Some claim these beers are gimmicky marketing ploys, but the truth is, pumpkin beer goes back to the early colonial era in America, when native pumpkins were readily available and traditional brewing grains were not so accessible. For one reason or another, these “rustic” beers eventually fell out of fashion (probably after malted barley became more available).
It wasn’t until 1985 when Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, Calif., resurrected the “style” by brewing America’s Original Pumpkin Ale, which was made with real pumpkins and spices. It took some time to catch on with beer drinkers and other breweries, but in recent years the category has surged in popularity. During this time of year, sometimes pumpkin beers even usurp IPAs in sales.
The Brewers Association’s graph below compares Google searches for all four seasonals (winter, spring, summer and fall) versus searches for “pumpkin beer” alone. This spike in searches also correlates to a spike in pumpkin beer sales.
“Come October, pumpkin beer is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the seasonal world,” says Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson.
Contrary to what some might like to believe, pumpkin beers are not part of a trend. In fact, their growth in popularity led to the Great American Beer Festival adding a pumpkin beer category in 2014, and earlier this year the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) added an autumn seasonal beer category to better accommodate pumpkin beers.
No brewery appreciates pumpkin beer more than Elysian Brewing. Over the years, this brewery has produced countless pumpkin beers and it bottles at least four, including Dark O’ the Moon, a chocolaty stout; Punkuccino, a coffee beer; The Great Pumpkin, an imperial pumpkin ale; and Night Owl, Elysian’s original pumpkin ale. The brewery also throws one of the largest pumpkin beer festivals in the United States every year. The 11th Annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival (Oct. 2-3 in 2015) will feature about 80 different pumpkin beers from around the country (20 of which were brewed by Elysian), but it has been completely sold out for some time. Sadly, I don’t think Dick Cantwell will be a part of it this year.
Like most seasonal beers these days, they seem to arrive on shelves earlier and earlier every year, a phenomenon dubbed seasonal creep. But now that autumn has officially arrived – as of today, Sept. 23 – I’m ready to embrace them.
Pumpkin beer isn’t a formal beer style; it’s more like a loose category of beers that are made with pumpkin. Base beers range greatly, and they include amber ales, porters, stouts, strong ales, saisons, sour ales and even some lagers.
Malty beers — whether sweet or not sweet — that are toasty, nutty and bready, such as brown ales, amber ales and amber lagers, seem to marry best with pumpkin flavor and pumpkin pie spices. Alcohol percentages can vary from low-ABV session beers to strong ales in the double digits.
Two things might surprise you about pumpkin beers:
- Some pumpkin beers are not even made with pumpkin. Some only use pumpkin pie spices along with malt flavors that emulate the wholesome flavors of pumpkin pie crust.
- Beers made with pumpkin are typically not made with jack-o-lantern carving pumpkins (aka field pumpkins). Instead, most pumpkin beers are made with the smaller and sweeter “pie” pumpkins, aka “sugar” pumpkins, and sometimes they’re even made with butternut squash. Many brewers use canned, 100-percent pumpkin puree because it’s easier to work with.
BREWING A PUMPKIN BEER
Ask 10 brewers how they add pumpkin to their beer and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Some roast the pumpkin first (which dehydrates some of the water and caramelizes the pumpkin), whereas some do not. Some add pumpkin to the mash; some add it to the kettle; some add it to the fermenter; and some add it to some or all of those. Some use no pumpkin or just a little pumpkin, and some use more than a pound of pumpkin per gallon.
When it comes to other ingredients and spices, creativity is the only limiting factor. Typically, brewers will use common pumpkin pie spices, such as cinnamon, allspice, ginger, mace and nutmeg, but some also add chocolate, vanilla, cardamom, clove, brown sugar, honey, molasses or other ingredients.
My malt bill consisted of 2-Row, Golden Promise, Vienna, Brown Malt, Crystal 60 and flaked oats, along with a small amount of lactose for a pinch of additional residual sweetness. I kept the hop addition simple, using just a small amount of Magnum hops for a clean and neutral bitterness. I did not add any late-addition hops because hop aromas usually clash with spices. To add an interesting element of esters, I fermented the beer with Belgian Ale yeast.
Regarding spices, I used traditional pumpkin pie spices (allspice, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon), though I left out clove and cardamom. I also added a small amount of vanilla, imbuing a bit of je ne sais quoi in the beer.
For the pumpkin addition, I decided to pre-bake about 55 ounces of 100% pumpkin puree and 15 ounces of butternut squash (400 degrees for 1 hour, turning every so often), which worked out to just under a pound of pumpkin per gallon of beer. After scouring homebrew forums and reading a variety of articles, I came across all sorts of methods for introducing the pumpkin into the beer. I ended up adding half of my baked pumpkin to the mash (90 minutes at 155) and half to the kettle (as it was heating up to a boil). Once it began to boil, I removed the pumpkin, let it drain, and then boiled the beer like I normally do.
At flameout (end of the 60-minute boil), I added 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp powdered ginger and 2 cinnamon sticks. I let that spice blend soak for 10 minutes before chilling the wort.
A week or so later, I transferred the beer into a secondary fermenter, and I racked the beer onto an ounce of pure vanilla and a spice tincture made of cinnamon and candied/dried ginger that had been soaking in vanilla vodka for the previous week (which was more for sanitation than flavor).
The final beer turned out much better than I anticipated. I worried that the spices would be overpowering, so I played my spice additions on the safe side. But next time I’ll add more spices and less ginger. As for the pumpkin flavor in the beer, it has some nice, earthy and wholesome aspects, and the spices really help to bring them to the surface, similar to how cinnamon and brown sugar can bring out the flavor of oatmeal.