Like their non-boozy cousin, Starbucks' ubiquitous Pumpkin Spice latte, pumpkin beers signal fall's arrival—even if it's not fall yet. While temperatures pushed the upper 90s earlier this week, customers snatched up bottles of the dozen or so pumpkin beers that have been available at Binny's stores since the end of August.
"It seems like they come earlier and earlier every year," said Kyle Fornek, assistant beer buyer for Binny's. "Pretty much every single one will be sold out by October, if not the end of September."
That makes some people very unhappy. Earlier this month, brew enthusiast website Beer Advocate created an Internet uproar when it retweeted an anti-pumpkin beer joke ("RT @fancypantsbeer: Pumpkin beer is the modern day equivalent of the mullet. Everybody that brewed one will be ashamed of it in a decade.") that had defenders and critics in a Twitter fit.
"I know it's a polarizing style," Fornek said. "Traditional beer drinkers, people who like a lot of imports or German beer and Belgian beer, and people who don't like spice in their beer, they don't really take to pumpkin beers."
While anti-pumpkin sentiment is high within certain circles, their popularity isn't waning in Chicago.
"We'll sell more of Shipyard's pumpkin beer in two weeks than every single one of their other beers combined in six months. We'll get asked for [Southern Tier's] Pumking 50 times a day at some stores," Fornek said. "If I started a brewery, I'd brew an IPA and pumpkin beer."
Pumpkin flavor also is creeping beyond the category of traditional ales and into other alcoholic beverages. Tieton Cider Works this year released a smoked pumpkin cider, and The Traveler Beer Co. has introduced a Jack-o-Traveler pumpkin shandy, both available around the city.
Two Chicago breweries also are getting in on the game. Spiteful Brewing and South Loop Brewing are in the process of brewing their pumpkin beers, named Jackass O'Lantern and Jack Ale Lantern, respectively. The challenge for breweries hoping to make a pumpkin beer that uses real pumpkin, rather than canned pumpkin puree or only pumpkin spices such as nutmeg and clove, is simply where to get pumpkins so early in the season.
Spiteful's Jason Klein spotted Sugar Pie pumpkins at Dominick's and promptly bought all 60 pounds that the grocery store had in stock. South Loop Brewing's Jeremiah Zimmer also spotted the gourds at the grocery store. Once he posted a photo of them to Twitter, three other breweries contacted him to find out where he'd found them.
"Almost every other commercial pumpkin beer is already sitting on the premiere shelf at Binny's, and I could barely get my hands on a box of pumpkins," Zimmer said. "It's easy to tell who's using real pumpkins and who's not."
Fresh, canned or otherwise, pumpkin has Chicago firmly in its grip—at least for the next few weeks.
"You get burned out on them," said Binny's Kyle Fornek. "After you drink 10 or 20 pumpkin beers, you're done until next year."
>>Have pumpkin-flavored goodies gone too far? Watch RedEye staffers try pumpkin yogurt, Pop Tarts and more.
FIVE TO TRY
These five beers, on shelves now, are a solid place to start your pumpkin education.
1. Southern Tier Pumking
One of the most popular bottles of pumpkin beer out there, this vanilla- and nutmeg-laced imperial ale sneaks up on you at 8 percent ABV.
2. Big Muddy Brewing Pumpkin Smasher
Brewed in Murphysboro, Ill., this beer is made with sweet and savory spices and plenty of malt.
3. Smuttynose Pumpkin ale
Hoppier than most other pumpkin beers, Smuttynose's ale is a good bet for transitioning out of warmer temperatures.
4. O'Fallon Pumpkin beer
Like pumpkin pie in a bottle, O'Fallon's version has a pumpkin backbone with a hefty dose of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
5. Tommyknocker Small Patch Pumpkin Harvest ale
Once temperatures drop a bit, this brown ale with molasses, spice and pumpkin will taste even more seasonally appropriate.
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