Why beer snobs are brawling over pumpkin ale

BeerAdvocate retweets an offhand criticism of the style and the Internet loses it. Are July releases and a fixation on spices fueling their anger?

By Jason Notte Sep 5, 2013 3:58PM
Pumpkin beers on display for sale at a Whole Foods Market in Richmond, Va., on August 30, 2013 (© Michael Felberbaum/AP)Has the national discourse sunk so low that even pumpkin ale is a polarizing topic?

The beer industry and, more specifically, the growing group of small brewers that make craft beer has been cranking out more of the seasonal brew in recent years. Meanwhile, the brewing calendar has shifted the release of the first pumpkin ales to July.


That hasn't sat well with some beer drinkers, especially after beer industry magazine, event organizer and ratings site BeerAdvocate (which includes this article's author as one of its writers) retweeted Firestone Walker Brewing Co. employee John Bryan's quip about the style from his @fancypantsbeer Twitter feed:


"Pumpkin beer is the modern day equivalent of the mullet. Everybody that brewed one will be ashamed of it in a decade."

When you get a concentration of beer lovers, beer geeks and outright beer snobs as high as the one regularly orbiting all things BeerAdvocate, you occasionally get bear-poking declarations like these. Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, took to BeerAdvocate's forums last year to smack back posters who called his brewery and other larger craft breweries "overrated." Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company (SAM) and its Samuel Adams brand, jumped into that same melee later that year.


The pumpkin beer battle grew so pitched, however, that all the pro-and-con sniping meandered over to BuzzFeed. That part was a bit embarrassing and forced Todd Alstrom -- who founded BeerAdvocate in Boston with his brother, Jason, in 1996 -- to admit that he "underestimated the passion for pumpkin beer that some of our followers have, and overestimated their sense of humor."


The fact that he also admitted he's pretty numb to beer fans overreacting online gives you some idea of just how long he's been dealing with that passionate, humorless base. Why they've decided to pick on pumpkin ales, however, is anyone's guess.


In truth, pumpkin ale is one of the oldest beers in the American brewing repertoire. Lisa Grimm at Serious Eats detailed its rise through the Colonial era, when malt was in short supply and pumpkin provided a strong source of fermentable sugars. One of the most heavily sourced recipes dates back to 1771, though the style died off in the 19th century.


Perhaps purists are put off by the pumpkin ales that lean heavily on pumpkin pie spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger instead of actual pumpkin, as the pumpkin beer at Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Heyward, Calif., did when it revived the style in the 1980s. Though Brooklyn Brewery brought the pumpkin portion of the recipe when it introduced Post Road Pumpkin Ale in the '90s, there's still enough division between the pumpkin and pumpkin pie folks to prompt an adverse reaction to the other's beer.


There's also the not-so-small matter of the summer release dates of this popular fall seasonal. While beer drinkers bemoan the fact that summer seasonal beers start disappearing around August, there's a reason for the brewing calendar creep.


Beer brewers, especially small brewers, have extremely tight margins and don't like to have beer laying around when nobody wants it. Boston Beer's Koch notes that fans who love Samuel Adams' Old Fezziwig holiday brew just before the holiday season want nothing to do with it once the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. Schlafly Brewing in St. Louis, Mo., meanwhile, was forced to run a detailed explanation of demand, yeast supply and storage constraints when defending the August release of its own pumpkin ale.


There's also the fact that pumpkin ale isn't exactly a novelty anymore. There were exactly seven pumpkin ales at the Great American Beer Festival a decade ago. At last year's event in Denver, there were 63.


Demand for pumpkin ale has grown so much within the past decade that Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) introduced Michelob Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale in 2005 and MolsonCoors (TAP) countered with with Harvest Moon ale in 2006 before rebranding it as Harvest Pumpkin Ale last year, when it was on shelves by July. Samuel Adams, the largest craft brand in America, 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 in 2011.


Brands that want an advantage release their pumpkin beers earlier, which is why Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, Pa., Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine, and New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo., all released their pumpkin ales by July. That may result in pumpkin ale fatigue by Thanksgiving and some residual beer snob resentment in the early summer, but that's the price pumpkin ale lovers pay to have an ample supply during Halloween. In the meantime, relax: It's just beer.


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23Comments
Sep 6, 2013 11:42AM
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Beer snobs need to get over it. Just because it tastes good and sells good doesn't make it a bad thing. If you don't like it, don't buy it
Sep 6, 2013 4:31PM
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What's the big deal? I love my beer but when most of the population drink swill like Coors and Budweiser anything different is welcome I would think.
Sep 6, 2013 10:08AM
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Smokey Mountain Brewery in Gatlinburg TN makes a pumpkin beer.  It's awesome!  Add a shot of whipped vodka to it and it tastes even better.  I am going around Thanksgiving and I hope they have some left.  It sells fast there.
Sep 5, 2013 5:31PM
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While it clearly does not meet the German Purity laws, if people want to drink it, let them! Certainly the pumpkin flavors are not contrary to the Oktoberfest spices that one has seen in fall beers for years.
Sep 5, 2013 7:05PM
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I make beer and wine as a hobby. I have tried several  good and bad pumpkin ales. It should have a smooth pumpkin flavor without gagging you with all the spices. Do yourself a favor, brew for yourself and drink what you like. Every ounce counts
Sep 6, 2013 11:27AM
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I like pumpkin ales, but I prefer the ones with less pie spices and more pumpkin flavor. If you insist on using the pie spices, call it a pumpkin pie or pumpkin spice ale!
Sep 6, 2013 10:22AM
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While the article was interesting and explained why I'm seeing pumpkin beers everywhere already (and it's still 111 degrees out - here in Phx, AZ), I loved the bottom line.... relax, it's just beer. That made me smile. :)
Sep 5, 2013 6:29PM
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just add some pot to it and every body will be happy!! lol
Sep 6, 2013 3:13PM
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I LOVE Punk'n beer!!

Its a seasonal thing. I start to sip on it around this time until about November. It makes Fall feel... well like Fall in a drink.

Oct 7, 2013 2:33PM
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To those who say this beer is good Please look up Dennis Leary's rant on alcohol. I shall leave it at that.
Sep 6, 2013 12:02PM
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If you are in the Massachusetts area you cannot beat Jack's Abby, they grow their own pumpkins, and when they make their wet hops brew they grow their own hops. A small brewery only open about two years and my favorite place for beer.
Sep 5, 2013 4:28PM
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rich snobby beer drinkers.

 

if you drink beer you can afford to pay more in taxes, as well as more for your healthcare.  hopefully obama makes beer drinkers start paying their fair share.

 

greedy snobby middle class beer drinkers

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