If our colonial forbears could see how popular pumpkin beer is today they’d be stunned.
“But you have barley, hops and malt,” they’d say. “You can drink real ale!”
Perhaps they would consider drinking the seasonal brew a strangeness on par with modern people starving themselves to be thin or voluntarily lifting extremely heavy objects. In 2011, beers made with pumpkin or at least flavored to taste like pumpkin pie, are top sellers. My local deli, Eagle Provisions in Brooklyn, stocks at least 20 different kinds. But in seventeenth and eighteenth century North America, beer was brewed with pumpkins out of necessity.
According to beer expert Lew Bryson, “American colonists used pumpkins, corn, spruce tips, and persimmons before they managed to import, and later grow barley.” Pumpkin was a readily available ingredient and a fermentable sugar, filling in for the malt needed to make beer. For colonialists, brewing ales with a local ingredient such as pumpkin was just more proof of their hardiness and innovative spirit. By the nineteenth century, as traditional beer ingredients became more accessible, ales made from pumpkins lost their caché. Pumpkin beers made a semi-comeback in the mid-1800s, but as beers flavored with the gourd rather than directly made from it.
In the centuries since the first pumpkin ale was born, the American beer scene has witnessed radical changes. German and Czech-style lagers came to dominate American taps, then prohibition swept in and brought decades of mostly weak and watery beer.
The craft-brewing renaissance of the early 1980s revived not only America’s brew scene, but also pumpkin beer. For that we have Bill Owens to thank. In 1986, the then-owner of Buffalo Bill's Brewpub in Hayward, CA, brewed his first batch of pumpkin beer with a gourd from his yard. Finding the result not especially flavorful, he added pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon and cloves, modern pumpkin beer was born. In 1986, Owens was taking a gamble with his version of this colonial staple, but today, breweries ranging from the mass market Michelob to the micro Brooklyn Brewery produce some variation of the drink.
JT Thompson, from New Hampshire based Smuttynose Brewing Company told me that their pumpkin ale is, “one of the few sales department-driven beer formulations” they’ve produced.
“If we did sell pumpkin ale year round at the rate we do in season, it would be our best selling beer,” Thompson said. That’s quite an accomplishment for an ale born of necessity.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that pumpkin ale is also the number one seasonal seller for such craft breweries as Dogfish Head, whose master brewer actually started making the beer at home before the brewery even opened its doors.
In terms of flavor, pumpkin beers range from the very sweet, such as the high alcohol Southern Tier “Pumking” Imperial, to the more subtle offerings like that from Smuttynose. Since most brewers use spices such as nutmeg, allspice or cinnamon, the beers are usually reminiscent of what Bryson terms “a pie without a crust.”
Thanks to the seasonal brew’s incredible popularity, whether you prefer your beer merely hinting at pumpkin or one that just tells you it’s dessert, there’s a version of this seasonal drink for everyone.
Below are three pumpkin ales I’d recommend:
Brooklyn Brewery’s Post Road Pumpkin Ale: A crisp beer that is not overwhelmed by the pumpkin pie spices or the surprisingly pleasant sweetness, but definitely makes you think of Thanksgiving. As my dad would say, “tastes more like beer than pie.”
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale: Hoppy as pumpkin beers go. I’m not a huge fan of overly hoppy beers, but with the spices coming in later the hoppyness here works well. Helps to make sure the beer’s not too sugary and creates a great balance.
Dogfish Head “Punkin” Ale: Definitely hews much closer to pumpkin pie than the first two beers, if that’s what you’re looking for, I think Dogfish Head does it very well. Be warned, at 7% alcohol it’s no session beer.