It usually tastes like warming pie spices; it reappears every year as we approach autumn; and it’s incredibly divisive, inspiring fervent delight in some and vehement disdain in others—and no, it is not the pumpkin spice latte! It’s its colder cousin in the fall beverage family: pumpkin beer. Love it or loathe it, find out exactly what’s in pumpkin ale, how it’s made, where it came from, and which brands are the best.
What is pumpkin beer?
This might seem like a silly question, but it’s worth addressing. First off, you should know that all beer is ale or lager. Most pumpkin beers, whether they’re in the style of a porter, stout, or amber (by far the most common types of pumpkin beer), are ales. There are a few notable examples of pumpkin lager, but they’re rare. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) classifies pumpkin beers as an “Autumn Seasonal Beer” and further defines those as “beers that suggest cool weather and the autumn harvest season, and may include pumpkin or other squashes, and the associated spices.” But they also note that “many interpretations are possible.”
Indeed, some breweries get quite creative, from adding chile peppers (as in New Belgium’s Atomic Pumpkin Ale and Wicked Weed’s Xibalba, which also mixes chocolate with the peppers and pumpkin spice), to aging their brews in rum or bourbon barrels (Avery’s Rumpkin is officially one of the booziest pumpkin beers around, with an ABV well into the double digits). If you want to bridge the gap between pumpkin beer and PSL, you can find pumpkin ales that also contain coffee, like Elysian Brewing’s Stumptown-spiked Punkuccino. (Elysian puts out several other delicious pumpkin ales, and are so into the style that they throw a Great Pumpkin Beer Festival every year, at which they tap beers that were actually conditioned inside giant pumpkins).
You can find plenty of other departures from the standard pumpkin beer—for a baseline flavor, Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale is a reliable standby and good example of the basic form—but even the more inventive versions will usually include the familiar festive blend of spices.
So, is there actually pumpkin in pumpkin beer?
Sometimes, yes, but not always.
In the vast majority of cases, it might be more accurate to call these seasonal releases pumpkin pie beers, because most of them are brewed with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and sometimes ginger, and often include vanilla as well. These flavors are great in small doses, but easily become overpowering—which is why some pumpkin beers end up tasting too acrid or potpourri-like.
Conversely, beer brewed with nothing but pumpkin runs the risk of tasting like, well, nothing at all—or at least nothing special. The actual flavor of pumpkin and squash is pretty subtle, even when you’re talking about the sweeter varieties. There’s a little earthiness, and a certain…squashiness, but on their own, they’re rather unassuming, and even underwhelming. In order to influence a beer’s flavor, they have to be added in the right form and at the right stage(s).
In addition to being added along with the barley in the mash tun (where pumpkin primarily provides fermentable sugars), it can also be added to the brew kettle, where it imparts some flavor, and/or can be added afterward—along with the familiar spices pumpkin so often pals around with—to infuse a bit more of its squashy essence. It can be added in various forms too, whether raw, steamed (or more often roasted, which intensifies the flavor) and pureed, or cooked down into super-concentrated pumpkin juice.
However, since the flavor of actual pumpkin can remain so timid—or, as the BJCP guidelines put it, “elusive”—some breweries don’t even bother, and only add pumpkin pie spices to their ales. Whether or not these should technically be called pumpkin beers is probably a moot point by now. It also probably won’t shock you to know that some brewers use artificial pumpkin flavoring.
Who invented pumpkin beer?
pumpkins are native to the Americas and already grew abundantly on this continent before Europeans even showed up. They loved beer, but were short on barley to make into malt in those early days of settlement, so they turned to pumpkins, since their surfeit of fermentable sugars made them a great ale ingredient. (Molasses was another favorite colonial alternative to grain.)Pumpkin beer actually existed (in different form) all the way back in the Colonial era, which isn’t too surprising when you consider the fact that
The earliest known written recipe for any form of pumpkin beer dates back to 1771:
“Let the Pompion [as pumpkins were then called] be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After that Intention is answered let the liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer.”
Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson all allegedly brewed pumpkin beers (among harder alcohol), but they clearly would have been a far cry from the heavily spiced stuff we buy in bottles come autumn.
The first incarnation of that modern pumpkin ale was cooked up at Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in 1985; some sources say ’86, but all agree that Bill Owens was inspired to try it after reading about Washington’s squashy suds, in fact. Much like the colonists, he added home-grown roasted pumpkin to a batch, along with the mash. The finished beer’s flavor was lacking, in that it didn’t taste like pumpkin at all. So he went to the grocery store, bought some pumpkin pie spice, and added that to the ale, which greatly improved it—and led to our current style of pumpkin beer, for better or worse.
What are the best pumpkin beers?
It’s all subjective, of course, but Draft Magazine tasted 86 different pumpkin beers in an effort to find out which were tops, so that’s a great place to start. And you can always peruse all the pumpkin beers listed and rated on Beer Advocate, look up ones that pique your interest on RateBeer—or head to your local bottle shop (or grocery store with a good selection) and ask for recommendations. Sure, you run the risk of eye rolls, but if you like pumpkin beers, press on, and fight the gourd fight.
Incidentally, you can do other things with pumpkin beer besides drink it (convenient, because even when you adore it, it can be hard to get though a whole six-pack). The sweeter spices make pumpkin ale a good choice for autumnal beer desserts, but it can also work in beer chili and beer bread.
So strap in, enjoy drinking liquid pumpkin pie (and sometimes actual pumpkin) for the next couple of months—or at least graciously tolerate those of us who do have a taste for it—and prepare for the barrage of Christmas beers to commence once Thanksgiving is over. Pumpkin beer will then quickly retreat from our collective consciousness until returning to squash summer once again next October (or, if we’re being honest, probably more like late August or early September). Some of us can already hardly wait. For everyone else, be grateful that you can get IPAs all year round, or drink wine instead.
Check out all the best of pumpkins on Chowhound.
Related Video: Pumpkin Spice—So Much More Than a Latte
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.