Oh my gourd there are a lot of pumpkin beers out there. Last we checked, the number climbed to well over a thousand labels. What would George Washington (yes, that George Washington) think of what’s become of his recipe with squash in the mash? Did you know a scribbled note on the back of one of Washington’s journals inspired the first modern pumpkin beer that hit shelves in 1986—Pumpkin Ale from Buffalo Bill’s Brewery? Since then, the somewhat polarizing craft brew, with hints of jack-o-lantern, has evolved into an autumn tradition as certain as Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown’s kick.
Bill Owens, the former brewer who gets credit for reviving pumpkin ale, told Beer Advocate years ago that he first tried a batch using roasted pumpkins and it tasted like, well, it wasn’t good at all. “There was no flavor,” Owens said. “If you think about it, pumpkin is basically a neutral starch that converts to sugar. Even if you cook it, there’s no real flavor there.”
Owens improvised and added spices and pumpkin pie juice to get the flavor he wanted. He kept some real pumpkin in it and so do a lot of today’s brewers, but not all of them. We asked ABC beer specialist, Steve Crowley, about trends in pumpkin beers and he told us a lot of brewers are using yams instead and adding cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices to capture that pumpkin pie taste or the feel of a cool autumn day. “Beer with just pumpkin tastes like nothing,” Steve says. “It’s mostly the spices that give it the flavor people want.”
There’s somewhat of a love-hate relationship with pumpkin ales among beer drinkers. That’s because one of the biggest changes in pumpkin beer over the years is it’s arrival and how quickly it goes. It’s made available to us at ABC stores in July. That’s right, July, when 85 degrees starts to feel like a cool day in Florida. It’s a little bit like seeing Christmas decorations at the mall by Halloween. Is it that time of the year already?
Like it or not, pumpkin beers are a hit no matter when they arrive. We love them because they’re seasonal and give people a sense that the dog days of summer are almost over. Carve out some time to sample some soon because the early arrivals are selling quickly. By the time Thanksgiving gets here, most of the pumpkin ales will be gone until next year.
Good news! Winter beers are almost here.