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.