THE HUNGRY HERALD FOOD BLOG - PUMPKIN BEER

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Pumpkin bread and pumpkin beer, if t’want for pumpkin we couldn’t live here;

Pumpkin pudding and pumpkin pie, if t’want for pumpkin we should die.”

Old saying, reprinted in The Vermont Phoenix, September, 1879

FALL IS HERE, TIME FOR BEER!

Pumpkin. Beer. Something about those two words put together that gets us at The Hungry Herald all frothy under the collar. We can think of no better way to officially welcome back autumn and all of its bounty than to raise up a glass of the stuff and think on the season. 

The leaves have been set ablaze and a-swirl once again, the wind is crisping up, heaping piles of pumpkins lie on the sidewalk outside your local grocer and Michael Myers may or may not be lurking behind the hedges down the street. Chances are, he’s not. But if you need something to take the edge off, or if you simply want to literally drink the season in, look no further than a draught of this sweet, orange-hued elixir. 

Now let’s take a sip from ye olde pumpkin pint of time and find out a little more about how and why the hell there’s squash in your beer.

 

AN UNEXPECTED BREWER’S BOUNTY

When the pilgrims arrived in New England in the 17th century, they brought with them an unquenchable thirst for suds, a know-how and an innovative brewing spirit that was not about to back down from a challenge. In other words, when life gives you pumpkins… get “crafty”.

Classic brewing grains like barley and wheat were relatively scarce at this time, their uses limited to basic sustenance and feeding livestock, so fermenting such dear supplies to make beer wasn’t exactly an option. But no beer was also not an option. Obviously. To make matters worse, drinking water was often hygienically sketchy, so a more reliable form of refreshment was required. Brewers thus went to work right away on a whole host of unconventional ingredients. 

ENTER THE PUMPKIN

These thirsty colonists needed viable and affordable sources of fermentable sugars and fast, and while there was a tendency to ferment everything from apples to parsnips to corn to molasses, few other sources were as starch-packed — thus sugar-yielding — and in such abundant supply as pumpkins. They grew all over like weeds and it turns out that their mashed pulp was as ideal a replacement for malt as one could find. 

As this excerpt from America’s first folk song, “New England’s Annoyances” (1643) can attest, these early brewers were not about to shy away from a challenge to brew outside the box: 

If barley be wanting to make into malt, 

We must be contented and think it no fault;

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips

Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips.”

Not sure about the woodchip beer, but you get the idea.

GIMME FLAVOUR

Unlike in today’s brewing game, these early beers were, for the most part, made entirely from the pumpkin, thus yielding a flavour profile which perhaps was not so much celebrated as it was tolerated. Flavour-wise, pumpkin just didn’t translate well through the brewing process and the result was underwhelming, but beer is beer as they say. Like when all there is available at the ball game is big box swill (not naming names), the swill tends to go down surprisingly smooth. 

Nevertheless, these early brewers probably did what they could to flavour things up and, while in addition to the likely use of hops and certain spices, they didn’t shy away from some pretty unusual auxiliary ingredients like ground ivy. Ginger was sometimes thrown in for a zingy boost while molasses would be used in order to reduce the distinctive tanginess that early pumpkin beers exhibited.

 One common post-brew practice was to mix pumpkin beer with rum and brown sugar and then heat it up, a drink the colonists dubbed a Flip, an early version of the egg-frothed cocktail we see today. 

Although these original draughts were not about to taste like pumpkin pie in a stein any time soon, early brewers again showed a knack for making do with what they had.

MAKE WAY FOR GRAIN

These readily available, and affordable, squash-based beers continued to slake colonists’ thirst for generations. The first printed recipe for “pompion ale” dates back to 1771 and the founding fathers — notably Franklin, Jefferson and Washington— were known to brew their own supply.

By the turn of the 19th century however, as farming practices evolved and quality malt grains became more available, the popularity of pumpkin-based beer began to wane. Another factor in the decline may have been changing tastes and attitudes as pumpkins and pumpkin beer were increasingly viewed as somewhat old-fashioned and common. 

And so, the pumpkin eventually found itself left by the wayside and pretty much forgotten from a brewing standpoint until the 1980’s when, on the opposite side of the now United States, an enterprising soul started looking for something old school to brew.

THANK YOU, BUFFALO BILL

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery — the first brewpub in the US — opened its doors in Hayward, California in 1983, hot on the heels of a new law allowing brewers to serve their wares directly to clients on the premises. 

Sometime in 1985, intrepid and innovative owner and brewmeister, Bill Owens, got it into his head to brew a pumpkin ale, inspired by an old recipe from the writings of none other than George Washington. Armed with a green thumb and a pizza oven, Owens grew his own pumpkins in his backyard, roasted their flesh like a medium all-dressed and then threw the orange meat into the mix while making the brewery’s standard issue amber ale. 

The result? Meh. The fermentation process pretty much killed any potential pumpkin taste; just as the colonists had learned long ago, the delicate flavour tended to get lost in the shuffle. What to do?

IT’S ALL IN THE SPICE

Pumpkin Spice

What came next was a gustatory sleight of hand. Pumpkin pie spice had already long been a thing and was universally associated with pumpkin in the popular mind. This unbreakable bond between a food and certain flavourings associated with it is a powerful thing and Bill Owens wisely tapped into it.

Getting his hands on some pumpkin spice, Owens threw it into the mix and the resulting taste evoked exactly the pumpkin-infused associations he was going for. All this way before Starbucks decided to squash up their joe we might add. Pumpkin beer was back, dressed up in brand new clothes, and it was here to stay.

For a deeper dive into all things pumpkin spice, click here.

KEEP ON BREWIN’

Thanks to Bill Owens and legions of outstanding brewers that came after him, there are countless riffs on pumpkin beer today, in a wide variety of styles. No one brews entirely from pumpkin anymore as the necessity for this is long gone, but some skip the pumpkin altogether and just use spices (ghoulish, we know!). Fear not however, the real deal abounds and several versions actually skip the spices and just let the gourd sing. 

Check out the encyclopedic Dungeon Master’s guide that is BeerAdvocate.com to get an idea of what’s out there. And no longer is it just an ale game; you’ll find everything from stouts (shout out to Buffalo Bill’s Black Pumpkin Oatmeal Stout), to sours to rum barrel-aged concoctions, and these babies hit the shelves earlier and earlier every year, often even in the dog days of summer. 

GUZZLING GOURDNESS

Pumpkin Beer Brewing Jug

We at The Hungry Herald love us some squashy suds and we begin scouring the shelves at our local brew mongers every year as soon as those first whiffs of fall start riding the breeze. We know, so many have jumped on the pumpkin cart in recent years that the term “pumpkin fatigue” is sometimes applied to the beer market as well and we get it, but we don’t care. 

The more the merrier we say, in the hope that brewers everywhere will continue to let the spirit of the season move them and whip up a batch of that sweet gourdness, year after year. And if the spirit moves them early and it happens to come out in August, so be it. 

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