Pumpkin Ale: Trick or Treat?
Pumpkin ale is a popular style of beer in the United States that features the flavour of pumpkin and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Pumpkin ale may be produced using pumpkin flesh in combination with malt or other more typical beer grains as a portion of the mash bill, contributing fermentable sugars to the wort. It may also be produced by adding natural or artificial flavour to a finished beer. Spice flavour may be added to evoke the flavour of pumpkin pie, a popular American wintertime dessert. Many styles of pumpkin ale are produced, including pale ales, wheat beers, porters, and stouts. Often produced as a seasonal beer in autumn, it is produced by several US breweries including Sea Dog Brewery, Shipyard Brewing Company, Saint Arnold Brewing Company and Blue Moon1.
But did you know that pumpkin ale is an American original, invented in the 18th century by English colonists in the New World? The brewing of beer with pumpkin in the United States dates back to 17712. The first commercially brewed pumpkin ale came from Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California, in the 1980s, the recipe based on brewing studies made by George Washington3.
The Origins of Pumpkin Beer
The unceremonious origins of pumpkin beer can be traced back to the 17th century, when the New England colonists faced shortages of wheat and barley, their favourite grains for making beer. Starvation was a looming threat for many families, especially the poor, who needed to find a tough, versatile crop that was easy to grow and could survive the bitter Northeast winters. Pumpkins, it turns out, fit the bill perfectly.
“When [the first colonists in New England] come over here, they want to have their European fare, their European food, but they can’t grow them yet,” Cindy Ott, associate professor of history and museum studies at the University of Delaware and author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, tells Mental Floss. “So they rely on the pumpkin because it’s prolific [and] grows like a weed.”4
Families could roast and eat pumpkin flesh, snack on a handful of seeds, or mash the whole thing together with butter and spices. For some, the fact that pumpkins made up the overwhelming bulk of their diet was enough to inspire tongue-in-cheek poetry with derisive lines like,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undoon.
But there was another European staple that pumpkins were about to pinch-hit for in North America: beer. As Ott points out, beer in the 17th century was a cleaner, more hygienic alternative to the water available to the colonists.
Without the grains available to make a proper ale, the colonists discovered they could use pumpkins as a cheap, fermentable filler, along with molasses, bran, corn, and other ingredients the average family could scavenge. These early pumpkin ales did the job—but they became known as a drink strictly for the peasants who couldn’t get their hands on the real stuff.
“ [Colonists] rely on the pumpkin as this cheap substitute, and it gets them through difficult times,” Ott says. “But no one wants it. It’s really like the beer of last resort.”
In her book, Ott writes that the flavor was described as having a “slight twang” when compared to more reputable ales of the time. A handful of pumpkin beer recipes have survived over the years, including these 1771 instructions for “pompion ale” from the American Philosophical Society:
Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp.
The Revival of Pumpkin Beer
Pumpkin beer largely fell to the pages of history once true beer was brewed in the United States. It wasn’t until the 1980s that pumpkin ale made a comeback, thanks to craft brewers who wanted to experiment with different flavours and ingredients. The first commercially brewed pumpkin ale came from Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California3, whose founder Bill Owens had read about George Washington’s recipe for pumpkin beer and decided to give it a try.
Owens used roasted pumpkins and added spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg to create a rich and aromatic brew that was unlike anything else on the market at the time. His pumpkin ale was an instant hit and inspired other brewers to follow suit. Today, there are hundreds of varieties of pumpkin beers available from breweries across the country.
The popularity of pumpkin ale has been described as part of a “pumpkin spice craze,” initiated by a rash of pumpkin- and pumpkin-spice-flavoured consumer food products, such as the Pumpkin Spice Latte5. Some beer enthusiasts have criticized pumpkin ale as a gimmick or a fad, while others have embraced it as a seasonal treat that celebrates the flavours and traditions of the autumn season.
Whether you love it or hate it, pumpkin ale is a unique style of beer, is a unique snapshot of a time in place of history.
Want to try the best UK brewed Pumpkin Ales this season? Head over to The Three Drinkers blog to check out their recommendations for this season best brews: best pumpkin beers uk — Spirits — The Three Drinkers