Beer Man

Don't Hate August's Pumpkin Beer Players, Hate the Pumpkin Beer Game

Halloween night, that creepiest of holidays, is full of pumpkins and horrors. But those horrors don't compare to the ones that beer drinkers face every August when breweries in Colorado and nationwide begin releasing pumpkin beers while it's still 95 degrees outside. Ah, yes, #firstworldproblems.

Still, it's a little rough to see these spiced harbingers of fall on the shelves or on tap just one month after we collectively crushed millions of watermelons on the Fourth of July. But the breweries who make and tap pumpkin beers in August are unapologetic, and for a couple of good reasons.

“As much as everyone makes fun of it, you have an advantage getting it out earlier,” explains Upslope Brewing head brewer Sam Scruby. In 2015, Upslope was one of the last breweries to get its pumpkin beer, the GABF award-winning Pumpkin Ale, on shelves.

This time around, Upslope landed first in Colorado, releasing the beer on August 3, something that will help the Boulder brewery compete in liquor stores, which tend to get “pumpkin'd-out” by September, meaning they will stop ordering more pumpkin beers once they feel that they have enough. Upslope will keg and can about 300 barrels of Pumpkin Ale.

Denver Beer Co, which released its own canned offering, Hey! Pumpkin, on August 14, learned this the hard way last year. “We made a ton, but as of November 1, we weren’t able to sell any more of it, so we had to put it on sale,” says brewery co-owner Patrick Crawford.

“If you have pumpkin beer sitting on a shelf in December, it will not sell. They throw it away. It’s a huge risk. You might make 100 cases, but if you have ten that don’t sell, you kill any profit you make. Last year, we didn’t make any money on pumpkin beer,” he adds.

Still, Denver Beer Co is savvy when it comes to marketing. Although the beer is now in liquor stores for sales purposes, the brewery won’t host its pumpkin tapping party until September.

Dry Dock Brewing co-owner Kevin Delange credits (blames?) Boston Beer Company, the maker of Sam Adams, and other bigger independent breweries for the early-pumpkin trend. “Sam Adams had the foresight to release their beers early and they had a bunch of success. So it puts pressure on us. We are releasing it early because we don’t want to be three weeks late.”

Based in Aurora, Dry Dock released its Imperial Pumpkin Ale in bomber bottles on August 10.

At the moment, there are more than a dozen pumpkin beers available in many large liquor stores in the Denver area, about half of which are from out-of-state breweries, like Shipyard and Boston Beer. Dozens more will hit over the next week or two, stacking up in the aisles.

Scruby says he understands the backlash from beer drinkers who are disturbed by the trend. “I personally am not choosing to drink a pumpkin beer right now. It tastes weird in the of middle of summer, when it’s in the mid-nineties outside,” he says. “But if you are already a pumpkin beer fan — and there are a lot of them — it doesn’t bother you. It’s your favorite beer.”

One twist for 2016: There have been reports that there is a pumpkin shortage this year and that breweries may have trouble sourcing enough pumpkin purée or whole pumpkins for their beers. The evidence seems mostly anecdotal so far, but a few breweries have experienced this.

“We really struggled to get it,” Delange says. “We couldn’t find pumpkin anywhere.” The brewery eventually found a local supplier, but plans to make about 30 percent less beer this year.

Denver Beer Co and Upslope, meanwhile, both happened to have saved enough pumpkin from 2015 to make their beers in 2016. “We got lucky,” Crawford says.

And while Dry Dock and Denver Beer Co both use purée, Upslope takes the unusual tack of buying and roasting locally grown pumpkins before making its beer.

In the past, this always meant that Upslope had to wait until harvest, typically in September. “It was always a struggle, since sales wanted the beer early, but our farmer told us that the later you harvest pumpkins, the sweeter and more developed the flavors are,” Scruby says.

So last year, Scruby decided to buy and process twice as many pumpkins and put them in cold storage. As a result, the brewery was able to make Pumpkin Ale early this season. “It made everyone happy,” he says. 
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes