Yes, the start of pumpkin beer season is now July. In case you hadn’t noticed, about one fifth of your go-to bottle shop’s shelf space is now dedicated to the annual, top selling seasonal beer style and an image – as many of us remember from our childhoods – that in years past didn’t appear until late September. But here we are and one of the best things about having a thriving craft beer industry is the variety of flavors, potency and densities that it gives us to enjoy in intoxicating liquid form. And although when it first reaches our retailers we’re still sweating through our clothes at the check out counter, you have to admit that pumpkin ales go pretty well with cool air, bonfires, football games, falling leaves, trick-or-treat and Thanksgiving – you know, all the things that pumpkin beers now give you hope for when you’ve tolerated more plus-ninety degree weather than a modern-day human being with places to go outdoors should be expected to withstand.
Most began brewing their take on the revived style a few months ago. That’s so they can be ready for the late summer rush, which again, seems to come earlier every year. The strategy is to get ahead of the demand, which starts to subside right after Halloween each year.
If you know anything about farming, you know that we’re just entering the harvest season now. So, you should be wondering, How does all that pumpkin beer that’s been sitting on my retailer’s shelf throughout August have pumpkin in it? Do they even use pumpkins at all? Well, the answer to that is: yes… and no.
The most honest answer is that most pumpkin beers do not use actual pumpkins. For instance, some use canned pumpkin and pumpkin puree. That’s close to pumpkin or pumpkin pie, at least. Others use pumpkin extract, and some even just use the spices people associate with pumpkin foods, such as: cinnamon, sugar, clove and nutmeg.
This whole time, you have been drinking pumpkin beer with no pumpkin in it. I am so sorry that I had to be the one to break it to you, but you were going to find out eventually. I mean, you’re the one that’s trying to learn more about craft beer, all the different styles and how they’re made.
I have some good news, too. In celebration of the arrival of Autumn and the craft beer style that Americans love so much that it becomes the only one to outsell the IPA this time of year, here is a list of pumpkin beers which are made with real pumpkins. I even reached out to the brewers themselves to get the inside scoop (pun intended), to give you a more intimate pumpkin beer drinking experience this Autumn season.
An early crop is allowing Rogue to release their seasonal favorite Pumpkin Patch Ale earlier than ever without using any canned pumpkins, purees or concentrates. After the pumpkins are harvested from Rogue Farms in Independence, OR, they are driven back to the brewery in Newport, OR, hand cut, seeded, roasted and added to the brew kettle along with spices including vanialla bean, cardamon, orange peel, clove and others. Pumpkin Patch Ale debuted yesterday, September 15th, on draft and in bottles, in all 50 states.
From a small 2 BBL nano brewery in Phelps, NY comes two pumpkin beers made with locally harvested heirloom Early Sweet Sugar Pie pumpkins from A&R Plus 5 Custom Fruits and Vegetables. Happy Jack is a roasted pumpkin ale and Mad Jack is a smoked pumpkin ale. Owner and brewer, Mike, told me that each brew is made in small limited batches released in the tasting room only around mid to late October, depending on when the pumpkins are ready to be harvested. The releases are coordinated so that one can compare the roasted to the later released smoked version. Both of these beers are brewed with a minimum amount of custom blended spice so that it still tastes like beer, “not a piece of pie.”
Troegs is one of the few breweries who actually grow their own pumpkins. Jeff Herb, Media & Communication Coordinator at Troegs Brewing, told me that they have a dedicated 1/4 acre pumpkin patch at a local farm, Strites’ Orchard, just a few miles from the brewery in Harrisburg, PA. Jeff went onto say that Master of Pumpkins is one of their limited releases in the cork & cage series. “Since we use real pumpkins, the release date is dependent on Mother Nature and the pumpkins harvest of each year. We tend to release the beer in late September or early October” Jeff stated when asked when the beer would be available. This is a small batch run, but last year they were still able to send out in limited supplies, product to all of their markets. Available in stores are the 375ml cork & cage bottle, 4-packs and cases. If you want draft, you are going to have to take a trip to the brewery or be lucky enough to attend a special event featuring the brew.
When asked about the process they go through to create this masterpiece, Jeff advised that they oversee everything from the planting of the seeds to the growth and, finally, the harvesting. Once the pumpkins are picked, they are prepared and roasted right in the brewery’s Snack Bar kitchen. The neck pumpkins (the variety of pumpkin they use) are then used in the brewing along with a variety of “traditional pie spices and additional ‘juju’ including cane sugar, cinnamon, clove, ginger, Pennsylvania hone, nutmeg and vanilla.” Jeff was even able to tell me that their “secret ingredient” is the French saison yeast strain “which intensifies the spicy dryness of the ale and interplays nicely with the malt sweetness.”
Tim Butler, Head Brewer of Empire Brewing Co., loves to talk beer. Like that is any surprise! Anyways, as this is a local favorite of my hometown, I had to get the scoop on the Roasted Pumpkin Ale straight from the source. The pumpkins are grown and harvested from local Critz Farm in Cazenovia, NY. Tim personally supervises and participates in the harvesting. Once the pumpkins are harvested and brought to the brewery, Tim and his assistant brewer, Matt, clean and cut all the pumpkins into approximately two inch chunks, season them with maple and cinnamon, and roast them until they are beautifully caramelized. These are added to the mash, and the ale is then brewed as it would be normally. During the whirlpool Tim will add his secret, fresh five-spice pumpkin pie blend and allow the beer to ferment as normal.
“One of the main things I focus on when brewing any type of ‘flavored’ beer, I want to make sure that it tastes like beer first and foremost,” stated Tim. “I want the beer to be enriched by the earthiness of the pumpkins with a hint of spice to add further complexity to the brew, not overwhelm it with an artificial flavoring.”
Roasted Pumpkin Ale is only available at the brewery or the bar, so you won’t find any in stores. However, you are more than welcome to fill a growler and take it with you.
In picturesque Penn Yan, NY, a farm brewery was built out of an 1800’s barn with the goal to make finely crafted beers. Smoking Pumpkin is one of these fine brews. Head Brewer Jeff Fairbrother smokes Heirloom pumpkins over applewood for a few hours then skins them to remove any burned spots. What is left is only the “delicious smoked flesh” which is added to the mash in the lauter tun. “We also add a few butternut squashes to add a little sweetness,” stated Jeff during our conversation. Smoked Pumpkin is “all about the pumpkin,” quite literally.
Good Nature Brewing’s Pumpkin Brown Ale is a must have during the season. Their brown ale is one of my favorites from this style. I feel it has an exceptional base from which to create a brown ale and the word, genius, comes to mind. The natural maltiness of the brown is greatly enriched with the added subtle spice mix and the use of freshly harvested pie pumpkins from Mosher Farms in Bouckville, NY. The downside is that this brew is only available in their Tap Room in the town center of Hamilton, NY. You can take a growler to go, will not find it on shelves anywhere.
Avery Brewing wanted to find out what potion they could devise with a “monstrous pumpkin ale, plump full of spicy gourdiness… aged in fine fresh rum barrels to add suggestions of delicate oak and candied molasses.” The result was the decadent Rumpkin, the first member of Avery’s Annual Barrel-Aged Series brewed with roasted pumpkins from a local Boulder County farm, and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.
This beer is made from pumpkins specifically grown for Rusty Nickel by local Zittel’s Farms in Eden, NY. Using one of the their brewer’s oldest recipes, Rusty Nickel stays true to the season by waiting until the harvest is at its peak of ripeness. The brewer personally inspects all the pumpkins before brewing with their unique (trade secrets you know) method. “The resulting beer is sweet, malty and just the right amount of spice to make it taste like a pumpkin pie. Just like Grandma used to make!!”
Wolavers’ pumpkin is an unfiltered, organic golden amber ale with “well balanced malts and hops,” that is mildly spiced. It is brewed with local, organic pumpkins, grown by Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, Vermont.