“Be careful walking out of here with that.”
Mike Bristol is only half joking. The idea of someone mugging me on Tejon Street for this bottle of Bristol Brewing’s Venetucci Pumpkin Ale is absurd. But still I cast a glance over my shoulder on the way to the car.
After all, it’s a week before the official release, and this has become the hottest cold beverage in the local beer universe.
Some people waited hours to pre-order bottles, and others waited hours to buy some at the release party last week. The first person stood in line for seven hours.
The brewery sold out of its Venetucci Pumpkin Ale in mere hours, but more than half of the bottles go to liquor stores. However, many of those stores have waiting lists, and some reportedly sold the 22-ounce bottles ($6 at the brewery) for up to $25 last fall.
As if the ale needed more hype, Time magazine named it one of “eight great pumpkin beers for Halloween” from around the country.
For Bristol, it’s “surreal,” the biggest fuss over a beer in 18 years of brewing here.
“Part of it is it’s a great beer, but we do a lot of great beers that don’t do that,” he said of the frenzy over the pumpkin ale that launched in 2007 to raise money — more than $94,000 to date — for the Venetucci Farm.
At first, people loved it because they loved the farm. They picked pumpkins there as kids, and maybe their kids do today. But word soon got out — it’s a pretty darn good beer.
“There are a lot of pumpkin beers on the market,” brewery general manager Tom Zurenko said. “I think one of the keys that makes ours so popular is we use fresh-roasted pumpkins. We go out and hand-pick and roast them.”
That’s 1,200 pounds of pumpkins to brew 50 barrels, whereas most pumpkin beers are made from purées. They easily could sell twice that amount, but Bristol said they lack the capacity and the pumpkins.
Bristol has limited the number of bottles people can buy, from six last year to four at the pre-sale and only two on the release date.
So are mark-ups by retailers price-gouging or capitalism at work? Brewers are divided.
“The whole reason and thought behind our bringing this beer out was to raise funding and awareness for Venetucci Farm,” Zurenko said. “I do think it is a little sad that some people are taking advantage of this.”
Bristol has no qualms with the higher prices and said some stores have sent proceeds to Venetucci Farms.
I gathered a few beer lovers for a blind taste test, putting the pumpkin ale up against two mass-produced beers, Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead and America’s Original Pumpkin Ale, by Buffalo Bills Brewery, and two small-batch beers, Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale and Rockyard’s Plymouth Rock Pumpkin Ale.
It wasn’t even a contest, as the sweet, well-balanced Venetucci Ale, with a finish that makes you feel like you just drank pumpkin pie, won over the tasters.
Even when Bristol expands to a new facility across the street, expect Venetucci Pumpkin Ale to remain a rare commodity.
“We may consider doing a little bit more, but I don’t think it will ever be to the point that everyone who wants it can get it,” Bristol said.