With the oppressive heat of summer in Northeast Florida still blanketing the land, autumn seems unbearably distant. Nevertheless, the eagerly awaited fall seasonal beers are already showing up on local beer store shelves. And that means this year’s crop of spicy, malty pumpkin brews are ready for consumption.
According to Great American Beer Festival rules, “Pumpkin beers are any beers using pumpkins (Cucurbito pepo) as an adjunct in either mash, kettle, primary or secondary fermentation, providing obvious (ranging from subtle to intense), yet harmonious, qualities.” In other words, the omnipresent fall gourd must be used in the beer.
But the real story lies in the origins of the beer.
Two factions cannot agree whether modern pumpkin brews have a true style history. One side maintains that the flavored fall brew is a completely modern fabrication and the brews we call pumpkin beers — many full of spices like cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice — have no historical basis. The other side points to recipes uncovered by historians that indicate pumpkins have been used as a fermentable in beer for hundreds of years. The annual argument continues ad nauseum until someone enjoys too many pumpkin ales and passes out.
So who’s right?
In America’s early days, malted barley had to be imported and thus was extremely hard to obtain. This made the brews very expensive, inaccessible to the poorer classes. So, in the spirit of true American ingenuity, colonists began searching for other items to use as sources of sugar in their brews. Pumpkins were indigenous to the New World, so colonial brewmeisters began adding it to their product.
In a beer recipe from Ben Franklin’s organization, the American Philosophical Society, published in the early 1700s, pompion is mentioned as a main ingredient. Pompion, an archaic word for pumpkin, was a common ingredient in beer along with apples, corn, parsnips and several other oddities. But, as the detractors would say, the recipe doesn’t mention spices, therefore, it cannot be a real pumpkin beer as we currently know it.
In 1863, a reference in History of Hadley by Sylvester Judd again mentions the usage of pumpkins and apples in the brew kettle. The recipe includes additives like hops and birch twigs for flavoring. Interestingly, this recipe also cites the use of malted barley. From this one can only conclude that pumpkin was added to the brew for flavoring, not as a fermentable, because the barley would provide enough sugars for fermentation.
Does that put to rest the feud about pumpkin beers’ historical roots? Not by a long shot — but it does give you something to ponder to form your own opinion as you try these pumpkin ales:
Cigar City Seasonal Creep
Full of chocolate, pumpkin and spice flavors, this seasonal pumpkin ale is a hearty brew sure to satisfy pumpkin cravings.
Southern Tier Pumking
Sweet, full of pumpkin pie filling spice flavors, this beer is like a slice of Grandma’s standard Thanksgiving dessert without the overeating and the weird uncle camped out on the sofa.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Cardamom and clove give this entry a witbier-like flavor amped up with plentiful pumpkin and caramel. At 8 percent ABV, enjoy a few, but leave the driving to someone else. (But not that uncle.)