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Pumpkin Ale Is Ridiculously Vital to Craft Beer

Jason Notte

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Pumpkin beer wouldn't show up on shelves this early without a reason.

As we've noted on several occasions, small brewers operate extremely close to the margins and don't like to have beer laying around when nobody wants it. Drinkers lose their taste for holiday beer shortly after New Year's Eve and summer styles appear about a month before Memorial Day and go into a slow fade just before Labor Day. Brewers don't want extra stock hanging around after that point and don't want pumpkin beer eating up their production capacity.

But that isn't the entire story. Seasonal beer makes up 15% to 25% of the more than $14 billion in annual craft beer sales, according to market research firm Symphony IRI, yet have been losing ground to India Pale Ale, which is taking over the craft beer market. Symphony IRI saw a 36% spike in IPA sales at off-premise locations (bottle shops, supermarkets, Target, Wal-Mart) during the first half of last year. Meanwhile, sales of IPAs jumped 39% in 2012 and made up 18% of all craft beer sales -- jumping ahead of seasonal offerings as the overall top-selling craft beer style.

In five of the past seven years, the top-selling new craft beer brand has been an IPA. In 2012, four of the Top 10 new beer offerings were IPA -- including Boston Beer's Samuel Adams Whitewater IPA and Anheuser-Busch InBev's Shock Top Wheat IPA.

Read More: 5 Pumpkin Beers On Shelves This Summer

But pumpkin beers are the great equalizer. Though sales of IPA typically outstrip those of seasonal beers by 300,000 cases or so a month, according to The Brewers Association craft beer industry group, fall seasonals completely wiped out that lead last year. After trailing IPAs by 125,000 cases in August, fall seasonal beers opened up a lead of more than 300,000 cases in September and October. Fall and winter seasonals held that lead through November and December.

That's going to be a much tougher task this year, as brewers' IPA sales so far this year are 40% higher than their sales of seasonal beer. We'll note, however, that brands including Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada tend to throw some IPA into their seasonal 12-packs, which bumps up IPA numbers a bit. Many of those same brewers are discovering that adding a pumpkin beer to their portfolio tends to provide a little boost as well.

Last year, the Craft Brew Alliance threw Out Of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter into its Redhook lineup and watched as Redhook's sales not only grew, but surpassed those of stablemate Widmer Brothers for all of 2010. Samuel Adams, meanwhile, has brewed 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 and watching its sales grow steadily each year.. Demand for pumpkin ale has grown so much within the past decade that MolsonCoors introduced Harvest Moon ale in 1995 before rebranding it as Harvest Pumpkin Ale two years ago. This year, Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin was on shelves by July. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch InBev introduced Michelob Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale in 2005 and continues releasing pumpkin beer of its own each July. 

That's when Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, N.Y., releases its Pumking imperial pumpkin ale by mid-July. At a time beer drinkers are still enjoying light lagers, citrusy wheat beers, session IPA and various other refreshing brews suited to the warm weather, Southern Tier rolls out a dark orange beer that smells like a pumpkin scone, tastes like pumpkin pie filling at the beginning and finishes like a cinnamon-and-sugar milkshake. As a result, Southern Tier says sales have increased 50% to 80% since Pumking's debut.

Read More: 10 Beers to Try Before Summer 2014 Ends

Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine, cranked up production of its Pumpkinhead ale from 2,100 barrels in 2002 to 30,000 a decade later while extending Pumpkinhead season from August-through-October to late July-through-Thanksgiving to deal with peak demand around the fall holidays. Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, Pa., pushed up this year's release date of its Imperial Pumpkin Ale to July 17 just to keep up with demand.

With the number of U.S. breweries growing from 1,600 back in 2009 to more than 3,000 today, according to the Brewers Association, pumpkin beers are multiplying at nearly as quick a pace as IPA. While it's difficult to picture a malty, spicy pumpkin-pie-flavored beer as a year-round offering, there was once a time when people thought the same thing about IPA. When Harpoon Brewing in Boston first introduced its English-style IPA in 1993, it was originally a summer seasonal. Two decades later, it accounts for more than half of all Harpoon sales.

Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, notes that pumpkin beer has similar cachet once fall comes around and is one of the most popular beers of the season. Delving into Google searches for seasonal beers (“winter beer,” “spring beer,” etc.) and “pumpkin beer,” Watson found a huge spike in searches for the latter during fall in each of the past four years. That spike in searches corresponds directly to a surge in seasonal beer sales during those periods and points to pumpkin beer as the biggest reason behind the uptick.

A year-round pumpkin beer may continue to be an exception rather than a rule, but there's little question that pumpkin-based styles are a cornerstone of seasonal craft beer sales. When craft beer and big brewers' craft divisions are looking to bolster their bottom line during the last few months of the year, sometimes the hop needs to give way to the gourd.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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