Originally published in the September issue of The Bollard
You’ve done it, beer fans! You’ve survived “peak pumpkin spice.” Last year may be remembered as the apex of an obsession that manifested itself in everything from pumpkin spice lattes to gourd-flavored Oreos and M&Ms. More pumpkin beers crowded our shelves in 2015 than in any previous year. For some, this undoubtedly was a delight, but many wished the trend, which often involved artificial flavors and coloring agents, would simply go away.
Fads, by definition, inevitably decline, but I suspect the collective backlash against seasonal creep — being bombarded by spiced concoctions in early August or even July — also had something to do with it. The numbers are already in for 2016, and the pumpkin trend is on its way out. Retailers are slowing their orders, pumpkin beers are sitting on shelves a bit too long, and the quantities being produced are declining.
What will replace them? The cynics among us say it will be other artificial flavors (witness the rise of alcoholic sodas), but I hold a more optimistic view. I think the abandonment of pumpkin beer as an autumnal staple may be evidence that lagers can carve out a legitimate and lasting space in the American craft beer landscape.
Search-engine tools like Google Trends allow you to investigate the relative amounts of interest in different search terms. Type in a lager style like Märzen, Helles or Dunkel and you’ll see a huge swing upward in 2015 and 2016, while the line for searches about pumpkin beer drops off.
What encourages me is that these styles are more traditional and showcase the beer for what it is — grains, hops, yeast — rather than what can be added to it.
Let’s look more closely at Märzen for a moment. This malt-forward beer is typically brewed with either Munich or Vienna malt, and its caramel and toasty flavors are perfect for a fall afternoon.
In Germany, the term Oktoberfest only applies to the beers made and poured at the annual festivals in Munich, but in the U.S. we colloquially label beers “Oktoberfest” if they’re a fall seasonal of the Märzen or Vienna lager style. These medium-to-deep amber beers are especially popular in September (when Oktoberfests are held). The now classic Samuel Adams OktoberFest was the first seasonal beer I ever tried, and though I suspect its recipe has changed some since my first sip, it’s a beer that still defines the onset of autumn for me.
I’d argue that lagers have staying power well beyond the fall. Their clean flavor profiles allow the malt character of the beer to shine through. Some styles finish so cleanly that you need another swig just to be sure you’ve had any. The lack of a lingering aftertaste also makes lagers excellent choices to pair with food.
So why aren’t more breweries jumping on the lager train? The simple answers are space and time. Lagers take much longer to ferment than ales do, and that can create bottlenecks at the brewery. With ales, a weekly rhythm of brewing and kegging can be established. Lagers, however, need to sit, filling up fermentation tanks and making it impossible for brewers to start something else until the first lager has matured. With proper planning such obstacles can be overcome, but the point is that lagers are not a style brewers get into on a whim, or in an effort to follow a fad.
In Maine we’re lucky to have several breweries that regularly make classic lager styles, including Gneiss, Banded Horn, and, most recently, Dirigo Brewing Company, which opened in Biddeford last month. Von Trapp Brewing, in Vermont (owned by the Sound of Music von Trapps), is also distributing classic German lagers to the New England beer market.
Raise a lager this month to toast the demise of pumpkin beer! And don’t forget about the style just because seasons change.