The first thing you should probably know before you know 5 more things is that I’m not a pumpkin beer kind of guy. To me pumpkin beers were always sort of a befuddling anomaly. Quite frankly thoughts of a spicy bitter alcoholic cinnamon note turned me off. But I do have an affinity for the Fall and all it brings. This stems from my time spent with family in North Fork Long Island, where the Fall season is truly an event to behold. It encapsulates a picturesque vision of what Fall should be, perfectly showcasing the rustic rural qualities that we have come to identify with the season; the changing of the leaves, the crop picking, the farms, the hay rides and my favorite holidays Halloween and Thanksgiving. Pumpkins are of course a big part of this time of year. As I embarked on this latest blog journey the more I read the more my curiosity genuinely peeked. I began to view these beers through a different lens and now have a greater appreciation for the pumpkin and everything it represents. Fall is now upon us and much like the ever changing nature of the seasons our Beer Odyssey continues onward. And as such Beer Today Beer Tomorrow felt it was appropriate to do justice to the seasonal pumpkin ale.
First, let’s start with the Pumpkin
Here’s everything (and probably more) that you’ll need to know about pumpkins. First we’ll start with the name - pumpkin comes from the Greek word ‘pepon’, meaning ‘large melon’. Documented archaeological and botanical evidence indicates that the pumpkin might in fact be the oldest domesticated plant on Earth, dating as far back as 10,000 B.C. Despite a common misconception pumpkins are not vegetables, in fact they are a fruit (they contain seeds). Pumpkin plants feature both male and female flowers and their average size is 13 pounds (6 kilograms).
Pumpkins are normally planted during the first week of July and their ideal growing temperature is between 65F and 95F degrees. Over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin are produced in the US every year and a good bulk of those comes from Illinois, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
During Halloween, the famed practice of carving jack-o-lanterns is believed to have originated in Ireland during the Gaelic Festival of Samhain. Only instead of pumpkins, folks carved faces into turnips, beet and other root vegetables. Some even believed that the custom of carving jack-o-lanterns warded off demons.
100 grams of pumpkin produces around 26 calories of energy. As a food, pumpkin can be baked, roasted, steamed or boiled; it can be made into soup and pie and of course beer!
How Did Pumpkin Beers get started?
Pumpkins actually played a prominent role in American History. When the colonists arrived in North America the native pumpkin plant which grew in abundance was alien to them. But they very soon became acquainted with it and in fact heavily relied on it as a key source of sustenance. Subsequently the natural progression led to the pumpkin becoming an active ingredient in beer. It was a hardy fast growing crop, not to mention back then good malt was hard to find, so sugars that could ferment were not readily available. Enter the Pumpkin! In the first pumpkin beers, the meat of the pumpkin actually replaced the malt entirely. The earliest recipe for a pumpkin brew appeared in a 1771 text by the American Philosophical Society.
Founding fathers and some of America’s first home brewers, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington all brewed pumpkin beer. One of George Washington’s recipes inspired the folks over at Buffalo Bill's Brewery to brew America’s Original Pumpkin Beer back in the late 1980’s. Buffalo Bill is partly responsible for the resurgence of the pumpkin ale craze. While tinkering with the recipe their early batches used pumpkin as an ingredient, the commercial version utilized pumpkin pie spices instead.
Fun Fact: Pumpkin was once an ingredient in popular cocktail called a ‘Flip ’a drink made from rum, pumpkin beer and brown sugar “into which a red hot poker had been plunged.” That would have been a hell of an order at the bar.
How are Pumpkin beers brewed?
Brewers can hand-cut and even roast pumpkins and leave them in the mash as it ferments. Alternatively they can add pumpkin puree or even utilize frowned upon artificial pumpkin flavorings. Spices such as nutmeg, ginger, clove, allspice, and cinnamon are dependent on the brewer’s vision and are added at their discretion. All modern day pumpkin beers also include malt, hops, yeast, and water. These beers tend to have ABV range of 5-6%.
How many varieties of Pumpkin Beer are there?
Some estimate put the total number over 400. Beer Advocate lists 1306 different pumpkin beers on their website. According to market research firm IRI, seasonal beer makes up 15% to 25% of the more than $19.6 billion in annual craft beer sales. What I found surprising was that the Brewers Association craft beer industry group indicated that seasonal beers usually battle with IPA for the craft beer sales title, with IPA accounting for 23% of all sales, but typically erase IPA’s lead once pumpkin beer season comes around. With that said Nielsen data shows that pumpkin-spiced beer sales fell nearly 10 percent in 2015, and in terms of volume, the decline was over thirteen percent.
What are some Pumpkin beers worth trying?
This is a loaded question; if you’ve never had a pumpkin beer then you absolutely should but the caveat there being that it certainly is an acquired taste. As I noted I was never a big pumpkin beer aficionado so in this next section I’ve provided a list of pumpkin beers that I’ve tried along with a recommendation of those considered top notch.
Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat from St. Louis. ABV: 5.2% Per Shock top they start with traditional Belgian-style wheat ale and then brew with ripe pumpkins and a variety of autumnal spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Pumpkin flavor and spiciness is quite low. This is not a stellar entry by any stretch of the imagination.
Southern Tier Imperial Pumking from Lakewood, N.Y.ABV: 8.6% Imperial Pumpkin Ale. Brewed since 2007, medium spiciness with flavors resembling Candy Corn. The fermentation includes Ale yeast, two types of malt, and two types of hops. It possesses a deep copper coloring with medium carbonation. On the nose pumpkin, pie spices, buttery crust, vanilla, roasted pecans. There's notes of Malty sweetness, vanilla, clove, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, pie crust and a bit of bitterness. Available Mid-July through autumn.
Shipyard Pumpkinhead from Portland, Maine ABV: 4.5% ,IBUS: 18.This was first brewed in 1996 and first bottled in 2002. Pours a golden hue; Mild pumpkin flavors with strong notes of cinnamon and a spicy kick. Malts include Pale Ale, Whole Wheat; Munich Light Yeast includes top-Fermenting English. Hopped with Willamette and Saphir. Availability is August-November.
Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale from Golden, Colorado. ABV: 5.7% IBUs: 16 Malts include Munich and Caramel. It is hopped with Hallertau. This has pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice on the nose. Deep amber-coloring on the pour with notes of malt on the tongue along with harvest spices including cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves with a hint of bitterness that finishes heavier on the malt and spicy side.
Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale from Boston ABV: 5.7% , IBUS 14. This one is full bodied and malty with medium pumpkin flavor and spiciness. It consists of East Kent Goldings and Fuggles Hops, Samuel Adams two-row pale malt blend, Caramel 60, Special B, and smoked malt Top-fermenting Ale. It pours a dark reddish amber coloring; pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice on the nose and tongue. It is available seasonally.
Top 5 Rated Pumpkin Beers on Beer Advocate (based on reviews and ratings)
Pumpkinator-Saint Arnold Brewing Company 10.00% ABV
Good Gourd Imperial Pumpkin Ale -Cigar City Brewing 8.50% ABV
Pumpkin Ale - Selin's Grove Brewing Company 5.60% ABV
Schlafly Pumpkin Ale- The Schlafly Tap Room 8.00% ABV
The Great Pumpkin- Elysian Brewing Company 8.10% ABV
*BLOG BONUS!* - George Washington’s Beer Brewing Recipe
Dating back to 1754 - a 30-gallon recipe for small beer in a personal notebook of George Washington: “Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran, Hops to your Taste.—Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall[ons] into a cooler put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the Beer is Scalding hot or rather draw the Molasses into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. Let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask—leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working—Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.”
*BLOG BONUS* 2 - Some pics of Rachael's Jack-o-Lantern handy work
Beer Photos courtesy of ShockTop, Southern Tier, ShipYard, Wine-Searcher.com and Pinterest
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