City Paper is not for tourists
It’s a humid 79-degree evening in August, and already the pumpkin beer is on the shelves. Next to the seasonally appropriate Flying Dog Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale at Batch 13 liquor store on 14th Street NW, I spot a six-pack of Evolution Craft Brewing Company’s Jacques Au Lantern. Then I realize it’s everywhere: Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale, and Long Trail’s Pumpkin Ale.
It’s a little early, no?
Not really, the shopkeeper tells me. In fact, I should probably stock up now, he says, because some of these beers won’t be so easy to find come September and beyond when, you know, I’ll actually want to drink them.
Like “Jingle Bells” at the mall and candy corn at the convenience store, pumpkin beer arrives earlier and earlier every year. Before the leaves turn yellow and it’s time to start wearing socks again, many of the most sought-after brands will be long gone. That means restaurants and bars that don’t have a place to store extra kegs for a month or two are out of luck if they want to serve this seasonal specialty in the proper season. That makes the beer industry surprisingly similar to fashion: When you’re still wearing your winter coat, bikinis start popping up on the racks. And when you finally go on that August beach trip, all you can find are parkas.
Most pumpkin beers now arrive in D.C. in early August, but some debut as early as the beginning of July. “About four years ago, it would be late August,” says Tim Nelson, an area sales manager for distributor Legends Limited.
A big reason for the seasonal creep is that everyone wants to get their product to an increasingly crowded market first. New York’s Southern Tier Brewing Company, for example, does a big portion of its annual business from its highly popular Pumking ale, says Pizzeria Paradiso Bar Manager Sam Fitz. “For them, it’s a huge money-making time of year when they do lots of their sales. So it’s important for them to get their beer out on grocery store shelves before anybody else does,” he says. “If that means putting your beer out when it’s 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity so that you can guarantee you’re on the shelves in September, then that’s what they have to do.”
Large buyers like Harris Teeter, Total Wine, or Whole Foods are able to commit to mass amounts of seasonal beers and have plenty of room to store them. “A lot of these larger chain stores and retail outlets are driving not just the production increase but also the earlier and earlier availability,” says Greg Engert, the beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
Breweries would also much rather roll out their seasonal beers too early and run out than be left with extra product after the season is over. “Come Nov. 1, nobody wants a pumpkin beer. If their life depended on it, they wouldn’t purchase a pumpkin beer,” Nelson says. Many breweries hesitate to call their seasonal beers by the actual season. If they call something “Christmas ale,” for example, the sales will drop off dramatically on Dec. 26.
The distributors are just as concerned as the breweries about moving through the product quickly. “We can’t sit on inventory too long,” Nelson says. “It’s holding the space of something else that could be rotating…In theory we should be able to say, ‘Sure, we’ll hold it for your for two weeks and you can roll it out in September or whatever, but there’s so many people clamoring for it that it makes it difficult.”
Nelson says Southern Tier’s Pumking—which he describes as “the king of pumpkin beers”—receives preorders early in the year plus standing orders from people who didn’t get as much as they wanted last year. Nelson says he’s already sold out of the first round of the beer and is waiting on round two.
Along with Pumking, Fitz believes pumpkin ales from Schlafly and Weyerbacher are the best in the market—and they go fast. “These beers come in shipments of 20 kegs, and they’re available for one day, and then they’re gone,” Fitz says.
So why don’t the breweries just brew more pumpkin beer? Well, they do. Nelson estimates the volume of pumpkin beer coming into D.C. goes up at least 30 percent every year.
But instead of releasing it all at once, breweries sometimes release it in multiple waves as a marketing tactic. Retailers and bars are made to feel like they’re missing out if they don’t buy the product immediately, Engert says. “But a lot of times, a second huge drop happens in late August, early September,” he says. “And often times too, the distributor won’t be as forthcoming about that possibility because they’d love for you to buy pumpkin ale in July.”
Some of the most popular beers, though, will actually sell out before it’s seasonally appropriate to drink them. And if you don’t have anywhere to put it? “You’re screwed,” says Granville Moore’s Beverage Director Matt LeBarron. “All of a sudden a beer will get popular in the season, and everybody wants it. By the time everybody’s figured out the beer, it’s already out. There is no going back to the well and getting more of this beer.” LeBarron has not only ordered his pumpkin beers, he’s already got some Christmas ones, too.
When restaurateur John Andrade first opened Meridian Pint, storage was an issue. “We got into October, and I was like, ‘Why do you only have two Okftoberfest beers on? We have 24 beer lines, we should have like 10 or 15 Oktoberfest beers.’” Fitz, then his beer director, explained that all the Oktoberfests come out in mid-to-late August, and the only way to have them in October was to stockpile. “So I got rid of the walk-in which was the size of a closet and put in a walk-in the size of a gigantic walk-in closet,” Andrade says. It was designed to give the restaurant the capacity to host beer events that few others can.
Because most fall and winter beers are a little higher in alcohol, they’ll naturally preserve themselves for at least a couple months without the quality suffering. But as the release dates move earlier and earlier, it becomes harder to make fresh pumpkin beer in the first place. Pumpkins, after all, aren’t ready to harvest during swimming pool season. Instead, these beers are more often made with canned or frozen pumpkin—or possibly no pumpkin at all, just “pumpkin spices” like clove and nutmeg.
Mad Fox Brewing Company is one of the few breweries that doesn’t take these shortcuts. The Falls Church brewpub uses heirloom Cinderella pumpkins from Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Md., which means it can’t start brewing until the fruits are in season, usually in September. Brewer Bill Madden personally knows the farmer and drives his pick-up truck over there every year to load up.
The fact that Mad Fox is a brewpub, not a production brewery, means less pressure to pump out pumpkin beer early. “We can be more seasonable because we have people coming to our restaurant/brewery to enjoy our products, and we’re not so worried about packaging product, getting it to the market, and beating everybody else to get the sales in early,” Madden says.
But Engert argues that using fresh pumpkin or canned doesn’t make much of a difference to the beer. Rather, it’s the spices that give it flavor. Bluejacket brewery, which Engert oversees, won’t be making a pumpkin beer this year—mostly because Engert already had a full brewing schedule planned. He does have fresh local pumpkins available to him at Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Arcadia Farm in Alexandria. Sure, it would be cool to use them, he says, but it’s not like other seasonal ingredients like wet hops or sour cherries where you can really taste their addition. “And then it just seems like you’re using a local seasonal ingredient for the sake of using a local seasonal ingredient,” he says.
Engert points out that modern pumpkin beer has been artificially associated with fall from the beginning. “It was never, ever based around the usage of fresh pumpkins,” he says. When California’s Buffalo Bill’s Brewery created one of the first modern iterations of pumpkin ales in the 1980s, Engert says, the pumpkin pie spices were more important than pumpkin itself.
It’s only seasonal because of the marketing: It tastes like pumpkin pie, which people eat in the fall.
Fitz agrees that fresh or canned pumpkin may not make much of a difference, but that’s not the point. “If you can make pumpkin beer any time of year then why don’t you make it year-round? And if you’re not making it year-round, then what is this need to release it in early August?”
Photo by Jessica Sidman
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