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Brewers scramble to find pumpkin for seasonal ales as supply tightens

Brewers of pumpkin beer looked to carve up a big business this Halloween but a shortage of the squash and waning interest in the seasonal beverage may make for a frightful season.

In Virginia, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery was looking to boost production by 20 percent this year for its Farmhouse Pumpkin Ale. The Richmond-based brewer usually has a local farmer plant the seeds in the ground early to get a "jump start on the production side," said Brian Nelson, head brewer at Hardywood.

"All the rain we had at the beginning of the season resulted in pumpkin seeds that never got started and the plants never grew," Nelson said. "They're going to see pumpkins, but it just won't be until later this year."

"I started getting a little nervous about the actual shortage that seems to be going around the country." -Brian Nelson, Head Brewer, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery

Nelson called around to other suppliers and learned there just wasn't much pumpkin puree product available due to last year's poor crop, although he got lucky and did eventually find some.

"I started getting a little nervous about the actual shortage that seems to be going around the country," Nelson said.

According to industry checks, Hardywood is not alone as other brewers nationally have been challenged with sourcing pumpkin this season.

Brewers don't have the luxury of waiting until later in the year for a new crop of pumpkin because of the short shelf life of the fall seasonal beverages such as pumpkin ale. Demand for such items goes down sharply after Halloween.

Slim pickin's due to rain

The lack of product this year is blamed on a sharp decline in pumpkin production in 2015 due to unfavorable weather in Illinois, where almost half of the nation's processed pumpkin is grown and eventually canned for pumpkin pies and puree. Also, there are early indications that weather hurt the crop this year in mid-Atlantic states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as in parts of New England and some Western states such as Colorado.

"It has not been an ideal year for growing pumpkins," said Michael Orzolek, professor emeritus of vegetable crops at Penn State. "In Pennsylvania, there was too much rain or plain too high temperatures and that becomes a problem with pollination and getting good fruit to set in the field."

Producing pumpkin ale — the majority of the pumpkin beers sold — is typically a four-week process, although it can vary. Most brewers use a puree similar to the kind used for making pumpkin pies, and some buy full pumpkins from local farmers and roast them.

It is not uncommon for craft breweries to buy the pumpkins or puree from suppliers in the late spring and complete the brewing and bottling in time for release in late August or early September.

Prices get jacked up

"I don't go out and find my pumpkin and let it sit around for three months before I make it," said Paul Kavulak, president and co-founder of Nebraska Brewing. "We work with our suppliers and the same guy we bought pumpkin puree from for a number of years. We told him how much we would need."

Nebraska Brewing wanted around 5,000 pounds of pumpkin puree for this year's fall batch of Wick For Brains Pumpkin Ale. The Omaha-area brewer relies on local farmers for sourcing the seasonal vegetable and uses what's commonly known as the "just in time" inventory method, which reduces the storing of raw materials and can work well until any portion of the supply chain — from start to finish — is disrupted.

"There was never an indication that we might have a shortage on our hands so we bought two-fifths of what we would need this season and planned to brew it and buy the rest later," said Kavulak. "Then, we heard the supplier tell us, 'hey we're all out.' "

Nebraska Brewing was finally able to get the needed pumpkin puree but had to pay "a decent chunk of change," he said.

Shortage squashes Libby's

Indeed, even Nestle's Libby's canned pumpkin business — a market share leader during the pumpkin pie-baking season — was affected by a poor harvest in 2015 but is more optimistic about the outlook for this year's crop. Libby's has several thousand acres of pumpkin planted on contracted farmland about 50 miles from the company's Morton, Illinois, canning facility, where they will operate around the clock once the harvest begins.

"As a result of last year's pumpkin shortage, there's not much Libby's pumpkin available for sale currently," said Roz O'Hearn, corporate and brand affairs director for Nestle USA. "However, we'll begin to harvest this year's crop, which appears to be in much better shape than last year's, in late August."

Moreover, the low pumpkin supplies caught the attention of the Brewers Association, which represents small and independent craft breweries.

"It's a little bit of a tightening of the market rather a shortage," insisted Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. "People are still going to see plenty of pumpkin beers on the shelves this fall."

Pumpkin patch
Taesam Do | Getty Images
Pumpkin patch

As it turns out, those breweries that purchased pumpkin last year, or in early 2016 before supplies dwindled, appear to have fared better.

"We were lucky enough to source our pumpkins early enough so we didn't really see the effect of a shortage," said Sam Adams Brewer Megan Parisi. "We hope all of our fellow brewers are able to find the amount they need and can raise a glass of pumpkin beer this fall."

Sam Adams, a brand owned by Boston Beer Company, is releasing a beer this fall called 20 Pounds of Pumpkin."The recipe literally calls for 20 pounds of pumpkin in each barrel," according to Parisi.

Meantime, Schlafly Pumpkin Ale is celebrating its 10th year in 2016 and the company is expecting to produce roughly 10,000 barrels of the pumpkin ale this year. It also bought pumpkin supplies early and didn't have the same sourcing issues as other brewers.

"We buy our pumpkin supply the year before and then have that processed," said James Pendergraft, CEO of the St. Louis-based brewer.

All in all, most industry executives are upbeat about the prospects for this year's pumpkin beer despite the supply scare.

"We didn't find any problem selling it last year and hopefully this year as well," said Hardywood's Nelson.

Nonetheless, Nielsen data show pumpkin-spiced beer sales fell nearly 10 percent in 2015, and in terms of volume, the decline was more than 13 percent. Most pumpkin beers are ales, which is the most popular style within the craft beer segment.

"There are signs that drinkers are experiencing pumpkin fatigue," according to Danelle Kosmal, vice president of Nielsen's Beverage Alcohol Practice.

Seasonal brews are around 18 percent of craft beer sales, and pumpkin-flavored beers are considered about 10 percent of craft sales during the time they are on the shelves in the fall, she estimated.

Watson, the brewers' group economist, said the softness last year also could be due to "an oversupply. I don't think the demand dropped that much; brewer over exuberance kind of overshot the mark."

Correction: This story was revised to correct the second reference to Kosmal as "she."