The Rise of the Great Pumpkins

By John Holl

Long before the foliage transforms from green to autumnal hues, one can tell the seasons are changing by the vibrant and bright orange packaging found on craft beer shelves across the country. What was once the season dominated by Oktoberfest styles, autumn is quickly becoming the pumpkin beer time of year.

With a flavor that is warm and inviting, the ales (and sometimes lagers) are usually spiced in the same way one would expect a serving of pumpkin pie.

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery of Hayward, CA claims responsibility for reviving the style, which has roots dating back to the American Revolution. After opening the brewery doors in the early 1980s, then owner Bill Owens read a historical account that General George Washington, a known homebrewer, would use pumpkins in batches of beer.

It was a style Owens thought would appeal to customers, so in 1985 he and the brewery staff used a 65-pound pumpkin in the mash to create the first batch of what was then called “Punkin Ale.” A 7% ABV ale, it was sold in 24oz bottles for $3.50 each. It was later called “Pumpkin Ale” and today is sold throughout the country with a line on the packaging calling it “America’s Original.”

Buffalo Bill Pumpkin AleIf Buffalo Bills was indeed first, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there is no shortage of compliments coming out of America’s craft breweries. Not simply defined by a geographical region, pumpkin beers are brewed nearly everywhere and the breweries, as usual, have gotten creative with the names.

On shelves and on draft one can expect to see Pumking (Southern Tier), Ichabod Ale (New Holland), Punkin Ale (Dogfish Head), The Great Pumpkin (Heavy Seas), Pumple Drumkin (Cisco Brewers) Hipp-O-Lantern (Riverhorse Brewing) and the list goes on and on.

Last month, during the Great American Beer Festival all three medal winners, out of 28 entries, in the Field Beer category were pumpkin beers. Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale (Hoppin’ Frog Brewing Co.) took the gold. Dark O’ the Moon (Elysian Brewing Co) earned the silver and the Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Weyerbacher Brewing Co.) was awarded bronze.

Field beers, according to style guidelines, are those that use vegetables as an adjunct. Vegetable qualities, the style notes “should not be overpowered by hop character.”

Elysian’s Dark O’ the Moon is one of three beers that are bottled and distributed by the Washington state brewery. They make at least two more each year on draft and brewery officials said they have likely made 20 different pumpkin beers over the years. Their love of the round orange squash is so great that each October the brewery hosts a two-day event called The Great Pumpkin Beer Festival.

Now in its 6th year, the festival is scheduled for October 16-17 at their Capitol Hill Brewery (1221 East Pike Street, Seattle) and will feature more than 30 pumpkin beers, food fit for cooler weather, pumpkin carving, and the release of their Great Pumpkin Ale. At 8.1% ABV, the brewery describes it as: “deep copper with ghostly white head. Intense pumpkin, sugar and spice on the nose with a nice bready and malty backdrop to tame all those autumn spices into a remarkably smooth, balanced and delectable fall treat.”

The festival is the brewery’s biggest day of the year, according to Dick Cantwell, the owner and head brewer at Elysian. “The first year we had a line out the door for ten hours.  Now we fill our parking lot with five serving stations each pouring five pumpkin beers in order to accommodate the crowds.”

To cram in even more pumpkin flavor, Cantwell said the brewery also taps a huge pumpkin full of pumpkin-conditioned beer (secondary fermentation takes place in the pumpkin).

When available, most brewers will use real pumpkin in the beers over syrupy extracts that are popular in other fruit/vegetable-flavored beers. Nearly all of the brewers add pumpkin to the mash, but others take it a step further, adding the vegetable to brew kettles and fermentation tanks for a bit more harvest flavor kick. Of the pumpkin beers on the market, the majority of the brewers turn to flavors usually associated with pumpkin pie. One can expect any variety of cinnamon, nutmeg or all spice on the nose and taste, in some cases dampening the typically mellow flavor of the pumpkin and adding sweetness.

It can be like dessert in a glass.

While most of the pumpkin beers on the market follow in the amber-ale style, Cape Ann Brewing Company in Massachusetts is one of a handful that releases a pumpkin stout each year. For Jeremy Goldberg, the head brewer, it just made sense.

He thought about pumpkin pie as a dessert and how it is typically served with coffee. What else comes out at dessert? Chocolate.

“The flavors associated with a stout fit very well with pumpkin,” he said noting that the brewery ads real pumpkin to the mash during the brewing process. “It is more of an additional flavor, as opposed to the primary attribute of the beer.”

The subtle flavor of the pumpkin blends nicely with the roasted malts that bring out hints of java and coca.

Goldberg said the Pumpkin Stout, which clocks in at 7% ABV, is the brewery’s most popular seasonal offering. This year, Cape Ann Brewing Company also released an imperial version of the pumpkin stout at 11% ABV in 22oz bottles.

With all the great pumpkin beers being offered these days, one can’t help but imagine an adult Linus van Pelt of Peanuts fame, waiting to trade in his favorite blanket for one the season’s first pumkin beers.


JohnHollJohn Holl writes about American craft beer and the culture of drinking. He is the co-author of a soon to be released book about Indiana Breweries and occasionally uses twitter where you can follow him @John_Holl