August 24, 2016

What Place Does Pumpkin Beer Have In D.C., Anyway?

By Michael Martinez

We’re not done yet with one of the warmest summers ever recorded. But it’s already autumn in the beer aisles at grocery stores throughout local D.C.

If you’d like to know why those stores are forcing pumpkin beer on you when temperatures are still soaring, you should check out the excellent work of Jessica Sidman at Washingtonian.

But I called Mike Stein, president of Lost Lagers, writer for DC Beer, and beer historian, to ask a different question: Should we even be drinking pumpkin beer in the summer — or the fall — anyway?

Stein schooled me on what local brewers have been making in this region for centuries, and what future beer historians might see when they look back on the current era of beer in the nation’s capital. He also taught me an awesome new German word and even clued me in on George Washington’s favorite beer (if you want to raise a couple more to the revolution this weekend … apologies for the “Hamilton” reference).

Listen to our conversation:

Read the transcript:

Michael Martinez:  People are freaking out, in the sense that it’s August right now and just a week ago it was 100 degrees, 107-something degrees with the heat index. And pumpkin beer is already starting to show up on shelves. How does that make you feel when you walk into a grocery store and it’s that hot outside and it’s August –it’s not even Labor Day yet– and you see pumpkin beer out there?

Mike Stein:  Generally speaking, when I see pumpkin beer on shelves in August, I’m reminded of how big seasonal creep is and what a difficult job retailers have to do in regards to pumpkin beer. I’m sad because the same amount of prioritizing that’s given to pumpkin beer displays is not given to other beers, let’s say hoppy beers that breweries want you to drink fresh. So generally speaking I’m sad for the “average pale ales” which have a rightful place in the store, or the craft lagers that are just kind of sitting on shelves while these pumpkin beers are getting these gorgeous displays and maybe even offering the consumer a bit of a discount on a six pack where normally the other brands from that same brewery might be pricier than their pumpkin beer.

Martinez:  So drinking beer here locally in D.C. at this time of year… In your view, what should people be drinking?

Stein:  I believe that in August drinkers in D.C. should be enjoying a nice cold pilsner, a nice frosty lager. It could be a dortmunder or a helles – generally German style or Czech style lager. I’ve also found that Belgian style saisons, Belgian pale ales tend to be really nice, generally beers that are paler in color. Although I do enjoy porter year-round, and if you’re one of those people like me who believes that porter isn’t necessarily a seasonal drink, then by all means, you should be enjoying porter in August. But if we are to drink as we did 100 years ago, that drink would most certainly be a pale, lighter lager, a lager that falls in the category of 4 percent to 6 percent alcohol by volume, something that is very easy to drink.

Whatever your beer –be it pilsner or pale ale– it shouldn’t be a chore to drink. It should be easy.

You shouldn’t have difficulty getting to the bottom of it, because that’s really the way beer was meant to be enjoyed – as it was a century ago in D.C. and as it should be today in 2016.

Martinez:  Can you talk more about as it was meant to be a century ago here in D.C.? What would people have been drinking back then, from what you’ve been able to dig up in your research? This is kind of  your wheelhouse right here.

Stein:  Sure. Well, a hundred years ago in 1916, D.C. was inching towards prohibition. And prohibition came to the District before it came as federal law to the United States in 1920. People were crushing lager in 1916, literally drinking it like it was going out of style unbeknownst to them that within a year, it would go out style. They would have prohibition early. But basically they were drinking two kinds of larger, pale lager or dark lager. I want to be clear that dark lager is not porter color. Dark lager is essentially brown. And what that means is that they were drinking brown lager and they were drinking blond lager. Between those two, those were generally the most popular beverages in the District. Of course in D.C. as well as as nationally, pale lager was more popular than dark lager. That is true today as generally speaking, darker beers –porters, stouts, Schwarzbiers– tend to be the worst sellers in a brewery’s portfolio. But basically a hundred years ago, people were drinking pale lager, which is the same today. Certainly people are trending towards more flavorful pale lagers, as they were in 1916. Of course then, in 1916, there was the great friendly beer war about who brewed the best pale lager. And there were a few folks to choose from in 1916.

Martinez:  Who would they have been?

Stein: In 1916, certainly, the Christian Heurich company would have been the biggest. You also would have had Abner Brewery, as well as some other breweries. I actually want to give you a list, if I can. Ah, okay, four breweries. In 1917, four breweries within the city were shut down. It should be noted that in the previous year, District residents had consumed 7.2 million gallons of beer or more than 232,000 barrels –far eclipsing whiskey and wine. So this comes from Garrett Peck’s “Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing In Washington, D.C.,” which I tend to treat as the authoritative source. 232,000 barrels of beer is a lot of beer. That is way less than the District of Columbia produced last year.

Reviving Heurich: A Historic Brew Retakes D.C. – The Kojo Nnamdi Show

But of course in 1916, many more people were drinking local beer than they were drinking national beer. And we certainly have a ton of national beer in the District, wall as the beer provided by those 11 breweries, brew pubs and production breweries. In that year also, in 1916, we had more beer gardens than we do right now. The interesting thing about that is the beer garden is a place you could go with your family. It recreated the German sense of gemütlichkeit, which is essentially a feeling a warmheartedness.

Martinez:  Can you say that again? Gemütlichkeit?

Stein:  Sure.

Gemütlichkeit! It’s the feeling of conviviality and warmheartedness that comes with drinking a beer outside

–Maybe with your daughter or your son, or your grandma and your grandpa. It’s geniality. It’s friendliness. It’s this notion of communal dining at picnic tables. If you were at the Alhambra, which is one of D.C.’s famous beer gardens, you would have felt gemütlichkeit in spades. You would have been happy to hear live music.  You would have been thrilled to be there with your spouse, your children, your children’s grandparents. It’s really a sense of community, basically. And those beer gardens fostered that community. Yes, certainly, drunkenness would occur in beer gardens. But because the sense of geniality was extended, it was not like drinking beer to get drunk. It was like drinking beer because you were in the happiest place the city could afford you and your family.

Martinez:  That sounds like a pretty great way to drink beer.

Stein – It does! It’s the best way to drink beer. And I’m thrilled to see that we have beer gardens on the rise. We have more beer gardens now in D.C. than we did a decade ago. But we’re still lacking in terms of the number of beer gardens, and the places they are throughout the city. There’s a good few in Northeast, and more now coming to Northwest. But we really only have one in Southeast here, which was recently opened. But it’s thrilling to see they have communal tables and they’re trying to bring gemütlichkeit to the residents of Southeast.

Martinez:  It seems like so much of your scholarship is about studying previous golden ages of beer here in D.C. To bring things back to this conversation about seasonal creep, or pumpkin beer explosion, what do you think a beer historian 50 years from now, 75 years from now is going to see when she or he looks at this era of our history and says, “Wow these grocery stores were forcing pumpkin beer down peoples’ throats in August a couple weeks before Labor Day when it was 107 degrees outside!” What do you think it’s going to say about that era of beer here in D.C.?


I think 50 or 75 years from now when beer historians look back, they will be a bit perplexed with America’s fascination with pumpkin ale.

I hope that 75 years from now they will look at pumpkin ale as a beer that has fallen by the wayside, with good reason. I’m biased in that regard. I will say that. But the reason I say that is because while there is some historical precedence for pumpkin beer in the 18th century American colonies, there’s almost no persimmon beer today. My sources have shown me that persimmon beer was more popular than pumpkin beer. There were other historic beers from these colonial times that were popular beer than pumpkin beer. I would say that in the last decade, the reason why pumpkin ale – which maybe a brewer or a brewery sales rep or a marketing person will say “well there’s an historical precedence for this beer” – is that people love pumpkin things. The fall comes and people have to have their pumpkin lattes, their pumpkin pie, their pumpkin spice ice cream. Beer’s really mimicking that consumer trend that we’re seeing in food, in food stuffs and the consumption of beverages is mimicking the consumption of food products. Whenever I hear somebody say pumpkin ale was around in colonial America, I say that’s true. But it never got the popularity of something like permission beer. When was the last time you had a persimmon beer? And the vast majority of people have never heard of persimmon beer. Aside from making it at home, I’ve had one craft brewed version of permission beer from down in Virginia. I have to give that Virginia brewery credit, because they really did their research. They worked with an academic who was giving them information about what it tasted like, at the time. They were kind of trying to recreate beer in that original context. Have you had spruce beer?

Martinez:  No. I’ve never tried spruce beer either.

Stein:  So spruce beer, you’ll find more commercial craft brewed examples of spruce beer But it’s still nowhere near as popular as pumpkin beer. Even though pumpkin beer wasn’t that popular in colonial times, it’s really popular now, and that’s certainly very different. Sometimes history repeats itself. Sometimes it goes in the opposite direction. I’m trying to suss out which way we’re going here. If you compare it to the 18th century, persimmon beer, spruce beer was much more popular than pumpkin beer.

American History Through A Beer Glass – The Kojo Nnamdi Show

Martinez:  If someone were to create what, in your heart of hearts, would be the perfect fall beer for this area – what would that beer look like? What would that beer taste like?

Stein:  I think the ideal beer for this time of year would be something as good as the saisons brewed in very small farmhouses in Belgium. There’s this concept, usually found in wine drinking, where this wine is so good, it’s not exported to the United States, you must go to this remote location to try this beverage. I would say the same is true for really well-made Belgian saisons, pale farmhouse ales or pale German and Czech lagers. We in the American brewing industry pride ourselves that there’s no beer in the country of Belgium that could be as good as American saison. Or our American farmhouse ale is just as good as the smallest brewery in Belgium. I think in terms of quality of product that may be true, but there’s a break down sometimes when you get that pale farmhouse ale on the grocery store shelf. And the same can be said for those pale lagers. They tend not to travel that well from Germany or the Czech republic. So there’s a beautiful, majestic nature of the German feeling of gemütlichkeit or the feeling of warmth when I lay lip to a beautiful pilsner or somewhere else in the Czech republic.

So I think the ideal American beer is really whatever is fresh, easy drinking, not taxing on the palette and you just feel that feeling of “Ahhhhh” when you’re done drinking it.

I know that’s a little vague but the modern beer drinker knows what they like. They can be swayed pretty easily by the pictures on the packaging or the marketing that goes into the product. But if you take 30 seconds and prep yourself before the bombardment of offerings on the grocery store shelf, you can kinda think well, “I’m really in the mood for a pale lager. I’d like a pils, but I’d go with a dortmunder or a helles lager, if pils isn’t available.” Or, “I’d really like a pale ale. But if pale ale’s not available, I’m happy to get a snappy IPA. So something that’s not a double IPA and is not sweet. But something that’s dry. And that dry finish is gonna keep me coming back for more, and keep that glass fresh even to the last sip, when inevitably if you’re drinking outside, the last sip of your glass or can or bottle is going be warmer than the first sip you took.

Martinez:  When it comes to seasonal things and things that are available to you in the fall that you don’t see year round in stores or on taps, are there things that, guilty pleasure or not, you get particularly excited about seeing?

Stein:  Absolutely. I was just talking to my editors at DC Beer about this, about whether we should feel guilty for enjoying pumpkin beers. Our agreement was that beer is fun. It’s not something that should ever inspire guilt in someone. But I think if the pumpkin beer is a dark cloud over craft beer, the expanded market segment of things like pumpkin porters, pumpkin sours, pumpkin saisons are most interesting than middle-of-the-road pumpkin ale. That’s because porter has a glorious history in the United States. There was a time in the late 70s, early 80s, when the porter style of beer was possibly becoming extinct. That’s what historians are now calling the first wave of craft brewing, in the early 80s. Porter came back with the rise. There were a few Pennsylvania breweries that continued porter brewing. This was a beer that was George Washington’s favorite drink! The fact that we’re seeing the proliferation of pumpkin beers in styles like pumpkin porter, pumpkin sour, pumpkin saison, that’s a good thing. When you start to do research on sour beer, you get back to the murky origins of it. Was it the Huguenots who were fleeing religious persecution that developed the sour ale? Was it the Flemish speaking people who are now a minority in Belgium that have Flanders red ale? I’d like to see a Flanders red pumpkin beer. That sounds really fascinating to me. The other thing that my editors mention is that with a pumpkin shortage, there’s this notion that the sky is falling. Some media outlets will report that. But even if every last ounce of raw pumpkin or pumpkin puree was somehow magically dried up, you could impart that pumpkin flavor with pumpkin spices, with nutmeg or clove or allspice. Then it just becomes instead of pumpkin ale, a beer or malt beverage with natural flavors. Getting back to the point, it is cool to see breweries doing new things with beer. When I hear somebody’s doing a pumpkin sour, or a pumpkin beer with Brettanomyces, that makes me interested because I think maybe this brewery is not trying to cash in and just make a quick buck. Maybe they’re still dedicated to the brewer’s art and they want to bring more of a complexity of tastes than cinnamon, nutmeg and clove in a beer to piggy back off that pumpkin spice latte market.

Martinez:  And I bet for you that’s gotta be one of the most exciting things about the last couple of years here in D.C.’s rise as a brewing place is that there’s not just people here that are doing it, there are people who are really trying to do creative things.

Stein:  Absolutely. Whenever somebody tells me D.C. is not a beer town, I take a little offense, but I take great pride in using that as a teaching point. Somebody might say, well D.C. you guys only have 11 breweries, our state has way more breweries per capita – or we produce way more. I may say you produce more, but a lot of times it’s not about quantity it’s about quality. The creative bent that the brewers in the city are taking right now is really fascinating. It’s what’s allowed me to work with so many of the breweries in the city in a very open, altruistic matter to represent these beers in historical context, not just rush out a pumpkin beer to market because we really need to cash in on that fall, seasonal creep trend.