Move over Pumpkin Spice Latte. America loves Pumpkin Beer.
By October, summer is a distant memory. Children have traded beach towels for backpacks, teachers are establishing a rhythm with their newest batch of impressionable minds, and we’re all pulling scarves and sweaters out of storage. After 90-ish days of increased idleness, summer reading and sunburn, I greet autumn as a welcome change. More to the point, October holds a special place in my heart, as both my birthday month and the start of the holiday season—counting Halloween as a holiday. I look forward to the tenth month of the calendar every single year.
There’s something comforting about the crisp air, the smell of bonfires and, of course, the beers of autumn. For craft brew drinkers, each season holds its special pleasures. Yet fall is the pinnacle for beer fans and for good reason—there’s Oktoberfest and then there’s pumpkin beer. Along with imperial pumpkin ales, pumpkin sours, pumpkin stouts and porters, barrel-aged pumplin brews, and even pumpkin shandies and ciders.
What better time to think more about this seasonal brew?
The origin of pumpkin beer starts much further back than its recent revival, which began anew in the 1980s and continues to grow with every harvest. But the pumpkin beers of today are a far cry from their predecessors of bygone centuries.
As the first Colonial settlers struggled to make use of the resources available in the New World, compromises and creativity were inevitable and beer-making was no exception. Although grapes and grain were readily available in the Old World, settlers in America were driven to seek out new fermentable sugars on which to experiment.
Because of their abundance in the Colonies, pumpkins were on the top of that list. Tonics made from these gourds were common in early Colonial America, consumed for their health benefits. Many of the first brews used pumpkin as a substitute for traditional brewing grains. Other fermentables included acorns, apples and corn—those who aren’t fans of pumpkin beer should think a moment about acorn beer!
No lesser home brewer than George Washington is cited as having a recipe containing molasses and a mixture of accessible spices—licorice, anise, cinnamon.
As improved farming methods in the New World increased the availability of various brewing grains, the need for sources of alternative sugars diminished and brewers returned to more conventional English and German brewing ingredients and methods. And so pumpkin beers were on the wane.
Return of Pumpkin Beer
Fast-forward almost 200 years and the pumpkin—formerly the main component of the beer—has been all but replaced by malt and the spices associated with Thanksgiving dessert—nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and ground ginger to name a few. In fact, many of the “pumpkin” ales on the market may not contain an ounce of their namesake, but this omission doesn’t make them any less delicious or desirable. For the “pumpkin pie in a glass” varieties, some bartenders coat the rims of glasses with cinnamon and sugar when serving a slice—I mean a pint.
Starting around 1985, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Haywood, California is credited with being the first to re-popularize the style, using George Washington’s recipe as inspiration. Only 5.2% ABV (alcohol by volume), the golden amber of their America’s Original Pumpkin Ale has low spiciness and mild pumpkin flavor, yet still tastes like beer. And its year-round availability makes it perfect for Halloween any time.
Plenty of Pumpkin Beers
The variety of pumpkin beers now available range in size, shape, look and taste as much as the family Thanksgiving dinner spreads we all look forward to each year. Some beer blogs count as many as 400 varieties—and still growing.
Since pumpkin is not a strong flavor, the taste can be as subtle or strong as a brewer desires. And so approaches vary from brewers adding hand-cut and even roasted pumpkins into the mash, while others prefer using puree or just pumpkin flavoring. The resulting pumpkin ales tend to be mild, with little bitterness, a malty backbone, and most with discernable spice. Local brew, Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, for example, adds actual pumpkin to its mix, as does Boxcar Brewing.
As the most popular seasonal beer by far—it can be 10 to 15 percent of a brewery’s output—pumpkin beer’s popularity continues to grow. “Seasonal” pumpkin beer can often be found as early as July, though the most popular brands may be sold out by the time the frost is literally on the pumpkin.
Although most who enjoy the style have an opinion on the “Best Pumpkin Beer,” they hardly agree on which one. Some prefer a lighter, easier drinking ale moderately hopped with a hint of spice, while others prefer a sweeter and boozier beverage with higher alcohol levels and a heavier body. I think each style plays a role, and personal opinion is probably the best judge of which pumpkin beer is “best”—a good reason to sample widely.
Pumpkin Beer’s Future
Perhaps the reemergence of pumpkin beers was an acknowledgement of those who came before us—a look at the history of American brewing. Maybe the development of pumpkin beer is one that mirrors American customs, a fluid notion that constantly evolves. Or perhaps the real hero of this story is the pumpkin itself—the simple squash that became an American icon.
Enjoying a pumpkin ale can evoke the same sort of response as we each search for that perfect blend of sweetness and spice that reminds us of fall, family tradition and perfect Thanksgiving memories. Cheers!
Founder and owner of Boxcar Brewing Company, Jamie Robinson has grown the company from the original brewery to include a brewpub at 142 E. Market St., both in West Chester. The two-story entertainment venue and brewpub allows Boxcar to pair their local brew products with signature pub food. Boxcar’s flagship brew, The Passenger, took Gold and Bronze medals (2010 & 2012) for Best English Mild Ale in the U.S. Open Beer Championship. Other favorites: Mango Ginger Pale Ale, 1492 APA, and of course, Mr. Pumpcan. BoxCarBrewingCompany.com.