It’s that time of year again. In every store that sells craft beer, there is a blaze-orange display of pumpkin beers. These spiced-up brews tend to be a love-it-or-leave-it proposition. Some drinkers can’t get enough. Others will have nothing to do with them. For those inclined toward them, the season is short. They’ll be gone by early November.
Pumpkin beers have a long history in the United States. In early colonial times, brewing barley was expensive to import. Settlers supplemented with native-growing plants to source the sugars needed to make beer, among them pumpkins and squash. The first Thanksgiving is said to have included ales made with pumpkin.
Modern pumpkin beers originated as a gimmick in the mid-1980s. California brewpub owner Bill Owens didn’t want to waste a giant gourd he had grown in his backyard. He brought it to his pub, roasted it, and added it to a spiced amber ale. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale was an instant success with pub patrons. Its popularity led him to bottle it, making it the nation’s first commercially distributed pumpkin ale.
Pumpkin ales come in all shapes and sizes — high alcohol and low, ale and lager, pale, amber or black. Most do include some amount of pumpkin in the brewing process, but very little flavor actually comes from the squash. They rely on pumpkin pie spices, such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger and clove to communicate the effect. Some forgo the use of pumpkin altogether.
The enduring popularity of these beers has led to plenty of choices for those who love them.
The standard pumpkin ale is amber-colored, malt-forward and seasoned with spices. Slightly elevated alcohol content gives it a soothing warmth to ease the fall chill. Though the balance of flavors varies, the basic theme of graham-cracker and caramel balanced by zippy spices holds true across the board.
One standout example is Painted Ladies Pumpkin Spice Ale from Tyranena Brewing Co. in Lake Mills, Wis. Allspice and ginger lead in the nose, but malt takes over in the flavor. There is a more pronounced squash flavor than in some other examples. This pie-like ale gives you both the crust and the pumpkin custard filling.
New Holland Brewing Company’s Ichabod distinguishes itself with a more pronounced hop presence. Malt and spices still give a pumpkin pie impression, but bright, orange and grapefruit zest hop notes offer a refreshingly fruity counterpoint.
If you like a stronger brew, the 9-percent-alcohol Smashed Pumpkin from Shipyard Brewing is for you. It is built on a rich and chewy base of caramel and graham cracker, with hints of butterscotch to round things out. The ginger, nutmeg and allspice are prominent, but never get in the way. This is one for sipping by the fire.
Those who prefer dark beers will like Epic Brewing’s Imperial Pumpkin Porter. This creamy brew flows like silk across the tongue, bringing with it flavors of dark chocolate, cinnamon and ginger. Moderate sweetness is cut by a light touch of bitterness from roasted grains. While there is nothing particularly “pumpkin” about this beer, its spiced truffle profile more than makes up for that.
With Warlock, Southern Tier Brewing Co. brings the pumpkin treatment to an Imperial stout. Hazelnuts, chocolate and caramel lead the way, with subtler tones of vanilla and butterscotch adding depth. Ginger and nutmeg spicing is gentle. A high note of orange adds a pleasant counterpoint. This would be a great beer to drink with s’mores.
Red Hook’s Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter brings the black with less alcohol heft than the others. The roasted malt character is more bitter, leaning more toward coffee than chocolate. But the interplay of coffee and spice is quite nice. Neither overwhelms the other. This beer puts the porter first, with the idea of pumpkin pie as a supporting layer.
Sour beers are all the rage right now, and fans of the funk needn’t feel left out of the pumpkin beer party. Timmerman’s Pumpkin Lambicus combines the acidity and earthiness of a traditional Belgian lambic with the assuredly nontraditional taste of pumpkin and spice. The vegetal sweetness of pumpkin comes through clearly in this beer along with a hint of brown sugar. The sharp bite of cinnamon stick comes in the middle and sustains all the way through to the finish. This sounds like a bit of a train wreck, but I actually found it quite pleasant. If you like the sour beers of Belgium, give this a try.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.