When Bill Owens in Hayward, Calif. first brewed a pumpkin beer in the early 1980s, no one else in modern craft brewing history had done such a clever thing. His project, so it is said, was inspired by historical records indicating that George Washington had used squashes—and possibly pumpkins—in experimental homebrews. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale became popular over the years and remains so some 30 years after its birth.
But today, that maverick beer stands modestly amid hundreds of others like it. For autumn beers celebrating America’s most iconic squash have become ubiquitous: The summer nears its end, and brewers across the continent get busy in unison adding a blizzard of spices and cooked pumpkin (sometimes fresh, sometimes out of a can) to their tanks of fermenting beer. By October and November, pumpkin brews are as commonplace as jack-o-lanterns, and from a glance at a supermarket beer aisle, one might think that America’s craft brewers had run out of ideas.
Many pumpkin beers taste about the same, brewed with roughly the same flurry of autumn spices–which is fine. Most beers of any given style, after all–whether IPAs, porters or pilsners–have a similar flavor profile. The trouble with pumpkin beers is that they can be hard to handle if too liberally spiced. William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of the forthcoming history of beer and brewing, “The Brewer’s Tale,” notes that the standard potpourri of spices used in pumpkin beer–cinnamon and nutmeg, and usually a few others–can turn “acrid, bitter, and cloying” if they are boiled for too long. Bostwick says he has found the worst of these beers to “taste like allspice soup.”
He points out, too, that pumpkin beers generally don’t taste like pumpkin at all.
“On the whole, these are basically pumpkin pie beers,” Bostwick says. “What you taste is spices. I’m not sure most people even know what pumpkin itself really tastes like.”
Indeed, the flavor of pumpkin is so mild that it can be almost undetectable even in a lightly spiced beer. In Half Moon Bay, California, a town surrounded by pumpkin fields, the local brewery has been making a pumpkin beer every fall for 10 years. But this year, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company toned down the recipe, from eight pounds of nutmeg, clove, allspice, cinnamon and mace in last year’s 500-gallon batch to just one meager pound for the current release.
“I specifically wanted it to taste like pumpkin, not pie,” brewmaster James Costa says. The beer, available only on draft, is decidedly unspicy—so unspicy that one might entirely fail to notice that the reddish hued, creamy topped ale is spiced at all. The pumpkin, meanwhile, is faint, as nature intended this humble squash to be.
Dawn Letner has perhaps never tasted that pumpkin beer. She owns the Chico Home Brew Shop in Chico, Calif., where she frequently sends home customers during October and November with pumpkin beer recipes.
For her, most pumpkin beers are almost intolerable.
“I might buy a bottle now and then, but definitely not a 6-pack,” Letner says. “Do you really want to sit and drink more than one of these spicy cinnamon bombs? For me, the answer is no. If I did want to, I’d just make a spiced tea and add a shot of alcohol.”
Sean Lilly Wilson, owner and founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C., makes a wide array of unusual fruit and vegetable beers to celebrate the autumn–but he has chosen not to make a beer featuring the pumpkin.
“There are enough pumpkin beers in the world,” he says, adding that he doesn’t much care for the style. “They’re often so overly spiced that they’ve lost all nuances. Some of the most celebrated pumpkin beers are just too much for me.”
To make pumpkin beers, some brewers use freshly harvested pumpkins, roasted until the starches turn gooey and sweet. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, for one, has long used the jumbo pumpkins famous for their hippo-like dimensions, if not their flavor. Half Moon Bay Brewing, on the other hand uses apple-sized sugar pie pumpkins–though Costa concedes that the variety of squash used is probably irrelevant. Other brewers use only pumpkin concentrate, rendered from cooked pumpkins and reduced to a dense, extremely sweet juice and purchased in cans. The pumpkin is added at varying stages of the brewing process, sometimes prior to boiling, other times toward the end of fermentation. Late in the process, too, the spices are added, and another pie-flavored pumpkin beer hits the shelf.
Whether you disdain pumpkin beers, simply tolerate them for a few weeks or wait all summer for them, you must give credit to Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. Though the mild chai-tasting beer receives consistently poor reviews on beer rating forums, it was the original of what has become a wildly popular style, with almost countless examples now on the market. As of this writing, Beer Advocate’s online rating forum included no less than 529 pumpkin beers–most, if not all of them, spiced like mulled wine. And at the Great American Beer Festival, an annual fall event in Colorado, pumpkin beers occupy their very own category. Clearly, no matter the scorn felt by some critics, America loves these beers. Geoff Harries, the owner of Buffalo Bill’s since 1994, says demand continues to grow for his pumpkin ale, which is now distributed in 43 states, and he said in an interview that from October to November, the beer-drinking public goes into a state of “hyper-excitement” over pumpkin beers. Come December, though, the interest peters to a stop.
Even if you aren’t hyper-excited about pumpkin beers, it’s worth exploring the category for the oddball renditions some breweries have introduced:
- Oak Jacked, from Uinta Brewing Company, in Salt Lake City, is a sweet, deep brown ale with more than 10 percent alcohol and is aged in whiskey barrels for a creamy, vanilla-Chardonnay finish.
- New Belgium’s pumpkin beer, named Pumpkick, includes cranberry juice and lemongrass for an unusual, tart and zesty interpretation.
- Elysian Brewing Company, in Seattle, makes a well-liked pumpkin beer, too–a copper-colored imperial style named The Great Pumpkin. This brewery, in fact, has held an annual pumpkin beer festival since 2005. The event’s centerpiece is a jumbo pumpkin filled with beer and tapped like a keg.
But of the many off-center pumpkin beers available, a few stand alone as marvels of beer making. Perhaps most extreme of them all is a boozy ale called Rumpkin, from Avery Brewing Company.
“I’m one of the biggest pumpkin beer fans in the world,” says Adam Avery, the man who created this beer. As the founder of the brewery, Avery has garnered a reputation over the years for making some of the most outlandish, aggressive, almost unapproachable beers in the world. “I would drink pumpkin beers every day if I could, and it seemed weird that I had never made one before. So we thought, ‘Let’s make a pumpkin beer, and let’s make it the granddaddy of them all.’”
And unless we overlooked something grander, Rumpkin is it. The dark, cognac-like beer, which tastes of vanilla, coconut and dark chewy fruits, has been aged in rum barrels and weighs in at 18.6-percent alcohol.
Autumn is the season of abundance, diversity and color–not just pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins–and Fullsteam Brewery, at least, seems to recognize this. The small facility, now just three years old, released a persimmon ale this fall named First Frost after the seasonal event which traditionally marks the ripening of the persimmon crop. Wilson, Fullsteam’s owner, is also getting set to brew a fig-chestnut beer, named Fruitcake, and a pawpaw beer, named Pawpaw, while a sweet potato lager, named Carver, is available year round on draft at the brewery.
None of these fall and winter beers are spiced.
“We’re not in the scented candle business,” Wilson quips. “We’re in the craft beer business. We want to let people taste the ingredients we’re using.”
As for those spicy pumpkin beers, Bostwick, for all his skepticism, gets why brewers make them like they do:
“No one wants to buy a pumpkin beer expecting it to taste like pumpkin pie and finding that it tastes like nothing.”
They’d rather, it seems, have it taste like allspice soup.