By Alex Goetzfried
At 7 a.m. on an unseasonably warm October morning, on the North Fork of Long Island, brewer Greg Doroski swings open the double garage doors of the old firehouse that is now home to the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. The first rays of early morning sunlight trickle in and begin to reflect off of the giant stainless steel barrels that will produce another 500 gallons of the approximately 20,000 gallon quota of Leaf Pile Ale, the brewery’s pumpkin flavored beer.
Unusual ingredients, like pumpkin, have been used to brew beer since colonial times in North America and centuries earlier in Europe. Beginning last fall and growing even stronger this year, pumpkin ales are surging in popularity, according to local brewers, bars and distributors. Some attribute it to the popularity of seasonal eating and drinking, some say it is part of an overall increase in demand for craft beers and others aren’t sure why the beer is so popular. But it seems that pumpkin-spiced anything, from hand cream to dog treats, are the trend, and beer may be the most common pumpkin-flavored product outside of pie.
“It’s easy to take a trend, bastardize it, and mass produce it,” Doroski said. “Our spice blend is all fresh, it took a while to get the mixture of nutmeg, ginger, and allspice ratios just right.”
Craft brewers take pride in the seasonal assortment of spices that go into pumpkin ales. Pumpkin itself doesn’t have a pronounced flavor; it is the spices that give the seasonal brew—or pumpkin pie—its fall zest.
“It absolutely is all about the spices,” Doroski said.
The Southampton Publick House on eastern Long Island was one of the first craft breweries to make pumpkin ale. “Ten years ago if someone said it would’ve been this popular I would’ve looked at them like they had 16 heads,” said Evan Addario, the brew master at the Publick House.
In that first year of pumpkin production, about a decade ago, the Publick House brewed 32 kegs worth.
“These days it’s a little different,” Addario said with a laugh. This season he and his crew have brewed 10,000 cases and 1,000 kegs totaling about 39,000 gallons of pumpkin. The brewery doubles as a restaurant and bar, where all of its beers are on tap, and it distributes to 43 different states.
“We pride ourselves in the fact that everything is balanced, therefore it is more drinkable,” Addario said. The Publick House blend uses real pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and real vanilla from Madagascar. The goal is to brew a beer that patrons want more than one of, according to Addario.
On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, across from the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, sits the Top Hops Beer Shop. It is a hybrid store — the front is a bar serving an array of craft beers as well as neighborhood snacks, and the rear is a store lined with refrigerators where beer geeks can find the best craft beer available.
Between the store and the bar, owner Ted Kenny, has about 12 different pumpkin beers available at a time. “Last year it was very popular,” Kenny said. “This year was crazy!”
Many flavorful beers across the board are increasing in popularity, according to Kenny.
India Pale Ales, known to their fans as IPAs, are the fastest growing segment. The IPAs are much more “hoppy” in flavor, which usually means a more bitter beer. The International Bittering Units (IBU) scale measures the bitterness of beer. A pumpkin ale is around 18 IBUs, according to Addario, while an IPA can range anywhere from 50 to 90 IBUs. At the Greenport brewery a 1,000-gallon batch of pumpkin takes 2.5 pounds of hops, the same size batch of its IPA takes 80 pounds of hops.
This year was one of the most popular years for summer ales as well. Good summer ales are golden in color, a bit acidic, sweet, refreshing and not too heavy. That boom in popularity caused many of the breweries to run out of summer ales early, and also led to an early rollout of the pumpkin-ale season, according to Kenny.
In the beginning of August, Sam Adams’ summer ale ran out, followed by Goose Island, then Harpoon. By the second week of August, most of the summer ale was gone, Kenny said.
“Greenport made more this summer than last, and at the end of August, they ran out,” said Kenny. Because of the run on summer ales, everyone switched to pumpkin early, according to the beer merchant.
The most popular pumpkin beer at Top Hops, by far, is Southern Tier Brewing Companies’ Pumking.
“Pumking is insanely popular,” Kenny said. He ran out of it a few weeks ago, and although he expected a shipment the next day, he was sure it would sell out immediately.
On the Southern Tier website, the brewers tried to explain the shortage: “Wondering why we didn’t make more Pumking this year? We actually brewed more this year than in 2010 & 2011 combined.”
At the Southampton Publick House the pumpkin ale used to go on tap Oct. 1 and would come off on Nov. 15. This year, it was on tap Sept. 15, but, Addario said, distributors wanted it on the shelf by Aug. 1. He blames Sam Adams for jumping the gun and pushing seasonal brews earlier and earlier each year. “We are done brewing it right now, but we will have it on tap through Thanksgiving,” he said.
Greenport Harbor Brewing Company began production of Leaf Pile on July 10. It was on shelves Aug. 15. The company brews on a rotating schedule, four days one week, six the next. On the four-day brew week they can produce two batches of Leaf Pile, on the six-day week, it’s three. One batch of Leaf Pile takes about two weeks total, Doroski said. They will brew it until mid November and still have another five or six 1,000-gallon batches to make.
Pumpkin beer’s popularity is just a microcosm of where craft beer is heading as an industry, according to Kenny.
“People are being drawn to more flavorful beers, it’s part of the evolution of people looking for more flavor,” he said. Oktoberfest just became available which is also very popular and takes some of the heat off of the pumpkin beers. Next on the brewer’s list after that will be the Christmas brews.
Christmas ales are usually malty, with complex flavor profiles using different spices and fruit. The dark, heavy beers are next in line to keep craft enthusiasts warm through long winter nights.