Autumn's arrival means pumpkin beer is back

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By: Eric Strader

Eric Strader

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” – Henry David Thoreau

It seems we’ve been able to avoid a good portion of the “dog days” of summer and are now heading into fall. Some hop crops have been harvested, and others, like mine, are not quite ready yet. So even as we long for those wet-hopped harvest ales, pumpkin beers have already been on the shelves for several weeks. I personally avoid noticing them until at least after Labor Day. With that holiday now past, I’ll allow myself to enjoy the pumpkin beers available.

Pumpkin beers are not anything new, although one might think so with the resurgence of brewers making them. There is a long history of brewing with pumpkins that started with early European settlers who arrived here with little access to good malted barley (or unmalted barley, for that matter). Needing fermentable sugars for their brewing, they found and began using pumpkins that were native to this land. Many of the colonists’ early beers were brewed with just the meat of pumpkins and no malt.

Brewing with pumpkin meat continued throughout the 18th century, but began to lose popularity early in the 19th century. During the colonial revival of the 1840s, pumpkin began to be used again. However, it was only used for added flavor and not as a main ingredient. The wave of pumpkin beers in recent history began with Buffalo Bills Brewery, which has been brewing America’s Original Pumpkin Ale (6% ABV) since 1985. The brewery states that it used one of George Washington’s own recipes as inspiration.

Many pumpkin beers today use lots of spices such as nutmeg, ginger, clove and cinnamon, with an end result of “pumpkin pie in a glass.” America’s Original Pumpkin Ale is one such beer – however, recently there have been many more choices that have big pumpkin flavor without the pie spices. One source I found cited more than 400 pumpkin beers; however, I found more than 600 different pumpkin beers listed on BeerAdvocate.com.

Pumpkin beers are generally fall seasonals, and the pumpkin flavor can be introduced in a variety of ways. Sometimes whole pieces of pumpkin are added to the mash, while other times pumpkin puree or flavoring is added. Malt flavor generally takes a front seat over hop flavor, with usually little to no bitterness. Roasting the pumpkin can add even more depth and flavor character, and pumpkin beer styles of today range from light ales to brown ales to stouts and porters.

Here are just a few pumpkin ales that I picked up and enjoyed recently:

With Alaskan Brewing Company now available in Michigan, I was able to easily pick up some Alaskan Pumpkin Porter (7 percent ABV, IBUs 25). This was introduced in the brewery’s pilot series last year, available only in 22 oz. bottles. It is now the newest seasonal release from Alaskan Brewing available in 12 oz. bottle six packs. Because of the long summer daylight hours, Alaska produces some of the world’s largest pumpkins. Alaskan Brewing uses over 11 pounds of pumpkin per barrel, in addition to alder wood-smoked malt, brown sugar and some holiday spices. I actually tasted less of the spice, more of the pumpkin and some nice notes of chocolate, vanilla and smoke. This is a medium- to full-bodied beer with a creamy finish that makes for a nice dessert beer.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (7 percent ABV, IBUs 28) is just recently available in Indiana again, as Dogfish re-entered the market after being absent for a few years. Punkin Ale is named after a southern Delaware event called Punkin Chunkin (check out some of these Discovery Channel videos of Punkin Chunkin – you gotta see it to believe it). The beer made its debut and won first prize that year (1994) in the Punkin Chunkin Recipe Contest. This light- to medium-bodied brown ale has lots of good pumpkin flavor, with some of those pie spices in the background. It is a bit more carbonated than some of the others, which is fine for this style.

A new pumpkin beer for me this year is Rivertown Pumpkin Ale (5 percent ABV), brewed with pumpkin, molasses, cinnamon and added spices. This is a fuller-bodied ale, probably from the molasses, and I’m wondering if maybe the brewery might have even roasted the pumpkin before brewing. There is a nice richness to this without giving into the pie spice flavor. According to Rivertown, “This is how we do pumpkin pie. Best served at 55 degrees Fahrenheit in a wide pub glass.”

I always enjoy a good stout, and Southern Tier Warlock (imperial pumpkin stout, 8.6 percent ABV) is a great stout brewed with pumpkin. This is only its second annual release, and I have heard some chatter that this year’s version is not a good as last year’s. However, I have no point of reference, with this being my first tasting. The brew is part of Southern Tier’s Blackwater Series of high gravity beers, and suggested pairings include spicy BBQ and smoked or roasted foods. The brewery also suggests adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make a float, and with my love of beer floats, I think I just might have to try it.  

For those cold fall nights, what’s better than an imperial pumpkin ale like Southern Tier Pumking (8.6 percent ABV)? For many years, Pumking was the leading favorite pumpkin beer among beer geeks, and with good reason. If you like pumpkin pie, this medium-bodied beer will be right up your alley. Until last year, this was close to the top of my pumpkin beer list. Then I discovered Schlafly Brewing Pumpkin Ale (8 percent ABV, IBUs 16). The pie spices are there, but for me, it’s the wonderful pumpkin flavor that I love. Both of these beers will very likely be found on tap throughout Michiana during the fall.

Another favorite that went away when Michigan Brewing Company went out of business is back. Griffin Claw Brewing Co. has purchased the rights to brew Screamin’ Pumpkin Ale. This is only available in Michigan in 16 oz. four-packs of cans.  Just for fun, the Brimingham, Mich., based brewery has put its fall seasonal in glow-in-the-dark cans.

And if you are looking for a local option, it should not be too long before Chip Lewis at Iechyd Da will be brewing up some Yam Bam Thank You Ma’am (6.4 percent ABV). Instead of pumpkin, Chip brews his fall seasonal with roasted sweet potatoes and a light spicing of ginger, vanilla and cinnamon. The only person who may not be looking forward to this is Summer Lewis, who has had to roast all of those sweet potatoes in the past.

Last year at Goshen’s October First Friday, Jeff Thomas of Thomas Stieglitz Brewing was pouring his Jolly Jack Pumpkin Ale right from a pumpkin. He filled the carved pumpkin with his beer, put it in the fridge overnight and then drove a tap into the base of the pumpkin. I thought it was a wonderful presentation, and it was also a wonderful beer.

I will leave you with the lyrics of an early American folk song written in 1643:

”Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies;

We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon;

If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone

… Hey down, down, hey down derry down….

If barley be wanting to make into malt

We must be contented and think it no fault

For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips!“

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