Pumpkin beers are a love ’em or leave ’em proposition. Those who love them eagerly await October (or July as is often the case these days). They can’t wait to snatch up six-packs or bombers of the latest gourd-infused grog. Those who hate them… well, they really hate them.
Whichever side you fall on, the popularity of pumpkin beers can’t be denied. Like the holiday ales that come after, pumpkin beers are a signature of the season. Beer Advocate lists almost 1,000 of them. They appear on and disappear from store shelves by the dozens every autumn. Though many brewers I’ve spoken to fall in the “dislike” camp, they make them anyway in response to consumer demand.
Beers have been made with pumpkins in this country since colonial times. Back in the day, barley wasn’t grown here and importing it from Europe was expensive. The early colonists had to look to other sources for fermentable sugars to supplement what little barley they had for making beer. One of those sources was pumpkin. Even George Washington is purported to have made a pumpkin beer.
Modern pumpkin beers began as a gimmick in the mid-1980s when California brewpub owner and avid gardener Bill Owens needed a use for a massive gourd growing in his backyard. He baked the pumpkin, mashed it with his grains, added some spices, and sold the resulting brew in his pub. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale was an instant hit. It went on to become the first commercially produced and distributed pumpkin ale in the country. From there the rest is history.
Pumpkin beers come in all shapes and sizes. Most are malty amber ales with amped up alcohol content. But low-alcohol versions do exist and pumpkin stouts and porters are not uncommon.
There are pumpkin lagers, pumpkin pale ales, and even a pumpkin sour or two. Many “pumpkin” beers aren’t even made with pumpkin. They rely instead on spices, malt, and other sugars like brown sugar or maple syrup to give that pumpkin pie impression.
The 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Guidelines put pumpkin beers under the broad category of Autumn Seasonal Beers. As described, these are beers “that suggest cool weather and the autumn harvest season, and may include pumpkin or other squashes, and the associated spices.” It is a broad category with a wide range of interpretations possible. However, the general description given does fit nicely with the majority of products on the shelves.
Pumpkin beers are usually amber to copper-brown with some orange hues possible, although lighter and darker versions exist. Most incorporate seasonal spices like allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. These manifest in the aroma and harmonize with an overall malty profile that may include notes of caramel, toast, biscuit, and nuts. The flavor follows the aroma with a balanced presentation of malt and spice. Bitterness is generally low, and hop flavor, when present, provides only a hint of spiciness in the background. The actual flavor of pumpkins can be elusive, but a bit of vegetal sweetness may be perceived. The texture is typically full and chewy with pleasant alcohol warmth.
Pumpkin beers pair well with a range of foods from savory to spicy to sweet. They make splendid partners with turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving and can’t be beat with roasted root vegetables. Pumpkins are thought to have originated in Central America and pumpkin beers go well with the flavors of that region. Try a spicier version with mole dishes and chili. For dessert, pair one with caramel flan or cinnamon truffles.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Lakefront Pumpkin Lager, Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, Southern Tier Pumking, Southern Tier Warlock, New Holland Ichabod, Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Flat Earth Mummy Train, Alaskan Pumpkin Porter, Town Hall Petunia’s Pumpkin Ale