The Great Pumpkin Beer Debate: Squashing the Controversy

Photo from Elysian's The Great Pumpkin beer tapping
Love them or hate them, pumpkin beers are spicing up the bottle selection at your local grocery store this season, adding a much needed boost to sagging beer sales after the summer boom. What is surprising is that the more popular these squash based beers have become, the more controversy they are baking up. Some consumers and brewers have questioned why we have pumpkin beers being released in August before fresh pumpkins are actually ripe. Are pumpkin beers required to be fresh and made with real pumpkin, or is it all about the spice? I spoke to some of the most prolific pumpkin brewers around Oregon and the northwest region for the whole gourd story.

Pumpkin Facts and Stats:

  • 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown each year in America. 

  • California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania are the top pumpkin producers. 

  • 95% of the U.S. crop grown for processing is from Illinois.

  • The Nestle company produces 85% of that crop of pumpkins meant for processing.

  • The largest pumpkin ever grown was in 2011 and weighed 1, 818.5 pounds.

  • Southern Tier Brewing's production of Pumking has increased from 400 barrels in 2008 to 1,100 barrels in 2012.

  • The 2012 Elysian The Great Pumpkin Fest in Seattle, WA will pour more than 60 different pumpkin beers.

In Oregon brewer Ben Edmunds of Breakside Brewery has been one of the most outspoken critics of pumpkin beers being released too early in the season and not using the years fresh crop.

"I am a purist when it comes to pumpkin beers. I can't explain why--I'm happy to use fruit purees, buffer fresh hops with dried ones, or refer to a beer that has been inoculated with yeast as a 'lambic.' But for some reason, when it comes to pumpkin beers, I simply believe that there ought to be fresh pumpkin from that year's harvest used in the beer."

Matt Van Wyk, the Brewmaster at Oakshire Brewing, created a popular beer called Black Jack last year using pumpkins and chocolate. He agrees.
"Call me a purist, but I like to use real roasted pumpkin. Normally we roast it in the oven, but we are making such a large batch, that I am using a flame thrower this year."

Locally in the Portland area market, the first pumpkin beer that hit was likely Laurelwood's Stingy Jack, and that stirred up some debate. Laurelwood's Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos was more than happy to chime in on the subject.
"Pumpkin beer season is pretty tough little market. As I understand it, sales plummet soon after Halloween. I would expect they would go through Thanksgiving, but that is apparently very small portion of sales, or at least the very end of the season. These beers, I believe, are more bottle beers, rather then go out to a pub for a pint of pumpkin. As such, they need to hit the store shelves in a reasonable amount of time and get run out before Halloween, as the case may be. This means that, assuming you need two to four weeks to brew and bottle the beer, get it to the distributor and then the store shelf, your last batches are made in late September, or you may have a lot of specifically seasonal beer that there is no market for. I am telling you this just to let you know the perspective and constraints brewers work with. I don't have a problem with people making these beers as early as there is demand for them. Personally, though, I appreciate them alright, I am not a pumpkin head. Though there are a lot of them out there. They very eagerly anticipate the season and I will not deny them that."
Coming out around October 1st, Oakshire will bottle the Black Jack this year, too.
"The early release is frustrating...Unfortunately, as a growing brewery, I see all the benefits. Despite the fact that you are beating people to market, you have to get it into your distributors hands so you can educate them, promote it, and get it on the shelves. What I think is the worst part is that bigger breweries are 'training' consumers to expect seasonals earlier and earlier. Hopefully there will be a pushback soon, but until every distributor agrees to sell ALL of the current seasonal in their warehouse and not let it bleed to the next, it is hard for breweries to predict when a beer should come out." - Oakshire Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk
Two of the most respected regional brewers of pumpkin ales, Seattle's Elysian Brewing and New York's Southern Tier Brewing, both begin their releases in August, and both rely on bulk pumpkin puree ordered from outside companies. While Midnight Sun Brewing from Anchorage, which produces the award-winning pumpkin beer TREAT, holds off on an early release but does not shy away from pumpkin. I spoke to their Head Brewer Jeremiah Boone about the phenomenon.
"I agree I have started to see seasonals come out a little earlier every year. There must be a demand for it or the breweries wouldn't do it. That being said, MSBC likes keeping the seasonals special and we make the customers wait till we think its time for those beers."

In a blow against the use of fresh pumpkin, the GABF gold medal winning TREAT from MSBC does, in fact, use all canned pumpkin.

"I feel that canned just gives you a blank canvas to work with, as opposed to the others where you're building the canvas. If I was brewing smaller batches, I might try starting from scratch but when you need around 800lbs of it, I don't mind having a little help." says Jeremiah Boone.

MSBC's TREAT has been inspirational enough, though, for Matt Van Wyk at Oakshire to model his Black Jack after it.
"We have been brewing an Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter. I was inspired by a similar beer at Midnight Sun, and former head brewer Ben helped me with the recipe. This fall will be the third time we have brewed it at Oakshire and now we are releasing it in 22ounce bottles around Oct 1."
Even Van Wyk, who is a proponent of fresh pumpkin and even hand roasting, has to admit,
"I don't think there is a big difference in fresh vs canned. Pumpkin is a sqaush and doesn't taste like much. In fact, I just heard someone is using butternut squash this year. Will anybody know? probably not. some of the best pumpkin beers probably just have spices."
Southern Tier's uber-popular Pumking also uses a pumpkin puree produced by a company called Yamco, based in North Carolina. ST's Pumking is also brewed for an early release in August, to be sold out by the time October is over. Even the king's of pumpkin beer, Seattle's Elysian Brewing, subscribes to puree, as Owner/Brewer Dick Cantwell admitted when I interviewed him last year.

For fans of pumpkin beer, it is often the signature pumpkin pie spice blend that attracts them. I suspect the attraction to many is the nostalgic attraction the cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove have to family holiday dinners with pumpkin pie. Some brewers have even banked on the fact that the public only really cares about the spicing.
"The vast majority of signature pumpkin pie flavor is the spicing. Our recipe at BJ's, which was very popular among our pub goers, had no gourd, only spice, and yet I would here time after time how they could really taste the pumpkin. Again, no pumpkin." - Vasili Gletsos
"Indeed, as many people can attest, the flavor of pumpkin alone is so light and the spices used in most pumpkin dishes so ingrained in our minds, that pumpkin rarely tastes like what we think of as "pumpkin." - Ben Edmunds

One could argue quite well that brewers are just giving the public what they want by releasing pumpkin beers earlier and shying away from fresh pumpkin or using any at all. The biggest challenger to this notion and local proponent is without a doubt Breakside Brewery's Ben Edmunds, who brews a Pumpkin Cream Stout and a Pumpkin Biere de Garde every year.
"Perhaps my quibble on this issue is about intellectual honesty and that a lot of faux pumpkin beers seem to be marketing tools more than anything else. I don't mind fruit purees because they make a fruit beer taste like that fruit. Using some dried hops in a 'fresh hop' beer for bittering helps round out the flavor. In these situations, an ingredient that is not listed is used to enhance the flavor of the finished beer. But, it seems that the relationship between beer style and process has been flipped when talking about pumpkin beers that use spices only: the use of the name pumpkin enhances the marketing appeal of the product. Do some brewers really make faux pumpkin ales simply because they sell well? Do other fall "seasonals" not have the same appeal? Maybe."
"Some brewers might make the case that using pumpkin is impractical and messy. This has not stopped us from using fruits, honey, and hundreds of other equally messy adjuncts in craft beer."

"So in short, pumpkin beer should have pumpkin in it. Preferably fresh pumpkin if you're in a location where you have access to them."
Breakside Brewery's assistant brewer Sam Barber taps a pumpkin firkin

What are your thoughts on pumpkin beers? Love them or hate them, they are here to stay. I for one am looking forward to my 2nd year attending Elysian's The Great Pumpkin Festival this October 19th and 20th in Seattle.


  1. Why travel to Seattle when you have a great pumpkin beer fest right here in Portland? Last year's festival was great. Looking forward to going again this year.

    Killer Pumpkin Festival, October 22 at Green Dragon!!

  2. The pumpkin biere de garde--sounds like a great idea. Everything else ... not for me.

  3. Fort George Drunkin Pumpkin is released on September 25th & you guessed it made with all fresh local Pumpkin!

  4. As someone who generally enjoys pumpkin beers (especially the celebrated usual suspects), while I like the romanticism of freshly roasted pumpkins in each glass and bottle (hey canners, where are your autumn seasonals now, eh?), I guess it doesn't bother me if they're using last year's puree just like Ben points out most fruit beers are made with processed purees. But I'd rather drink those beers in Oct, not Aug. I like pumpkin pie mochas, too, but just because Peet's offers 'em now, I won't get one until the leaves have turned, the air is crisp (not 90-degrees or whatever it'll be today), and I've started eating the Halloween candy I buy for other people's kids.

    Craft brewers may or may not have a responsibility to use fresh, seasonal ingredients. But they should respect the spirit of the season they're marketing for.

  5. Complaining about the lack of pumpkin in a beer, or the time that a beer is made available sounds like a bunch of whining. Of course, if a brewery says there is pumpkin in a beer, there should be pumpkin in there. Which ingredients are in a beer, and the nutritional content of that beer is a valid, larger issue.

    I fail to see how Breakside is harmed by another brewery sending a pumpkin pie spice beer to the market in August. It certainly doesn't make Breakside's beers any less delicious.

  6. It does seem like the holiday's get time shifted to the point where the seasonality is lost. Which, to me, is part of the point of craft brewing.

    All I can do is wait to buy and drink them until October. And if enough people vote with their wallet, then maybe the release dates will return to normal.

    Of course before Halloween even gets close, we will probably see Christmas beers.

  7. Thanks for writing about this Ezra. I feel like after reading this, there is a lot of consensus, at least among brewers, that the majority of the pumpkin flavor is in the spice addition, and while brewers may choose to use fresh, canned or none at all, I agree that it is important to be honest about this fact. Since it wasn't mentioned in your article, and in the spirit of that honesty, I wanted to let your readers know about what we do at Laurelwood with our Stingy Jack. We roast a case of fresh Butternut Squash for each batch and puree it. We think the Butternut has a more signature squash flavor then Pumpkin does and it is in season earlier. In addition, we also add canned pumpkin. We also toast and blend our whole spices before grinding and adding.

    I think one aspect you didn't touch on is that canned pumpkin is harvested and packed in Season, even if that season was last year. In that respect, like a frozen vegetable, you are getting pumpkin that was picked at the height of ripeness then processed, rather then an out-of-season pumpkin picked too early or shipped in from a green house far away. I am not saying one is better then the other, but it is something to think about and balance.

    As with any of our beers, the integrity of the process is important and ultimately we think the care we take will prove itself in the glass. Thanks for you effort to shed some light on the subject for those who love these types of beers!

  8. Had some Big Black Jack over the weekend and it tasted great, do I wish the seasonal beers would come out later - yes, but I'll drink 'em when I can find them.

    Amy M.


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