Lush greens of summer are morphing to the vibrant red and orange hues of fall. For beer lovers this changing of the season strongly influences the flavors of beer we seek to enjoy. The crisp refreshing beers of summer do not lose their universal appeal, but rich and malty beers find a more frequent home in our glasses on cool fall evenings than they do on sweltering summer nights. Perhaps this is a subconscious recognition of the scarcity to come and a desire to acquire sustenance in preparation for the cold hard winter ahead? Esoteric musings aside there is no question that the beer selections change this time of year and one of the most popular for October is the beloved (and bemoaned) Pumpkin Beer.
The humble pumpkin is an indigenous plant of North America and Native Americans used the pumpkin as a staple of their diet for centuries before the European colonists arrived. Life was hard for the colonists and barley for brewing in particular was in short supply. The prolific pumpkin was frequently employed to supplement the fermentable material needed to make the rustic ales that were part of their daily lives. But as the availability of quality brewing malts in America increased in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the use of pumpkin in beer fell from favor and was effectively relegated to the history books of brewing. Far from going away however, the orange gourd continued to be a dietary staple. In fact, what is considered the earliest truly American cookbook (American Cookery) was published in 1796 containing a recipe for Pumpkin Pie that would be quite familiar to many of us today, relying on sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to flavor the custard baked in a pastry shell. Fast forward to modern day America and this combination of spices alone could quite easily convince all but the most discriminating of palates that the dish or beverage being sampled contained pumpkin.
The trend of combining these spices (and maybe a couple others – I’m looking at you clove and allspice) into food stuffs beyond the beloved pumpkin pie saw massive growth in the early 2000’s. Commonly attributed to the Pumpkin Spice Latte first served by Starbucks in 2003, the craze is beginning to show signs of waning. Though there are definitely committed folks on both sides of the love/hate debate. But what of their inclusion in beer. Here we should take a brief detour and discuss Gruit. Long before hops became the dominant “spice” used in brewing to provide balance to the sweetness of malted barley, myriad herbs and spices were employed by brewers. In fact, the evolution from herb/spice based gruit to hop based beer was bitterly resisted in Germany and Britain, two of the world’s most famous beer brewing cultures. This transformation is part of a fascinating story of religion, politics and brewing science that caused much upheaval in 16th century Europe. But this is not the core topic of the day and the primary point here is to note that the use of spices in beer has a long and storied tradition.
But what about modern pumpkin beer? For that we can thank Bill Owens and his seminal brewery, Buffalo Bill’s, in Hayward, CA. In the mid-1980’s Bill was researching historical pumpkin beers and decided to brew one for his customers. What he quickly learned was that pumpkin is relatively bland with only a mild earthy squash character. It contributed some color, but little flavor to the beer. What his brew needed was a pinch of gruit. Leaning on the tradition of these ancient brews he lowered his hop addition and added traditional American pumpkin pie spices. The very ones that had by then practically defined American fall comfort food, and thus was born the modern American Pumpkin beer.
The window to sample pumpkin beer is short. Appearing first on store shelves or on tap at your local watering hole in September and ignominiously relegated to the sale bin by December. Many different variations exist from light and subtle to rich and unmistakably spiced. I recommend trying several brands to find one that best suits your palate. “Make your own six pack” or larger format bottles are good options for tasting several different brewer’s interpretations. Even better, invite a few friends over and open several for the group, odds are, you’ll each prefer a different one. Remember, beer is a social beverage, best enjoyed in the company of others.
Cheers – Keith