"In the alcoholic beverage space, flavors are a huge trend right now," said Andrea Riberi, senior vice president of measurement and information at Nielsen. "But pumpkin has really taken off."
America's favorite pumpkin beer is still America's first pumpkin beer: Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale, which launched in 1995 and still accounts for roughly 65 percent of all pumpkin beer retail sales.
Much of the industry's initial growth was tied to the large-scale launch of Blue Moon's offering. "Due mostly to Blue Moon’s introduction into the pumpkin flavored segment, pumpkin flavored beer sales grew 389% from 1995 to 1996," Riberi said. But part of the reason pumpkin-flavored beers are making their way into more and more shopping carts (and refrigerators and ice buckets) around the country today is that there are simply more and more of them being offered each year.
The number of branded pumpkin beers has grown from just two in 2000 to an 65 last year, per estimates by Nielsen.
A shift away from Blue Moon's branded offering, and toward smaller-scale, craft-like pumpkin brews slowed sales last year, but also helped diversify the market. This year Americans are likely to experience a similar trend. "When you go into the store this fall, you're going to see a lot more pumpkin beers than you did even last year," Riberi said.
In some ways, the popularity of pumpkin-flavored beers is part of an industry push to attract more women to the beer segment. "These flavors have helped the industry bring more woman into the category," Riberi said. Bud Light's new malt beverage brands, including its Mang-O-Ritas, have helped the brand accomplish a similar feat. As have apple ciders and other sweeter flavor combinations.
But the rise of pumpkin-flavored beers is more likely tied to a more general and overarching trend across the entire American food industry, which is capitalizing on the country's appetite for pumpkin, well, anything. Starbucks is well aware — the coffee and confection chain rolled out their Pumpkin Spice Latte early this year in order to do just that. As are Nabisco, which just launched Pumpkin Spice Oreos, Mars, which launched Pumpkin M&Ms last year, along with a horde of other food and beverage-makers around the nation. The trend was so out of hand in 2012 that New York Magazine proclaimed pumpkin the new bacon, because "suddenly, pumpkin is everywhere."
Whether Americans like pumpkin the vegetable, or merely pumpkin the flavoring, is actually a bit unclear. Despite the meteoric rise in pumpkin-flavored cookies, candies, coffees and beers, per capita pumpkin consumption has barely budged over the past 20 years, according to data from the USDA. In fact, it's considerably lower than it was in the late 1990s. In 2012, Americans ate just over five pounds of pumpkin per person, or more than a full pound less than they did in 1998, when they ate nearly 6½ pounds per person.