In Praise Of Pumpkin Ale

IMG_20151115_142827THE VIRTUES OF A FINE PUMPKIN BEER ARE EXPLAINED AND DEFENDED

As American Thanksgiving is nigh and the Canadian one passed, one may regard the season for pumpkin beer as roughly between those two times.

Pumpkin ale has become a perennial of the beer scene in the last 10 years or so, justifiably, as a well-made pumpkin beer is one of the best things you can have on the Great Malty Way. Some people view the gourd askance in beer, thinking it some kind of gimmick. This is far from the truth, as pumpkin beer has an old history. Numerous sources attest it was drunk in Colonial times, as this 1892 article from American Notes And Queries confirms. The Colonial Magazine And East India Review of the 1800’s discloses the “Texan Pumpkin Ale“, a bottled drink of which no production details survive.

In modern times, pumpkin beer was revived in California by “Buffalo” Bill Owens. Owens, a craft brewing pioneer (and before that, award-winning photo-journalist), is now busy with developments in craft distilling. He sold his brewpub about 20 years ago to an employee who had worked with him since 1987, and the famous beers pioneered by Owens carry on including his influential pumpkin ale. As Owens recounts the story, he decided to brew beer with pumpkin and took inspiration from a recipe of George Washington’s era. He mashed pumpkin in with the barley malt, and after the starches converted to fermentable sugar, found little “pumpkin” flavour. So he added a can of mixed pumpkin spices found at a grocery store, the kind you use to make pumpkin pie and thus comprising nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, mace – that kind of mixture. The result was an immediate success and set the tone for a modern style which shows no sign of disappearing although the “craze” for the beer has lessened somewhat in recent years. (A side-effect of Owens’ foresight is the tidal wave of pumpkin-flavoured coffees, teas, wines, ciders and what-not seen in the market recently).

A debate which much exercised the brewing world, but seems to have died down, is whether pumpkin flesh should be used in pumpkin beer or Owens’ can of pumpkin spices or both, as Buffalo Bill used. I say both. In a good pumpkin beer, you can taste the effect of the gourd, it has a characteristic taste (doughy/earthy) and doesn’t completely disappear in the brewing. But a light touch with the spices adds a further inimitable complexity and pleasing taste.

Flavoured beers in general today are popular and use a wide range of spices and fruits, also coffee and tea, or virtually anything under the sun. This too is historical in the sense that before use of the hop became standardized in brewing, brewers added a wide variety of flavourings to beer to help preserve it or improve the taste. The field is open again in this sense, but that doesn’t mean the use is always wise.  I don’t like the taste of coffee or chocolate in beer, for example.  Good beer made from malt and hops only is a complete code… Pumpkin beer is different though, the flavour of both the pumpkin itself and the typical pumpkin pie spice complements good malt and hops, especially darker malts. Pumpkin porter, a subset of the pumpkin beer family, is one of the finest beers in the world when at its best.

And therein lies the rub: pumpkin beer of any kind needs to be made right. Beer et seq considers the following the essentials of good pumpkin beer:

  1. Hops must always be used: pumpkin beer which avoids hops, in the style of the old gruit or herb beers, doesn’t work.
  2. The best hops for this purpose have a fairly neutral bitterness and clean earthy taste, Cascade and that type of acidy/citric hop doesn’t work, at least if too assertive.
  3. Pumpkin spices, whatever the blend chosen, should be used with discretion. Too many pumpkin beers overdo the spicy taste. The spice should support the malt, hops, and pumpkin taste, not overwhelm it.
  4. The flesh of the pumpkin is necessary too, to add that vital gourdy note, but again it shouldn’t be too prominent as this can lend a raw, acerbic note.

Commercial brands I like include the one pictured above which is Great South Bay’s from L.I., New York; Pumking Beer from Southern Tier Brewery in lower state New York, which has an appetizing pumpkin puree flavour; Wellington Brewery’s pumpkin beer in Ontario, which I’ve seen only on draft, seemingly ginger-edged; Ste. Ambroise’s rich Pumpkin Beer in Montreal; and Weyerbacher’s heady Imperial Pumpkin Ale, from Pennsylvania. One of the great beers of the last decade, Southern Tier’s Warlock, combines characteristics of its Pumking Ale and a velvety black Imperial Stout. It deserves all the stars a Michelin would award if that French arbiter of flavour turned its attention to la bière.

But countless beers appear in the North American market each fall, and if you happen on one not fully to your taste, consider the following. A pumpkin beer which is too intense on the spices or in sweetness often blends perfectly with a good porter or stout, 2:1 or even 3:1, porter to pumpkin beer, usually works well. Or blend the pumpkin beer with a pale ale or IPA, this may bring the two into perfect equilibrium. Blending is the answer for a beer inapt to palate, not discarding, and thus wasting, it.

Note: The beer pictured above is Great South Bay’s Pumpkin Ale, set on the bar of Albion Pub on 2nd Avenue, New York City. It has a fully spicy but soft and sweet palate, very drinkable indeed.

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