BEER: It's Pumpkin Beer Season, Bitches!

Updated: Apr 6

The key to a good pumpkin beer? Capturing the flavors of fall without compromising the base beer. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018



STORY / Beau Forbes


George Washington doesn't give a damn if you don't like his pumpkin ale.


Much like Britney Spears, pumpkin beer returns to us every year during the fall and brings joy (or not) into our lives. The style is possibly the most divisive topic in craft beer.


Are you down with pumpkin beer, bro? Because if you aren’t, then you’re not down with ME. Folks who love pumpkin beer, including your humble author, LOVE it. And folks who hate it, HATE it in their joyless hearts. Pumpkin spice fatigue is real, and it turns some people into Grumpy Jacks around Halloween season. But beer with pumpkin can be excellent and is as old as Thanksgiving dinner.


AS AMERICAN AS PUMPKIN BEER


Pumpkin beer is proudly despised by many brewers in the craft beer community, seen as a gimmick or a fad that just won’t die. When Starbucks introduced Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003, the drink became both an instant hit and a source of mockery, thanks to everybody sharing pics of their PSLs on Instagram. But consider this: The craft beer world has been making pumpkin spice beer for decades.


Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, one of the first brewpubs in the country, released a pumpkin ale way back in 1985; the beer was famously inspired by a recipe borrowed from George Washington (that George Washington). Since its Northern California debut, pumpkin beer has become one of the most enduring trends in craft beer. Thousands of breweries across America brew pumpkin ales today.


Pumpkin beer has even deeper roots in America’s brewing history. Like, founding-of-the-country deep. The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock was largely influenced by the low supplies of beer available in the ship hogsheads (not the oinking kind; hogshead is a British word used to describe large casks of liquid). One Plymouth settler, William Bradford, famously recorded in his diary that “...we came to this resolution—to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places which we thought most fitting for us; for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beer....” (“The Plymouth Colony Archive Project,” Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth).


Another problem: Early plantings of barley, needed for malting and brewing beer, were unsuccessful, so settlers had to rely on very expensive imported barley. They quickly turned to local crops like corn and pumpkin that could provide a substantial amount of fermentable sugars instead. As the demand for beer rose in the colonies, pumpkin in particular became a regular feature of a beer’s aroma and flavor profile. These innovative brewers had essentially created a new set of characteristics (from body to aroma and flavor) that consumers expected in their beer. Generations later, the Founding Fathers (from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson) all knew how to brew beer using pumpkin as a part of the recipe.


PUMPKIN BEER TODAY


These days, barley and other grains are not difficult to source, and beer isn’t brewed by necessity with pumpkin. A well-made pumpkin beer is more about capturing the essence of fall.


At its best, pumpkin beer is an ale or lager with noticeable pumpkin and/or pumpkin spice character (nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and, most importantly, cinnamon) that still allows the base beer to shine. That last part is very important. It doesn’t matter what base style of beer is used; any number can provide the ideal canvas for the pumpkin and those harvest-season spices, from smooth, clean lagers to rich and malty English ales. Even porters and bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stouts have produced fantastic pumpkin beers in the modern craft scene. Drinking one is (or should be, at least) the alcoholic equivalent of putting on a comfy flannel shirt on a cold day.


BREWING PROCESS


So, how do you make beer using a pumpkin? It all starts with a good base recipe. Crappy beer is crappy beer, pumpkin or not. Whether an amber ale, Saison, or even a porter, that base recipe forms the foundation upon which the rest of the pumpkin beer is built.


The second most important component of a pumpkin beer isn’t actually the pumpkin itself (taste a spoonful of canned pumpkin purée; it doesn’t have much flavor). It is the spices. They need to be fresh and aromatic. Old spices (not Old Spice® deodorant, which every man should wear…but I digress) are not only devoid of flavor, they will make the finished beer astringent before aromatic.

PRO TIPS

SPICES

As when cooking, to make your spices extra aromatic, toast them before adding them to the beer. The heat boosts the aromatic profile by warming the oils in the spices. Cinnamon (cassia bark), clove, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg are all fair game when it comes to a pumpkin beer.


Double Pro Tip Add pumpkin spices in moderation. You can always add more spice to the beer, but you can never add less after you add it. Got it?


PUMPKIN

Finally, the pumpkin. A sugar pumpkin, commonly referred to as a pie pumpkin, is ideal (carving pumpkins are low in sugar). You can find them at most grocery stores this time of year, or hit the farmers’ market for more interesting varieties (The Bruery in Southern California makes a great version with yams). Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast it in the oven until the flesh is tender (or smoke that sucker for a more, well, smoky flavor). Cool and add the flesh to the beer mash.


Yes, you could buy a few cans of pumpkin purée and put forth far less effort. It doesn’t really matter (that flavorless issue I mentioned), but there is undeniable satisfaction in brewing with a pumpkin that you have grown, harvested, and smoked or roasted yourself. When you drink that beer made with your own pumpkins and fermented and brewed in your home, it is undeniably yours, and no one can ever take that away from you (begin flexing beer-making biceps SO HARD)!


Double Pro Tip If you are looking to double down on pumpkin character, you can add purée directly to the boil, preferably during the last 5 to 10 minutes. Put the pumpkin purée in a mesh bag, and then pull it out when the boil is finished. The pumpkin pie you make from that purée will be the best one that you have ever tasted, I can guarantee.


Ready for some recommendations? Check out Pumpkin Picks.

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