For BRU’s first fall in 2013, director of operations Alex Bokulich wanted all the pumpkin beer he could buy. He didn’t — and still doesn’t — care for the seasonal drink, but customers started asking for it in August.
Bokulich listened to demand. Late in the month, the Midtown Village bar started offering pumpkin beer and kept selling it through Thanksgiving, maybe into early December. Bokulich estimates BRU bought 70 kegs worth of pumpkin beer that fall, purchasing 25 different variations of the drink, and the bar sold every drop.
It wasn’t a surprise. That year and into 2014 marked a peak for pumpkin beer. Now, as brewers’ pumpkin drinks start getting distributed in Philly (yes, already), times are much leaner. Pumpkin beer will still be at bars in the coming weeks, and you’ll still see it in the refrigerators of bottle shops, but bar owners and brewers believe a bubble might have burst.
‘People are over the pumpkin stuff’
This fall, BRU plans on offering only one type of pumpkin beer, Anderson Valley’s Fall Hornin’ Pumpkin Ale. Bokulich will probably buy a third as many kegs as in 2013. Most brewers expect to produce less pumpkin beer, with some brands dropping the product altogether as the market reacts to the flood of new, sometimes bad pumpkin beers created the last few years, as well as general pumpkin fatigue.
“People are over the pumpkin stuff,” says Luke Bowen, co-founder of Evil Genius. “There are pumpkin cupcakes. There’s pumpkin fucking shampoo.”
In the early 2000s, pumpkin beer was a rarity, with only a few brands offering the drink. The number of pumpkin beers on the market rose to 53 in 2012 and to 65 just one year later, according to Nielsen. Not only were new breweries trying it out, some were releasing it as early as June and July to get a head start on the competition.
The belief was consumers didn’t want pumpkin beer after Halloween. By November, they’d want winter beers. So brewers would offer their first batches this time of year, with expectations of selling more in September and October. But in 2015, that didn’t happen.
As Tara Nurin reported in Forbes earlier this year, Easton, Pa.’s Weyerbacher had boosted its supply and ended up unable to sell all of its product because of so many new pumpkin beers on the market. Bob Fautaux, Weyerbacher’s sales manager, told Nurin the brewer had previously seen 30 percent growth year after year. This season, it plans on making half as much Imperial Pumpkin Ale as last year.
Rapid growth stalls
Weyerbacher’s story is likely not uncommon. Bowen said brewers looked at the insane growth rate in the market — by one Nielsen measure pumpkin beer sales increased more than 300 percent from 2012 to 2013 — and assumed incorrectly the rise in popularity would continue. Small brands started brewing pumpkin beers, seeing it as an opportunity for growth, and established brands brewed more.
“Every brewery had one, whether it was a great a recipe or ‘we’ll just get whatever pumpkin is out there,’” says Scott Davis, assistant general manager at Frankford Hall. “Wegmans was ordering like thousands and thousands of palettes of (Southern Tier) Pumking and they had them for months and couldn’t get rid of them. The market was too flooded.”
Frankford Hall last year had Dogfish Head Punkin Ale and Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale and perhaps another brand, Davis says. The bar went through all of it but started with only about four kegs of each.
“I know a lot of people that run bars and restaurants around town and ended up sitting on a lot of pumpkin beer they weren’t able to get rid of,” says Joshua Mann, general manager of Frankford Hall. “We didn’t want to risk that.”
This year, Frankford Hall might not even offer a pumpkin beer on tap. At National Mechanics, co-owner Paul Brown says he purchased six kegs of Southern Tier Pumking this week and he’ll hold them for October. Last year, he bought 10 or 12. In the past, he recalls people drinking pumpkin beers into December. They’re not doing that anymore.
“At some point,” he says, “you’ve just had enough damn pumpkin.”
Not for hot Philly summers
Philadelphia in particular may not be the ideal market for pumpkin beers. The 95-degree late-August and early September temperatures don’t help, and with a more mature craft tradition it has fewer ideal pumpkin beer drinkers, where the traditional audience is craft beer newcomers.
By November, Standard Tap owner William Reed says he might start selling pumpkin beer. Until then, he prefers — and believes his patrons prefer — more typical summer beers. Sometimes he has to remind the suppliers of this.
“If you’re making the beer, you feel like ‘If I get mine out before this other guy, my beer will be the one that sells,’” Reed says. “That just pushes it earlier and earlier, and that’s why you see stupid shit like the pumpkin beer out there now. I don’t think there’s real demand for it.”
For Evil Genius, Bowen is actually increasing the amount of pumpkin beer he brews this year, but that’s because his company is expanding. He’s aware of other companies dropping the pumpkin beer altogether or reducing the size of their batch.
Such cutbacks could prove healthier for the breweries. Smaller ones could choose to focus on beers that separate them from the rest, and the more established players could regain their market share. But Bowen cautions that nobody is exactly sure what to do about the pumpkin problem right now.
“The pendulum swung so far one way,” Bowen says, “and if it swings so far the other way then that’s going to be illogical, too. So I hope something ends up in the center, where there’s still availability of pumpkin beers but as suppliers we take responsibility not to kill the market.”