There’s no glory in liking pumpkin beer.
No one has ever impressed a date or a future employer by ordering a frothy, cinnamon-y pumpkin ale (or for that matter a pumpkin latte). Geeks don’t line up for pumpkin beer can releases.
The Pilgrims made pumpkin ale, but the drink as we know it is a recent invention. Shipyard Brewery cofounder Fred Forsley remembers debuting his now iconic Pumpkinhead beer as a one-off at Federal Jack’s brewpub in Kennebunk, Maine, in 1997.
“The brewers weren’t really excited about it to be honest,’’ he says now. “But it just flew.’’
Soon, keeping up with demand for Pumpkinhead began to define Shipyard, which at peak pumpkin was selling 60,000 barrels of the stuff annually. Two years ago, sales dropped by about a third, forcing the company to cut back.
“The market just got flooded,’’ Forsley admits, citing an influx of pumpkin beers from other brewers.
Shipyard still makes a lot of Pumpkinhead (about 40,000 barrels), and this year the Maine brewery is celebrating 20 years of the brew. It’s a beer I’ve had a love-hate relationship with, but the other night, after a couple rounds of IPA and a bar pizza, I called on the pumpkin-headed horseman.
A curious thing happens in Greater Boston when you order a Pumpkinhead: More often than not it comes in a pint glass whose rim has been caked with cinnamon and sugar. Forsley says the practice was invented eight or nine years ago by intrepid Massachusetts bartenders. It’s caught on nationally to the point where Shipyard is now selling the cinnamon-sugar mixture as a kit, at places like Market Basket.
Pumpkinhead isn’t a great beer. Forsley says the proprietary recipe includes cinnamon, nutmeg, and something he calls pumpkin spice. (Shipyard doesn’t add actual pumpkin.) Like hops and subtle malt character? You’re looking in the wrong place.
And yet there’s something about sipping a Pumpkinhead (with the sugared rim of course) this time of year, spices swirling on your tongue, sugar sticking to your lips. It feels a little wrong. It feels like fall.
“It’s comfortable,’’ says Forsley. “It’s not overpowering.’’
After a lull the past couple years, Forsley says early sales are up, a fact he attributes to other breweries jumping off the bandwagon after a portion of consumers became anti-pumpkin.
“It’s kind of like you’re standing at the dance and waiting for someone to ask you,’’ says Forsley. “Eventually someone comes around.’’
So long as distributors continue to order it, Forsley says Shipyard can brew enough Pumpkinhead to keep stores stocked through Black Friday.