In Praise of Pumpkin Ale



With American Thanksgiving nigh and the Canadian just passed we may regard the season for pumpkin beer as roughly between the two.

Pumpkin ale is a perennial of the beer scene in the last 10 years or so, justifiably as well-made pumpkin beer ranks high in the Malt Firmament. Some people view it askance, thinking it a gimmick. This is far from accurate, as pumpkin beer has an old history, and when well-made again has a fine taste.

Numerous sources attest that it was known in Colonial times, eg. this 1892 article in American Notes and Queries. The Colonial Magazine and East India Review of the 1800s discloses a bottled “Texan Pumpkin Ale“, 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, an award-winning photo-journalist) is now devoted to craft distilling trade matters. He sold his brewpub about 20 years ago, to an employee who had worked with him since 1987. The famous beers pioneered by Owens carry on including his influential pumpkin ale.

As Owens recounts the story he decided to brew a beer with pumpkin, taking inspiration from a recipe of George Washington’s time. He mashed pumpkin flesh with barley malt, but after the starches converted to sugar found little “pumpkin” flavour. So he added a can of pumpkin spices found at a grocery store, the kind you use to make pumpkin pie, hence comprising nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, mace – that kind of mixture. The result was an immediate success and set the tone for the modern style of pumpkin beer which shows no sign of abating although the “craze” has lessened somewhat. A side-effect of Owens’ foresight is the tidal wave of pumpkin-flavoured coffees, teas, wines, muffins, and what-not in the market recently.

A debate which has much exercised the brewing world but seems to have died down is whether actual pumpkin should be used in pumpkin beer or just Owens’ can of pumpkin spices, or both. I say both. In a good pumpkin beer you can taste the gourd, a characteristic earthy taste that doesn’t completely disappear in brewing. But adding the spices – a light touch – adds a pleasing complexity and taste.

Flavoured beers in general are popular today. They use a wide range of spices and fruits, also coffee or tea, in fact virtually anything under the sun. This too is historical in the sense that before the hop became standardized in brewing brewers added a wide variety of flavourings to beer, to preserve it or improve the taste. The field is again wide open in this sense. I don’t favour the taste of coffee or chocolate in beer, though. By my lights in fact, malt and hops for beer is a complete code. Still, pumpkin beer has its place. Pumpkin porter, a subset of the pumpkin beer family, is one of the finest beers you can have when made right, but it’s all down to what’s in the glass and what you like.

Beeretseq considers the following essentials for good pumpkin beer:

  1. Hops must be used: pumpkin beer that avoids hops, a la 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. Too much citric or tropical effect ruins the effect.
  3. Pumpkin spices, whatever the blend or brand used, must be used with discretion. Too many pumpkin beers overdo the spicy taste. The spices should support the malt, hops, and pumpkin taste, not dominate it.
  4. The flesh of the pumpkin is necessary to add the vital gourdy note, but it shouldn’t be too prominent either as this can lend a raw, acerbic note.

Commercial brands I like include the one shown above, from Great South Bay in 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 the French arbiter of gastronomic taste turned its attention to la bière.

Consider too the following: A pumpkin beer too intense in spices or sweetness often blends perfectly with a good porter or stout, 2:1 or even 3:1, porter to pumpkin beer. Or blend the pumpkin beer with a pale ale or IPA, this may bring the two into perfect equilibrium. If the balance of a pumpkin (or any) beer isn’t right for you, don’t discard it, use it in home blending.

Taste Note: The beer pictured above has a fully, spicy but soft and sweet palate. Very drinkable indeed.