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The great pumpkin invasion has begun — already.

Yes, it's not even Labor Day and pumpkin beers have overrun my favorite beer boutiques. Oktoberfest fans will have to hunt through a patch of pumpkin beers to find those seasonal favorites.

OK, I may be exaggerating … a bit.

Honestly, I love pumpkin beers and I'm not alone. Last year, pumpkin beer sales boomed, helping turn a slowdown in overall craft beer case sales of 125,000 into a 300,000-case improvement, according to sales data from the Brewers Association.

During the season, pumpkin beer outsold even India pale ale. For the year, craft beer sales rose about 20% to $14.3 billion, up from $11.9 billion, the association says.

So, competition for pumpkin beer sales has led to brewers getting their offerings into stores earlier. Thus, dozens of pumpkin beers are hitting retailers. (Talk about getting a head start — I even came across a couple holiday season beers.)

Traditionally, pumpkin ales have been dark orange-ish amber ales or brown ales, but brewers are expanding the pumpkin possibilities.

With nighttime temperatures still in the 70s, I'm not quite yearning for pumpkin beers exclusively. But you can always harvest and stockpile them until the climate cools.

For the record, the first pumpkin beer I ever had, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery'sPunkin Ale, which the brewery began selling in 1995, remains a highly recommended favorite.

Here's a few new ones I've picked up early this season:

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale (six-packs and draft) is subtly spice-driven with notes of cinnamon and nutmeg and it clocks in at 8% alcohol by volume, a bit stronger than Punkin Ale. And the Polish Marynka hops used by The Saint Louis Brewery deliver something new to the style.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (six-packs). Clove lovers will want a whiff of this 8% ale from the Easton, Pa., brewery. Also in the mix: cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.

Fermentation Without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter(22 oz. bottles and draft). This limited release and recurring collaboration between Utah's Epic Brewing Co. and Washington's DC Brau Brewing Co., which also comes in at 8% alcohol, has a roasted malt aroma to match a cocoa-tinged taste.

Southern Tier Warlock (22 oz. bottles and draft) is a nutty-tasting Imperial stout made with pumpkin. Despite its 8.6% alcohol, this stout from the Lakewood, N.Y., brewery is smooth and drinkable; its multiple types of malts and hops combined with the pumpkin and spices results in an amaretto character.

Next Round takes a regular look at new and recently released craft beers. If there's one on your radar, or if you have suggestions or questions, contact Mike Snider viae-mail. And follow Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider

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