The Year in Beer is in the process of drinking and rebooting. In the interim, please enjoy a timely post about the history of Pumpkin Beers.
It is with our most humble pleasure to bring to you the history and magnificence of the Pumpkin Ale. As ubiquitous as candy corn, mashed potatoes, cornucopias, and hayrides, the Pumpkin Ale is a symbol of autumn. The most delicious symbol of autumn (perhaps only second to your mom’s apple pie).
While adding pumpkin and spices to beer might seem like the most natural thing in the world, Pumpkin Ales are in fact manmade. And even more shocking, this cold ambrosia has only been around for the last ~400 years. We know, we can’t begin to fathom a world without Pumpkin Ales, but those times once existed. Let’s just be thankful we live in 2012 and not 1600.
The Tale of the Ale of Necessity
The origin of the Pumpkin Ale has its roots in a colonizing America. In fact, Pumpkin Ales were some of the first beers brewed in the New World. Picture this: you’ve been on a rough, two months-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean in a boat alongside a hundred other fellow disgruntled Separatists. Although you are strong in your convictions and know in your heart of hearts that coming to America is the right thing to do, you’re already missing pub culture back in England. But, you think, the New World HAS to have beer, right? How could any of these self-respecting Englishmen (and Dutch) leave for a country without beer?
Well, let’s just say that when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, no one greeted them with welcome beer cocktails. No one greeted them at all, really.
So our pilgrims land and quickly learn that the New World, while rife with exotic goods such as corn and tobacco, is void of barely. One of the key ingredients of beer. (Insert a series of old timey expletives.) Well, these colonialists were a scrappy bunch (pretty much a requisite for surviving in these lands), and not long after their arrival, they began experimenting with new beer recipes.
As with all other facets of colonial life, the pilgrims had to make do with what was available to them. Hence, in lieu of barely, for example, local ingredients were used for brewing. One of these was pumpkin, plentiful in the New World. The first mention of this experimentation was in a 1643 folk song depicting food culture in the colonies:
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. 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.
It’s becoming evident that our country was built on pumpkins. Anyways. These necessity-based Pumpkin Ales were consumed into the late 19th century. However, once brewers gained access to the ingredients for regular ol’ beer, the pumpkin ale disappeared. Why, you ask? Well, the Pumpkin Ale of days past wasn’t a symbol of the holidays like it is today. Instead, it was a symbol of scrappy beer making in the early days of the US of A. (Frankly, it probably wasn’t all that great.)
The Modern Pumpkin Ale: A Love Story
However, the Pumpkin Ales you know and love (FANATICALLY ADORE) are of a more modern luxury. Like many other historic styles, the Pumpkin Ale reemerged in the 1980s as the craft beer movement developed. As the story goes, we all have Buffalo Bill to thank. Allegedly, Bill Owen, owner of Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub, went out into his garden one day, picked a pumpkin, and brewed a pumpkin beer. Not finding it terribly interesting, he added the notorious flavors we all know and love today: cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. The result? Pumpkin pie in a bottle. As pumpkin pie is recognized as the single best dessert in the world, and beer is clearly the best beverage in the world, it should not come as a shock that many breweries followed Buffalo Bill’s lead. Many Pumpkin Ales now have cult followings (Dogfish Head’s Punkin’ Ale is one of them), with breweries selling out their stock before all of the leaves have fallen.
This reincarnated brew has little resemblance to the early Pumpkin Ales. What would have been a more savory, earthy beer then, is generally a dessert-like brew now. (Although there has been a recent trend of highlighting the natural flavor of the pumpkin.) While many people love it and others find it silly and kitschy, the Pumpkin Ale has nevertheless seeped into the American holiday season. And that’s something for which we are personally thankful.
What to expect
Another recent trend in the Pumpkin beer kingdom has been the emergence of Pumpkin Lagers, Pumpkin Stouts, Imperial Pumpkins…you catch our drift. Brewers are pretty much dumping pumpkin chunks and juice into every style of beer imaginable. Thus, each of the following categories will vary greatly from beer to beer. However, we assume the general characteristic of “awesome” will remain constant.
Sight: The color will generally be a deep amber/mahogany.
Smell: It will range from subtle to overwhelming clove, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon aromas.
Flavor: Like the smell, you should expect familiar holiday flavors. Some pumpkin beers are brewed with roasted pumpkin, giving the brew a slightly smokey taste.
Feel: Expect a watery body from some, and a creamy, thicker body from others. There is little regularity in this category.
And with that, we hope you enjoy the Pumpkin beer season as much as we will. Happy holidays!