Why? Well, let’s see… I like pumpkins, pumpkin pie, the color orange, and autumn is my favorite season — mainly because of Thanksgiving and football, but pumpkin ales now have a dedicated place on the mantle for me. Subconsciously, the love of football and turkey may be contributing to my growing love of America’s most popular seasonal beer. Oh, and of course the taste.
That could be one explanation for the phenomenon that is the ever-earlier pumpkin ale release season. We know that seasonal beer releases account for up to 25% of annual craft beer sales (Zacks via IRI) and that fall seasonals — namely pumpkin ales — are the only beer style to even come close to matching the popularity of the IPA.
Combining the results of the two above charts doesn’t prove that pumpkin ales are to blame for the fall jump in seasonal sales, but it sure speaks volumes in terms of correlation. It leads me to believe that maybe the rest of America loves pumpkin beer just as much as I do. In fact, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery once said,“I feel like we have a native pride in this style, and it’s been awesome to watch all kinds of American brewers put their unique twist on it.” (USA Today quote)
Would you believe that it’s a style that is just about as American as it gets? Although – prior to settling in the Americas – the Europeans didn’t know about the orange squash, it is believed that the Pilgrims were the first to use pumpkins to brew beer. After arriving, the first settlers probably chose not to use barley malt because it was too expensive. Since barley malt is traditionally the main source of sugar used for fermenting beer and since the Pilgrims really loved their good damn beer, they needed an alternative.
It was the Indians who introduced pumpkins to the Pilgrims. Early Native American farmers were practicing a form of sustainable agriculture by growing squash, corn and beans because these sister crops would thrive together. The pumpkin actually became an integral food source for our early settlers. This is probably a little-known fact, but pumpkins store very well and can make it through the Winter months (pumpkin history). It wasn’t long before the Pilgrims discovered that the sugar in pumpkins would work just fine for fermenting beer.
Somewhat related historical fact: President Washington used molasses as a source of sugar to ferment. (Just for the record our first president preferred a good Porter, made in America of course.)
Well, back to pumpkin ale. Don’t freak out, but the Pilgrims may not have used hops in their pumpkin beer. Hops weren’t grown in New England until almost a decade after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. So, imagine your favorite pumpkin ale from today, remove whatever bitterness is there and the spices. That’s what the Pilgrims were drinking – a very plain pumpkin beer.
Eventually, barley became more available and brewing with pumpkins was no longer a necessity. This had to do with the Industrial Revolution arriving in the colonies. Oh, and also Germans in large numbers. Of course, some were brewers bringing with them their trade and beer technology. In 1857, Adolphus Busch came to the United States from Germany, settled in St. Louis, Missouri and married a woman who had a brewer for a father. Guess how that story ends. So, aside from a brief stint in the mid 1800s when its main use was for flavoring, the pumpkin beer was unseen throughout the 19th and most of the 2oth centuries.
Fast forward to today and craft brewers are back to making Pumpkin Ale. The ingredients they use are similar to that in a pumpkin pie. They may include allspice, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon, but typically no fresh pumpkin. Yes, I said, “no fresh pumpkin.” Pumpkins are harvested in the fall, in October and November. If there is pumpkin in the ale you’re drinking, it’s not from this year’s harvest. Think about it, if you harvest in October, add in shipping time, brewing, fermenting, etc. Well, Merry Christmas. Since the goal is typically to recreate the experience of eating pumpkin pie, some feel the spices should be the come on strongest in the flavor. Others think you need to get past the pumpkin pie spices and taste the pumpkin. On a personal note, I agree with the latter.
That being said, some brewers do use real pumpkin. For example, it could be in different forms such as a puree, roasted, or cut pieces of pumpkins added in the mash. According to Randy Mosher, in his book – Beer for All Seasons, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in California is given the nod as the first modern producer of pumpkin ale. It includes some of those spices I mentioned and real pumpkin. Then there is Dogfish Head Punkin Ale – not a typo – which also contains real pumpkin, called pumpkin meat. Also, Samuel Adams’ Harvest Pumpkin Ale contains real pumpkin. The point is that there are pumpkin ales that do include some form of real pumpkin. Not from this year’s harvest, but still pumpkin.
So, there you have it. Not that you needed to know, because you’re about to get pumpkin drunk for the next couple of months. However, now you can choose your Pompion Ale, as it is was spelled in old English, with a greater appreciation and a tad bit more knowledge.
Charts From The Brewers Association: The Pumpkin Beers Are Coming