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In Beerland, There's No Pumpkin Shortage

Monday, 26 Oct 2009 | 12:57 PM ET

There's no pumpkin shortage in the beer aisle.

Although there has been much discussion of how bad weather has hurt supplies of pumpkins, both canned and on the vine, a trip to the store will show there's a bumper crop of pumpkin ales.

This trend reflects a continued consumer shift toward craft beer as well as a hardy appetite for seasonal beers.

Although pumpkin ale may seem like a new trend, the brewing of pumpkin ale actually dates back to the colonial era. With scarce supplies of barley and other beer-making ingredients, the founding fathers had to make do with what was on hand. That included parsnips, molasses and, yes, pumpkins.

As Old World ingredients became more plentiful, brewers shifted away from pumpkins. However, in recent years, craft brewers began experimenting with the ingredient again.

At Brooklyn Brewery, Post Road Pumpkin Ale is its third most popular seasonal beer, said Steve Hindy, the brewery's founder and president. (The brewery's most popular seasonal brew is its summer ale, followed by its Octoberfest, Hindy said.)

"It's a very successful seasonal beer for us," Hindy said. So much so that Brooklyn Brewery has increased the amount of pumpkin ale it made this year.

"The key to seasonal beer is to brew too little so that you run out of beer," Hindy said.

Although this segment has been dominated by smaller brewers, the big boys are now playing in the pumpkin patch. Anheuser Busch Inbev is now brewing up Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale, while Molson Coors Brewing has Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale.

Neither of these pumpkin ales are likely to move the sales' needle for Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors, but that isn't really the point. With a greater portion of sales shifting to craft beers each year, the big brewers are likely experimenting to see what this segment of the U.S. market likes. Plus, seasonal beers can be a fun way to coax consumers to try a brand.

According to the Brewers Association, sales volume in the craft brewing industry has increased by 5 percent, while sales, as measured by dollars, is up 9 percent during the same period. This growth has allowed craft brewers to gain market share as overall U.S. beer sales are down 1.3 percent during the first first six months of the year, the Brewers Association said.

Still, these brands are facing a headwind, said Frank Walters, director of research at Impact Databank. He expects beer sales to be flat to down this year because consumers are so price sensitive.

Most of the pumpkin ales are priced at premium, which means you'll likely pay $7 or more for a six-pack.

But for those who want to splurge on a pumpkin ale, critics say the best of the crop tend to be the ones made with real pumpkin. Most pumpkin ales are mild, without much bitterness and a malty backbone. Often, these beers have hints of pumpkin pie spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and allspice.

However, unlike in colonial times, no one makes beer exclusively out of pumpkin. In order to make a tastier drink, the pumpkin, be it roasted or pureed, is mixed with malt, hops, yeast, and water.

Of course, you could attempt to brew your own beer in a pumpkin. We found a Web site that serves up step-by-step instructions. But be warned, they say this should not be attempted by first-time brewers.

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