|The Pumpkin Beer Story
It's fall and that means pumpkin beer. It's a style loved by many and loathed by just
as many. The anti-pumpkin feeling however is relatively modern. What isn't modern
is the making of pumpkin beer. It has a long history in the USA that reaches back to
Pumpkin beer first became popular as a major component in coloniall cups of "flip"—
a standard drink throughout the colonies that mixed rum, beer, and sugar. The
reason for the mix was simple - those items were much more easily found in early
America than things needed to produce a more sophisticed brew.
But why use pumpkins instead of malt to make beer? Again the answer was one of
practicality. Pumpkin was adopted simple because of availability. It is a native
American plant. In fact it was completely unknown to most Europeans before the
16th century. On the other hand, good malt was not so readily accessible—
fermentable sugars had to be found where they could, and in the first pumpkin beers,
the meat of the pumpkin took the place of malt entirely.
Pumpkin's great asset in early America was its versatility. It could be used to make
good tasting beer, bread, custards, sauce, molasses, vinegar, and, on thanksgiving
day, pies, as a substitute for what the Puritans said was the "unholy" minced pie.
Here is a method of making pumpkin beer dated to 1771, from the American
Philosophical Society, Philadelphia::
Receipt for Pompion (Pumpkin) Ale: Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough and
pressed 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.
NOTE-There is no cinnamon, no nutmeg, no malt; it's getting sugars for yeast to
metabolize from the flesh of the fruit. Hard-up colonists used all sorts of ingreients for
these sugars, including pumpkin, parsnips, molasses, cornstalks, and more.
Pumpkin beer continued to be a staple throughout the 18th century but its popularity
began to wane by the early 19th century as the pumpkin itself began to be viewed as
something quaint and rustic. Further pushing the pumpkin to the brewer's outhouse
was the new easy access to quality malts thanks to more and more local farmers
growing it as a cash crop. Pumpkin beer made an aborted entry to brewing as a
flavoring agent by the mid 1800s but it failed to catch on with the beer drinking
Today's pumpkin beers have little in common with their colonial ancestors. Instead of
tasting pumpkins, modern versions give you 'pumpkin pie in a glass. Many seem to
use an overbundance of spices such as nutmeg and cloves to cover up the fact that
they've brewed a very mediocre beer without any real pumpkin as a main ingredents.
Generally speaking, pumpkin ale can be found on store shelves from September
through November and the more popular bottles tend to sell out quickly as it does on
draft at bars and restaurants throughout the fall. But where did the notion of reviving
pumpkin beer originate?
The honor is claimed by Buffalo Bill's Brewery, which has been making their
America's Original Pumpkin Beer since the late 1980s, using one of George
Washington's recipes as an inspiration. Although the experimental batches used
pumpkin as an ingredient, the commercial version stuck with pumpkin pie spices
instead though they now make an Imperial Pumpkin Ale with some actual pumpkin.