COLUMBIA — Two vats of beer are filled and await thirsty customers eager to enjoy what has become something of a Halloween tradition in Columbia.
Flat Branch Pub and Brewing Co. has again brewed its pumpkin ale, which goes on sale annually at 11 a.m. on Halloween. Flat Branch has been brewing pumpkin beer since it opened in 1994.
There was no line at 11 a.m. Wednesday, but traffic in and out of the brewery picked up throughout the day.
Customers began showing up Wednesday shortly after the doors opened, some carrying empty growlers like children on Halloween waiting to get their bag filled with candy, and left after the half-gallon glass bottles were filled with $16 of the amber colored beer.
"I got the growler specifically for the pumpkin beer," said David Hook, who has made buying pumpkin beer at Flat Branch a Halloween tradition for seven years.
"A lot of people have talked about it, so we thought we would try it out," Janie Bonham, a first-time buyer, said. "My husband couldn't make it, so I had to come."
Pumpkin beer has emerged as one of the most popular seasonal brews that have become a staple of craft breweries around the country.
Broadway Brewery is offering its Pumpkin Mash Ale this fall for the second year.
Flat Branch brewed 510 gallons of its "Great Pumpkin Ale," which got its name from the "Charlie Brown" Halloween special television show, manager Paul Huesgen said.
"It's like pumpkin pie in a glass," he said. "It has a nice thick quality to it."
The pumpkin ale takes more than two weeks to brew. The labor-intensive process involves five to six people cutting, quartering and steaming the pumpkins — grown locally at Hackman's Farm in Hartsburg — until the pumpkin mash is ready for the brewing process.
"I would be surprised if we had any left next week," Huesgen said. "It's the only beer we hear questions about year round. Our strawberry beer — a summer seasonal — gets people excited, but the pumpkin beer blows everything out of the water."
Last year, Flat Branch served 200 gallons of its pumpkin brew from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Halloween. "My fingers were tired from holding the growlers up to the tap all day," Huesgen said.
Seasonal brews among top sellers
Seasonal recipes are some of the top selling beers for brewers, said Julia Herz, the craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, a group that represents American craft brewers.
"When you talk about fall seasonals, you have Oktoberfest style beers, but pumpkin beers reign supreme," she said.
There are even festivals around the country dedicated to this style of beer.
One such festival is held by Elysian Brewing Company, a Seattle brewery known for its variations of pumpkin beer. Elysian's "Great Pumpkin Beer Festival," which marked its eighth year on Oct. 19 and 20, uses a giant pumpkin as a beer cask, which is then tapped and used to serve beer.
Another prominent pumpkin beer festival, known as the "Great Pumpkin Ale Festival," is held in Cambridge, Mass., at the Cambridge Brewing Co., which has nine pumpkin beer recipes.
"Pumpkin beer this year exploded," said Ryan Wilson, a three-year employee at the Cambridge Brewing Co. "People went a little crazy. We opened at one and had 400 people in line."
The number of pumpkin beers featured at the annual festival has doubled in recent years, he said. This year there were 50 different varieties on tap.
Pumpkin beer has become so prominent that the Great American Beer Festival — an annual festival held in Denver since 1982 — has even created a competition category specifically for pumpkin and other vegetable flavored brews.
This year the "field or pumpkin beer" category had more than 63 entries, Herz said, and the gold medal batch was the "Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale" brewed by Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin.
Broadway Brewery recipe
With a growing number of beer aficionados eager to quench their thirst with festive flavored beer, more breweries are spicing up their recipes.
"Customers were asking when they were going to see a pumpkin beer," Josh Rein, the assistant brewer at Broadway Brewery, said.
Last year, Broadway brewed its first batch of "Pumpkin Mash Ale," he said. "It took us a couple tries to get the system down."
The Pumpkin Mash Ale is actually made from butternut squash, an ingredient in some canned pumpkin. "The squash allows the flavor to carry through the beer a lot better," Rein said.
After the roasted squash is mashed, Rein adds nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cinnamon and new to the recipe this year, vanilla beans.
This year Broadway brewed 217 gallons of the pumpkin ale and has had it on tap since September.
"Part of being a pumpkin beer fan is being a craft beer fan," Rein said.
He said Columbia is a craft beer town.
"It's gone over really well this year," he said. "I credit a lot of that to Flat Branch and their great pumpkin beer. Columbia has a real handle on pumpkin beer because of Flat Branch."
Rein said Broadway's pumpkin ale gives people an alternative since Flat Branch's pumpkin beer is only available a few days out of the year.
"It takes a lot more love and a lot more time" to make a pumpkin beer, Rein said. "But sometimes the batches of beer that take the longest are the most enjoyable."