Pumpkin beer: an exposé

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First Posted: 8/26/2013

As many of you may have noticed, pumpkin beers have begun invading store shelves even earlier this year. Many breweries have made negative statements about this fact, stating that some breweries are using last year’s pumpkin crop or canned pumpkins in their beers to meet the early release date. I have no opinion on that matter; I am a huge fan of many pumpkin beer offerings and, of course, some are better than others, but putting all that aside, what is a pumpkin beer?

Pumpkins are in the squash family of vegetables, a family of vegetables not really known for their huge flavor. So why are pumpkin beers so damn flavorful? Well, the answer is that what many of us refer to as “pumpkin beers” are in fact spiced beers and many of these pumpkin beers do not even contain pumpkin – gasp! Now, of course, many breweries still use pumpkins as well, and there is ongoing dispute whether pumpkins truly add flavor to the beer or not. However, the main spices that are used in pumpkin beers are cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger, with variations of these and others added for unique experiences.

Pumpkin beers have been brewed in the United States for hundreds of years, dating back to the original settlers. The main reason that pumpkins were used was not due to the unbelievable flavor, but because of the vast availability of the gourds. One of the main ingredients required to make beer is malt, and the settlers did not have as much good malt available as they did pumpkins, so a natural substitute was found, as pumpkins have naturally fermentable sugars needed to make beer. Trust me, though; their pumpkin beer was not one that we would enjoy drinking in large quantities today!

So how did we end up with the heavily spiced pumpkin beers that we know and love today? Well, pumpkin beers remained popular in the U.S., and over time, the idea of having a “pumpkin in a glass” developed into “pumpkin pie in a glass.” There is no one real sticking point to hang this change on, though. However, there is one brewery that is credited with reviving this style of beer, and that is Buffalo Bill’s Brewery. Buffalo Bill’s have been brewing their pumpkin ale since the mid-‘80s and have attracted a very loyal fan base for the beer using a recipe based upon one by an avid homebrewer named George Washington; he was also president at one time as well.

The style has continued to grow in popularity year after year, hence the earlier and earlier release dates. We now have great pumpkin offerings from breweries such as Dogfish Head, Smuttynose, Long Trail, and Elysian Brewing Company, with many more breweries releasing pumpkin beers every year. Pumpkin beers are also branching out from simple ales into porters, stouts, and imperial versions.

The term “pumpkin beer” can be very divisive among beer aficionados, with many not wanting to recognize the style or writing it off more as a marketing gimmick than a beer. I am certainly not in that camp, and I believe that pumpkin beers are a fantastic way to bring in the fall season, even if it is still summer.

Living in Northeastern Pennsylvania also gives many of us opportunities to have fantastic pumpkin beers brewed right in our backyard. Whether it is 3 Guys and a Beer’d with their Soul Patch Pumpkin Ale, Breaker Brewing Company’s Potbelly Pumpkin Ale, Stegmaier’s Pumpkin Ale, or Nimble Hill’s Jack Be Nimble Pumpkin Ale – all of these beers are fantastic and brewed right here in NEPA. Not to mention other great pumpkin beers brewed in Pa., such as Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin, a personal favorite, or the ever-so-popular Pumking by Southern Tier, brewed right over the border in N.Y. We are certainly living in the perfect area to drink amazing pumpkin beers.

While it may be a bit too early in the season for some of us to dive into pumpkin beers, there is never a season to not have good beers. So take advantage of the area’s overabundance of great pumpkin beers and try them all while you still can because, after all, they are seasonal, and before you know it, the winter frost will be upon us and all of the pumpkin beers will disappear with Linus and the Great Pumpkin.