’s future.
“I think if brewers want to be successful with pumpkin beers, they need to do something different than all the rest,” he says.
At Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax, California, brewer Christian Kazakoff jumped on the pumpkin beer wagon in 2012. Then, he jumped right off again.
“It was the typical pumpkin pie sort of beer,” he says. “It went down well. People bought it, and we sold it after a few weeks.” He says the process of roasting the sugar pie pumpkins and making the spice blend was fun, since the brewery had to work with the kitchen in a communal team effort to create the beer.
“But the next year when October came around, nobody was asking for it again,” Kazakoff says. “I was like, ‘Good, I don’t have to do that again.’”