Soon autumn will be in the air, the oppressive heat of the summer will off to cooler, more comfortable temperatures and morning fog. Up north the leaves will begin turning their festive colors and falling to the ground where they will be raked into piles that children are delighted to jump into. Football season beginning and colleges all over the country are welcoming new students to their campuses. All the signs that the harvest season is beginning and that seasonal brews will soon appear.
This time of year signals the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. No, not the elusive character Linus of Peanuts fame sat in a pumpkin patch waiting on. This Great Pumpkin, or more correctly, pumpkins, are the pumpkin beers that begin appearing on the local beer store shelves in mid August.
According to the rules of the Great American Beer Festival for entries:
“Pumpkin beers are any beers using pumpkins (Cucurbito pepo) as an adjunct in either mash, kettle, primary or secondary fermentation, providing obvious (ranging from subtle to intense), yet harmonious, qualities. Pumpkin qualities should not be overpowered by hop character. Entries in this subcategory may or may not be spiced or flavored with other ingredients. To allow for accurate judging, the brewer may list a classic style of base beer, and/or any other ingredients or processes used.”
But, the history and origins of the beer are where the real story lies. There are many quarrelling factions on whether modern pumpkin brews have a true style history. Some maintain that the flavored fall brew is a completely modern fabrication and that the current brews we call pumpkin beers have no historical basis at all. Others point to recipes uncovered by historians that indicate pumpkins have been used as a fermentable in beer for hundreds of years. The detractors counter that many things were used in historic brews as fermentables before malt was readily available in the American colonies and that a pumpkin beer isn’t a pumpkin beer without pumpkin pie spices like cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. The argument continues on yearly, back and forth until someone has had too many pumpkin ales and passes out.
So, what is the truth of the matter? Let’s find out! Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for Philadelphia in the year 1717.
In the early days of America, malted barley was extremely hard to come by and had to be imported from England. This made the malt very expensive and out of the reach of the lower classes. So, in the spirit of true American ingenuity, colonists began searching for other items that could be used as sources of sugar in their brews. Pumpkins were indigenous to America, so colonists began using it in their beer. Back then beer was a necessary beverage to ensure hydration. Water was unsafe and caused terrible intestinal illness due to microbes.
In a recipe from the American Philosophical Society the use of pumpkins is plainly evident:
“Let the Pompion be neaten in a Trough with Apples. The expressed juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After the Intention is answered let the Liquor be hopped cooled fermented as Malt Beer.”
Pompion is an archaic word for pumpkin and, as you can see from the recipe, a very common ingredient in beer along with apples, corn, parsnips, and a number of other oddities. But, as the detractors would say, there is no mention of spices in the recipe; therefore it cannot be a pumpkin beer as we currently know them.
Fast forward to 1863 and a reference in a book – “History of Hadley” by Sylvester Judd – regarding the brewing of beer with pumpkin in it.
“In Hadley, around 1800, beer was generally brewed once a week; malt, hops, dried pumpkin, dried apple pairings and some rye bran, birch twigs and other things were put into the brewing kettle and the liquor was strained through a sieve.”
Here we again see the usage of pumpkins and apples in the brew kettle. But, we also see other additives like hops and birch twigs for flavoring. We also see that malt is used in this recipe. Why then is the pumpkin added? It seems that there are sufficient fermentables for the yeast to eat without the need for pumpkin as one. The only conclusion can be is that pumpkin was added for flavor.
So, does that put to bed the feud over the historical beginnings of the brews we call pumpkin beers today? Not by a long shot. But, it does give you something to chew on while we look at what modern pumpkin beers are like.
A slew of these tasty beers have hit the markets since 1980’s when Buffalo Bill Brewery began producing a pumpkin beer that was closely related to the beers brewed by our forefathers like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The beer produced by Buffalo Bill’s is not heavy on pumpkin pie spices, but is redolent of pumpkin and a hint of cinnamon, sweet but not fruity, full-bodied and rich.
Since the 1980’s, many other breweries have jumped on the pumpkin beer wagon, some with great success and others with little. You will find beers on the shelf that have a mild taste of pumpkin infused into a familiar ale and others that are overly-sweet and cloying. Some beers will have hints of pumpkin pie spices while others will taste like grandma tipped over the spice container while baking a pie. Most brewers will include either hand-cut pumpkin or pumpkin puree in the mash to obtain the pumpkin flavors along with nutmeg, clove, ginger, allspice, and cinnamon. Generally these brews fall into the 5-6% ABV range.
No matter which side of the fence you sit on, whether you think the current iteration of pumpkin ales are historically accurate or not, one thing is certain, you will enjoy these rich, interesting brews. So, find yourself a six-pack, or a local pub that serves them on tap and enjoy a few of these wonderful seasonal beers before they disappear.