Three years ago, Luke Livingston made the bold choice to not put pumpkin in his fall beer.

Everybody else already was.

“More power to them,” said Livingston, founder and CEO of Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston. “There’s a lot of been there, done that at this point.”

National trends-tracker Nielsen calls it “the great pumpkin invasion.”

Americans spent $361 million on pumpkin-flavored-somethings in 2014: $32.6 million on coffee, $12.8 million on dog food, nearly $1 million on gum, according to Nielsen.

That overall spending is up nearly 80 percent since 2011.

Pumpkin beer sales are still being tallied, a spokeswoman said.

In a quick cruise through Twin City grocery stores, it’s easy to find pumpkin yogurt, pasta sauce, popcorn, marshmallows and Hershey’s Kisses (see sidebar for an unofficial taste test).

Readers of the popular website BuzzFeed found even more (“25 Pictures That Prove Pumpkin Spice Has Gone Too Far”), including:

Pumpkin-tinged water, sausage, salmon, lip balm, hummus, Pringles, Twinkies, Peeps and cigars.

One item erroneously on that list: Kitty litter. Despite pumpkin-colored artwork and the name leaving room for interpretation, Tidy Cat’s limited edition “Fall frolic” has a “warm, woodsy scent,” according to a spokesperson via Facebook, that isn’t at all pumpkin.

(Also of note: It’s the first time I’ve ever had to reach out to Tidy Cat in my career with a question.)

Driving this multi-million-dollar pumpkin train are happy memories and curious taste buds.

“People associate those smells with holidays and good times with family and friends, so it’s kind of one of those things you look forward to about the weather turning cooler,” said Mary Ellen Camire, past president of the Institute of Food Technologists and a food science and human nutrition professor at the University of Maine. “It makes them want to have more because they feel good when they smell it.”

Pumpkin is high in vitamin A and really good for us, Camire said. Unfortunately, there’s not much actual pumpkin in this pumpkin trend.

“(Frequently) they’re the spices that would go into a pumpkin pie,” she said.

Think cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, which can also be good for us . . . if eaten fresh and if consumed in more than a symbolically spiked bite.

“The problem is you have to eat so much of the spice, the food wouldn’t really be palatable,” she said. “The other problem is a lot of the benefits of spices are lost as it sits in the air.”

If you’re driven to experiment in your own kitchen, no question, this is THE season for it, said Austin Perreault, chairman of Central Maine Community College’s culinary program. Suggest eating pumpkin “anytime else and everybody looks at you like you’ve got five heads. It only has one place and that’s fall.”

He recommends making pumpkin puree from scratch at home — “you get so much more flavor” — using either a food processor or several passes through a food mill to tame the stringy beast into submission.

How much is Maine contributing nationally to the trend? Just a tiny bit.

Though the state ranked 10th in the number of farms harvesting pumpkins in the last U.S. Agricultural Census, it’s only responsible for 0.7 percent of the acres harvested nationally.

“I myself have been eating pumpkin-flavored things ever since I can remember,” said Tomi Chipman, farm manager at Chipman’s Farm, the original creators of Pumpkinland. “I feel like there’s been a big marketing push, especially this year.”

To create his non-pumpkin taste of fall, Livingston used orange, ginger, peppercorn and New Zealand hops for Baxter’s Hayride ale.

“A lot of pumpkin beers, especially the more popular ones, I think what makes them popular isn’t the pumpkin flavor, the gourd flavor, as much as it is the pie spices,” he said. “The funniest thing I think a lot of us in the industry remark about is, you see pumpkin beers coming out now, being released to the public at the end of July, which means if you think about it, there’s no way in hell there’s fresh pumpkin in that beer because it’s long before pumpkins are ripe.”

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Taste Test Day: We ate pumpkin candy corn so you don’t have to.

By Kathryn Skelton, Staff Writer

We have this table in the newsroom — really, it’s four short file cabinets in a row that, collectively, give off enough table vibe that we treat them as such — and if you put food there, it will get eaten.

There was no better spot in Maine to put this pumpkin spice trend to a taste test.

One fine Thursday morning, I poured cold Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte in little cups and, on plates, laid out Hershey’s Pumpkin Spice Kisses, Brach’s Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn, Cosmos Creations’ Pumpkin Spice Premium Puffed Corn and limited edition Pumpkin Spice Oreos.

Crowds circled. Pumpkin and its “flavored with other natural flavors” kin were consumed.

The verdict? Everything from “yummy” to “akin to actually eating one of the faux fall candles from the store in the mall.”

The Sun Journal: Eating candles so you don’t have to.

Our wholly unscientific take:

Pumpkin Spice Oreos

The belle of our pumpkin spice ball, these were polished off first. Each Oreo is two blonde cookies fit snugly around a pumpkin-colored cream center that has a lingering, spicy aftertaste.

The group consensus: At worst, inoffensive, at best, delicious. “Oh yeah, let’s do that again,” about summed it up.

Frankly, it’s an Oreo. It’s hard to go very far off the rails.

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

Chilled and relatively high-test, the beverage’s critiques ranged anywhere from bitter to “nauseating” to I’d grab this again. After six unrefrigerated hours, more than half of the 1.5-quart jug was mercy-poured down the sink.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with the packaging, which, under the words “Pumpkin Spice” reads “flavored with other natural flavors,” suggesting one of those flavors is not pumpkin. The only unrecognizable word on the ingredients label was “carrageenan,” which turned out to be red seaweed. Red seaweed just sounds like a trend waiting to happen.

Hershey’s Pumpkin Spice Kisses

The most generous review was “edible.” They’re not particularly pumpkiny, maybe more like white chocolate and mild cinnamon/clove with a “did I just taste something pumpkin-like?” aftertaste.

I retract my previous comment about a classic not being able to go off the rails.

Brach’s Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn

There may not be a more polarizing issue in the newsroom this year than the Great Candy Corn Divide of 2015, epitomized by these two reviews:

“Would eat bowls of this in one sitting. BOWLS. Mostly because it tastes very much like regular candy corn with just a subtle undertone of something. I wouldn’t call that something ‘pumpkin,’ but I’m OK with that.”

And:

“Holy cow! That is disgusting!” (After giving it a rating, on a scale of 1 to 5, of -40.)

And never the twain shall meet.

Cosmos Creations’ Pumpkin Spice Premium Puffed Corn

Oh, poor little puffed corn. Five days after Taste Test Day, it still lingered on a plate, on the nearly-a-table cabinets, with more than a handful of its original 6 ounces left. It had the appearance of crumpled rice cakes, rolled in molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves with more or less coating on each piece.

The consensus: It wasn’t bad (well, except for the person who said it tasted like dirt), but it wasn’t great.

A shout-out to Cosmos: All 10 ingredients were actual, real food things. Also, none of those real food things were pumpkin.

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