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Pumpkin beer business booms in Canada

By Bob Mackin

For Gary Lohin, Halloween begins in July.

That’s when the brewmaster and co-owner of Central City Brewers and Distillers begins brewing the annual stock of Red Racer Spiced Pumpkin Ale.

“It’s gotten real crazy,” Lohin said. “We’re making it in July and shipping it in August. Retailers want to put it out on the shelf in September. We find that pumpkin beer left on the shelf after October 31, no one wants it at retail value.”

Central City brewed 20,000 litres of it this year, including 600 kilograms of pumpkin purée sourced from the Fraser Valley. Red Racer Spiced Pumpkin Ale is Central City’s biggest seasonal batch of its total 50,000 hectolitres a year. It billed BC Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) C$10.14 million (US$7.57 million) for the year ended March 31, 2016.

Red Racer Spiced Pumpkin Ale is sold as far away as Ontario, where the Toronto Star chose it among four “standout” pumpkin brews in a September review.

Lohin said Central City’s warehouse is already out of stock for its 2016 version.

“We have consistent product, and people know that we’re going to give them a good one,” Lohin said. “It either comes down to relationships or price. We can be competitive, with our pricing. Then it comes down to relationships.”

Brewers have been using the orange gourd since the 17th century, but it made a slow comeback when the craft brewing craze began fermenting in the mid-1980s.

The American Philosophical Society published its “pompion ale” recipe in 1771. According to The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer, early American colonists were also experimenting with corn, maple sap and pea shells.

“Pumpkins were a popular choice, mainly because they grew like weeds,” the book said, pointing to pumpkin historian Cindy Ott’s research that said, “When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin.”

The book said Landon Carter, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, liked his brewed extra sour, from a kind of a pumpkin shrub that he called “pumperkin.” The secret to Lohin’s recipe is the spice. Not too much and not too little. Without the spice, he said, few would taste the pumpkin.

“It’s the spices, not the pumpkin, that make the beer and how you spice,” he said. “We try to spice moderately. If you want to sell a beer like that, you want to sell more than one pint. If it’s too spicy people will drink one and that’s it.”

Red Racer is one of 10 varieties listed on the BCLDB’s BCLiquorStores.com. One is from Quebec (McAuslan St. Ambroise Pumpkin Ale) and the remaining eight are made in B.C. (Fernie Pumpkin Head Brown Ale; Howe Sound Pumpkineater Imperial Pumpkin Ale; Nelson Pumpkin Ale Organic; Parallel 49 Schadenfreude Pumpkin Oktoberfest; Parallel 49 Lost Souls Chocolate Pumpkin Porter; Phillips Toothless Pumpkin Sour Ale; Russell Happy Jack Pumpkin Ale and Steamworks Pumpkin Ale).

For the best variety, Lohin recommends heading south to Seattle-based Elysian, the craft brewing powerhouse that was acquired for an undisclosed price in 2015 by giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD).

“Elysian is the leader of pumpkin beers; they produce six to eight. We don’t have that here; I think it’s just the population.”

Elysian goes on the road with pumpkin beer tasting events in New York and Los Angeles each fall, and it hosted the 12th annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival October 8 near CenturyLink Field. That included more than 80 pumpkin beers from near and far. Elysian even hollowed out a giant pumpkin, filled it with its flagship Halloween offering and served it to the costumed festival-goers.