At last, summer has arrived in the Northwest—warm temperatures, endless bottles of rosé, and beers ideally suited for a Halloween party.
Last week Elysian hosted the annual release party for its Night Owl pumpkin ale. Two Beers Brewing Co.'s pumpkin spice ale returns this weekend. The region's other pumpkin beers follow suit in the coming weeks; by the time October rolls around, walking into a bottle shop with the intent of buying some of these brews might prompt incredulous laughter from the staff, since much of the season's offerings sold out long ago.
But why, exactly, does pumpkin beer appear even before fresh hop beer does?
The first time Two Beers owner Joel Vandenbrink made his pumpkin beer, he dutifully released it in October. But each year finds him bumping it a few weeks earlier. "I've been told by consumers and people who own the stores that they want it earlier," he says. This is a part of the country that likes its beer big and bold, and Vandenbrink's theory is that after a month or so of those lighter summer lagers, Seattle's drinking populace is ready for fuller flavors. But it's a little hot to really dig into those barrel-aged stouts just yet. His pumpkin spice ale rings in at a still-sessionable 5.2 percent, so it's sort of a compromise between summer-weight beers and Northwest-weight flavors.
"At the same time people complain it's too early, they're out there buying them," Elysian's Dick Cantwell told me recently, when we were discussing the quartet of pumpkin beers Elysian releases in August and September. In addition to the three recurring versions (the pie-spiced Night Owl, imperial Great Pumpkin, and Dark O' the Moon stout), this year its planning a coffee-pumpkin ale called Punkuccino.
It's also a race for shelf space, says Beer Junction owner Morgan Herzog. "A lot of breweries want to be first on it; if they're going to the effort to make a pumpkin beer, they want to make sure they get their money's worth" by snagging prime real estate in the cooler. While September is his biggest month for pumpkin beer sales, Herzog says he still does a brisk business in August. Come October, it's slim pickings.
For those of you who do enjoy drinking pumpkin beer during the actual month of Halloween, Beer Junction spends nine days in October assuming its alter ego of Pumpkin Junction, dispensing pumpkin beer from 25 of its taps. And tickets sales are already off and running for Elysian's Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. It's back at the brewery's Georgetown facility (after attemping a relocation to Seattle Center) October 3 and 4. The roster of more than 90 pumpkin beers includes 20 from the brewery itself, including festival-only versions flavored with gin botanicals, peach and pecan, and even garam masala.
But by the time Thanksgiving rolls around with its actual pumpkin pies, drinkers are well entrenched in barleywines and imperials and winter warmers.
"Sometimes winter beers start coming out in September," says Herzog. "People are always itching for the next seasonal."