The forgotten father of the $1B/yr pumpkin beer industry


November 1, 2020

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Years before Starbucks turned pumpkin spice into a billion-dollar business, a rebellious photographer brought pumpkin beer to life.
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The forgotten father of pumpkin beer

Years before Starbucks turned pumpkin spice into a billion-dollar business, a rebellious photographer brought pumpkin beer to life.

BY Mark Dent

We’re living in an unprecedented age of pumpkins.

Over the past few decades, American consumers have been bombarded with pumpkin spice kombucha, pumpkin spice dental dog treats, and even pumpkin-scented office phones.

In 2018, Nielsen valued the annual pumpkin-flavored product market in the US at ~$500m. Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte brings in $100m per year alone.

Nor did it include pumpkin beer, which, combined with other fall beers like Oktoberfests, is worth ~$1B, according to an estimate from the Brewers Association. In the fall, about 1 of every 7 craft beer purchases is a pumpkin beer or a related fall seasonal drink.

In the beer world, pumpkin is a divisive ingredient. Earlier this month, Saturday Night Live featured a sketch of Bostonians trying the Sam Adams Jack-O Pumpkin Ale — a beverage that prompted the comedian Bill Burr to yell out, “The fuck is that?!

But 40 years ago pumpkin products were not a joke. They were not oversaturated. They were obscure, as hipster as cauliflower.

And their rise as a flavoring in food, drink, and everything else may never have happened without Bill Owens, a Guggenheim Fellow turned failure turned craft beer rebel.

His experiment from the 1980s launched pumpkin beer — and ushered in America’s pumpkin-flavored industry. 

Rocking the suburbs

Owens once thought of himself as the most “mediocre person in the world.”

Growing up in Citrus Heights, California, in the 1940s and 1950s, he was held back in the 2nd grade and kept a C-average throughout high school. He couldn’t play sports worth a damn and couldn’t sing. 

The only thing that set him apart was his curiosity.

Owens as a young man abroad in the 1970s (Bill Owens)

As a student at Chico State College (now California State University, Chico), Owens hitchhiked around the world on $990, traversing the Nile and Sudan and India, in a 3rd-class train compartment. He followed his tour with a 2-year Peace Corps stint in Jamaica. 

“You have those adventures, you come back and think you’re a big man on campus and you’re not,” Owens says. “You go out and you get a job.”

That job was photography — something he’d picked up as a hobby in Jamaica. After completing a course at San Francisco State, Owens found work with The Livermore Independent in the California suburbs.

To a great number of big city photojournalists and artists, the suburbs were a hinterland devoid of taste and nuance.

But Owens saw great success in Livermore residents’ lives. Couples in their 30s seemed to already have it made: 2-story homes, Kenmore appliances, shag carpets. They were achieving the exact version of the American dream they wanted. 

Owens photographed their achievements, goals, and fears in his 1972 book Suburbia. It was a sensation, earning him a Guggenheim Fellowship and a review in TIME that described his photos as “a dream within the American Dream.”

One of Owen’s most acclaimed photos — a shot of a young child in the burbs of Dublin, CA, on a Big Wheel with a plastic rifle (Bill Owens)

After a few years, as Owens was truly feeling like the big man on campus, the royalty checks dried up, the fellowships ended and art museums were no longer interested in displaying his photographs. Then, he got fired from his newspaper job. He and his wife split up. 

It was the ultimate irony: The man who had documented the wonders of suburban stability was now at risk of losing his.

Owens had to reinvent himself.

The pivot to beer

Throughout the 1970s, Owens made his own beer to save money.

His hobby was not popular: Federal law actually prohibited any type of home-brewing until 1978. 

Commercial brewers were just as rare. In 1980, just 92 breweries operated in the United States, down from ~4k in 1873. Only 8 of them were smaller craft breweries.

A chief reason for their scarcity, aside from the dominance of Miller and Budweiser and the legacy of Prohibition, was the business model.

As historian Pat Walls explained in a master’s thesis about Owens, craft breweries couldn’t produce and distribute at the economy of scale of major brewers, and they had to mark up their prices for a public that didn’t yet understand the benefit of tastier beer.

The Hustle

When Owens’ photography career cratered, he believed he could succeed as a craft brewer by adjusting the model. He wanted to produce and serve beer from the same site, nullifying the distribution costs. 

Decades before Warby Parker’s founders met at Wharton, Owens had the idea to go D2C.

In 1982, he formatted a business plan and testified in front of the California state legislature for a bill legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages brewed on-site, so long as food could be purchased.

The next fall, he opened Buffalo Bill’s, one of the country’s first brewpubs.

Buffalo Bill’s was located in an old camera store just south of Oakland in Hayward. It was rustic. Customers gathered around an ancient bar below American flags and a faux-taxidermied buffalo head. 

The beers, which cost about 7 cents to make, sold for $1.50 a glass. He estimated that brewers selling retail made just 40 cents per beer. But the upfront equipment costs and high monthly rent wiped away a great deal of the revenue, and Owens turned steady, if not sizable, profits. 

The buzz was bigger than the business. Brewpubs gave beer drinkers the opportunity to experiment outside of Budweiser without having to buy a 6-pack, helping build momentum for the craft movement. Buffalo Bill’s landed in the pages of The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Times

Owens also published How to Build a Small Brewery: Draft Beer in 10 Days in 1982. It gave curious brewers the direction he didn’t have while planning his own business. 

Owens at Buffalo Bill’s in the early years (Bill Owens)

Tony Magee, who founded Lagunitas Brewing Company, remembers studying the “little yellow book” for a year. He refers to it as one of the 2 most important books for precipitating America’s craft boom, along with Byron Burch’s Brewing Quality Beers.

“Bill’s book was just like if you met the Sex Pistols when they were still learning to play the instruments and be a garage band,” Magee says. “It was punk brewing.” 

He meant punk in a good way. And Magee thought the same of Owens’ brewpub, which he visited the year before launching Lagunitas in 1993. 

The main food option was a grilled cheese sandwich cooked on a countertop grill in a kitchen the size of a closet. Sometimes they’d serve pizzas bought from Price Club, now known as Costco. Everyone just wanted the beer.    

“And I think people went in there,” Magee says, “and had the times of their lives.” 

Experimenting away from light beer

The incipient breweries of the 1980s typically made lager, a la Bud and Miller, or stouts, a la English imports. Their new craft beers were tastier and fresher but generally not innovative. Owens had other ideas.

He made a strawberry blond ale and a Christmas stout. When Owens’ accountant endured a divorce, he created Alimony Ale. At 54 IBUs, about 4 times the IBU content of a lager, it was one of the hoppiest, bitterest beers you could find in the US 

“A whole renaissance took off on hops and flavoring,” Owens says. “It just became dramatic from that one idea to not follow the recipe. Maybe that’s what I’m about. I don’t follow the recipe.”

Owens was also a devout reader of history and a small-time gardener. About a year after opening Buffalo Bill’s, he remembered a story about George Washington, who, along with his wife and his slaves, brewed beer at Mount Vernon. 

Curious after reading that Washington added squash and pumpkins to his fall ale, Owens set out to make a pumpkin beer. He planted a mini pumpkin patch in his yard and baked a few at his brewery, adding them to the mash of grains and water. 

Owens in his yard with one of his first pumpkins (Bill Owens)

The result was underwhelming. It tasted like a vegetable. So Owens ran across the street to a grocery store and bought a can of pumpkin pie spices. He dumped the contents into a percolator, turning it into a juice. When he added it to the brew, the beer tasted spicy and sweet. 

He called it Punkin Ale and imagined it would be a one-off like many of his other innovative flavors. 

But the early batches proved popular at the brewpub. In 1986, Buffalo Bill’s renamed the drink Pumpkin Ale, and sold it at grocery and liquor stores. It was the first beer he distributed.     

Although McCormick had developed pumpkin spice in the 1950s, the pumpkin-flavored market, aside from pie, was nonexistent. Newspapers would suggest recipes for pumpkin soup and pumpkin pasta, but virtually nobody besides Owens sold a pumpkin-infused product to consumers.  

He says he tried to patent his recipe but wasn’t successful. A new industry — perhaps better described as an industrial complex — was set to dawn. 

The great, divisive pumpkin

In 1997, Blue Moon, owned by MillerCoors, sold its Pumpkin Ale nationally for the first time. Craft brewers like Lakefront, Dogfish Head, and Adler Brau had created their own versions. Elysian started a festival devoted to pumpkin beer in 2004. 

Brands outside the beer world bet on pumpkin, too. Trader Joe’s released a limited line of pumpkin products in the mid-’90s and expanded it to 86 products in 2016. 

Starbucks introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003. By 2014, 200m+ PSLs had been sold. The drink got its own Twitter account (but not much natural pumpkin flavoring).   

Buffalo Bill’s brewer, Mike Manty, throwing a batch of Pumpkin Ale into a fermenter in 2014

As baristas pumped PSLs to the masses and Instagrams filled with flannel and foliage, marketing firms worked to turn the occasion of fall into an unofficial holiday before the holidays. 

Backlash was swift. The phrase “basic bitch” entered the lexicon, and pumpkin-flavored products were grouped with Uggs and SoulCycle memberships as defining examples for basic. 

Analytics firm 1010data estimated that available pumpkin-related products jumped 50% between 2015 and 2016, but sales went up just 21%.  

The beer market felt this rise and fall, too. The number of widely available pumpkin beers increased from a handful in the early 2000s to ~25 in 2010 to 65 in 2013, according to Nielsen. It wasn’t uncommon for a single bar to have upwards of 20 varieties of pumpkin beer on tap in October. 

According to IRI Group data shared with The Hustle by the Brewers Association, nearly 1 of every 4 beers sold during the fall of 2015, by volume, was a seasonal, i.e., either pumpkin, Oktoberfest, or similar.

The next year, the share declined to 19.5% and continued to slide to 15.4% in 2019. Too many brewers and distributors tried to push pumpkin at the exact time consumers backed away, put off by seasonal creep and tempted by the growing number of other specialty beers. 

“Everyone who had pumpkin beer thought it was going to grow in share,” says Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. “Trends continue until they don’t.” 

Watson estimates fall beers, including pumpkin, accounted for $1.2B in sales at their peak in 2015. Despite the decline in market share, he says 2019 sales of pumpkin and other fall beers likely totaled ~$1.1B last year because of craft beer’s overall growth. 

The Hustle

So, where did pumpkin’s ebb and flow leave Bill Owens, godfather of the pumpkin drink?

Buffalo Bill’s remains one of the most popular pumpkin beer brands in the US, selling the equivalent of 2,500 cases in 2018. But Owens didn’t get to enjoy its ascension from cult following to national leader.  

Another reinvention

Owens knew he had created a winner with Pumpkin Ale. 

In 1989, he sought investors to build a production facility that would rapidly increase his ability to sell the beer, but he couldn’t find enough interest. He had to sell his brewpub in 1994 after being sued for part ownership of his other ventures, the magazines American Brewer and Beer

Owens still had labeling rights to Pumpkin Ale and could produce the beer through contract brewers. But in an arbitration hearing regarding a 1997 lawsuit from the new owner of Buffalo Bill’s, who claimed Owens had mislabeled the beers, Owens lost his rights to the production. 

As pumpkin products hit the mainstream, he no longer controlled his own brand. 

Portrait by Guillaume Ehrenfeldt (switchimage.org)

Just like after his photography career peaked, he was forced to pivot. On a trip across the United States, Owens grew enamored with local distilleries. He founded the American Distilling Institute in 2003. There were ~25 craft distilleries in the country back then. Now there are ~2,000

Whether it was the suburbs, brewpubs, pumpkin beer or distilling, Owens, 82, saw potential where others did not. 

But he doesn’t look back at his career and think he was forecasting trends: “I don’t like those books on advice and how to do things. I don’t like the Ted Talks where someone has a widget that makes $2m.” 

Owens was doing what he wanted to do. 

“I just loved pumpkin pie,” he says.

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