Good gourd: Local brewers get in on pumpkin trend

Eric Akeson sets a glass of his Jack O’Lahar amber ale on the counter of his Puyallup River Brewing Alehouse and stands back with pride.

“It’s pumpkin pie in a glass,” he says.

One quaff confirms he’s only slightly exaggerating.

Pumpkin beer seems to turn its drinkers into either smiling jack o’lanterns or scowling goblins. But love it or leave it, beer flavored with pumpkin and spices is here to stay.

“All we’ve been brewing since July 3 is this,” Akeson says pointing to the Jack O’Lahar and another glass holding black pumpkin saison, a Belgian style farmhouse ale, which won a silver medal at this year’s prestigious Washington Beer Awards.

The Jack O’Lahar is now one of the 2-year-old brewery’s flagship brews.

Akeson is releasing three pumpkin beers this season. In addition to the saison (6.7% ABV) and O’Lahar (6.8% ABV), he and head brewer Nat Woodsmith will soon have Gourdy Wow, a saison regal made with brown sugar. Whether they have any of the three in bottles remains to be seen. They can barely keep up with tap demand, they say.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of pumpkin beer for sale at local markets and specialty bottle stores.

Barry Watson, owner of Fircrest specialty beer store Pint Defiance, is a fan of pumpkin beers and every year he sees more. He estimates two-thirds of breweries are producing seasonal pumpkin beer.

“You either do one or you brag about how you don’t do one,” Watson says of the breweries. “I think it’s a really fun style. What’s more American than pumpkin?”

Watson is carrying 40 different pumpkin beers. On Oct. 31, Halloween, Watson will be holding his store’s second anniversary celebration. It will involve lots of pumpkin beer, he says.

Pumpkin beers were once just a novelty brew. Watson has seen its numbers increase heavily in the past five years. That’s an observation shared by Roma Bert, co-owner of Olympia’s Gravity Beer Market. She stocks about 25 pumpkin beers and several pumpkin-flavored ciders.

Pumpkin beer took off in the 2000s after Seattle’s Elysian Brewery popularized it locally with Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, Bert says. “They took that ball and ran with it.”

Now, the beers are legion. And so are its followers. “A lot of people who don’t drink craft beers come in for this,” Bert says. Still, within the beer industry, there’s a certain amount of mocking of brewers who don’t make them well, she says.

And it’s not just the numbers of pumpkin beers that have increased over the years. The season is expanding as well. Watson started stocking them in July.

“They weren’t just arriving, they were selling. We’ll sell them into December,” Watson says. Bert says her pumpkin beer stocks start to decline in early November as breweries switch production to winter beers.

Pumpkin is not the only flavored beer on the market. A tour of local taprooms will reveal coconut, jalapeno, mango, orange, coffee and other flavored beers. But only pumpkin is redolent of fall, and the beer’s creamy flavor pairs well with many foods.

Beer is big business in the U.S. Anheuser-Busch still dominates with almost half of total volume sales in 2013. But the company is facing intense competition from cider, malt-based beverages and the seemingly non-stop proliferation of small craft breweries. The U.S. craft brewing industry will have an estimated $20 billion in sales in 2014, according to market researcher Mintel.

Craft breweries carve their niche by offering seasonal, in-depth flavors using local production and sometimes local ingredients. Pumpkin beer fits neatly into that description. IPAs are still considered the most popular craft beers.

Watson says there’s a number of pumpkin styles from which to choose: Sweet to dry and with varying amounts of spice.

At Federal Way specialty bottle shop 99 Beers, co-owner Tiffany Adamowski has two pumpkin beers in her growler station and close to 20 on the shelf.

“I love them. You have some that taste like pumpkin pie, some like chocolate pumpkin, some like pumpkin bread.” Her favorite: New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Pumpkick made with lemongrass, cranberries and spices.

At Puyallup River Brewing, Akeson and Woodsmith infuse their pumpkin beers twice during the process. Though they use real pumpkin flesh in the process, they won’t say exactly how that’s done. They will brew the pumpkin beers until Nov. 1 and keep them available in the tap room through Thanksgiving.

“It’s a nice, fun, seasonal thing to do. This is why I started this brewery,” Akeson says. “We couldn’t not brew it at this point. It’s here to stay.”