To look at the market, one might assume that pumpkin ales are a recent invention, riding on the coattails of certain spiced coffees and dessert items. Culturally, pumpkins are synonymous with Halloween, Thanksgiving and all things autumnal. But the history of pumpkin ales stretches even back further than the history of this country, when European colonists first began to settle in the Americas, and Native Americans shared the secrets of the crop.
Most school children learn of the hardships of the pilgrims, and how their the Native Americans aided in their plight with knowledge of the land and the crops which could be grown there. Pumpkins are a perfect example of this exchange. When planted alongside corn and beans (the three sisters, as the natives referred to them), they were simple to grow and yielded many fruit for minimal effort. This squash was an easily-cultivated alternative in a lot of foods, from baked goods to soups. Pumpkins were so prolific, one of America’s first folk songs mentions their necessity.
“Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon;
If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone
… Hey down, down, hey down derry down….
If barley be wanting to make into malt
We must be contented and think it no fault
For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips.”
So it’s not surprising that when malted barley, the main source of sugar in fermentation, was hard to come by, pumpkins were used as a readily available resource. As easily grown as pumpkins were, pumpkin ale remained a regular beverage into the 18th century. But the long-held view of pumpkins as a poor-man’s food overcame the popularity, especially as good quality malt became more accessible, and pumpkin ale went out of fashion. Occasionally, it had a small revival as a flavoring agent, but none so great as the one that has bloomed in the last thirty years when home brewers and craft breweries have taken such inspiration as from George Washington’s pumpkin ale recipes or trying to capture pumpkin pie in a bottle to create a new, flavorful generation of pumpkin ales. Adding spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and clove has become commonplace, and most pumpkin ales are not fermented pumpkin sugars, but simply use pumpkin as an adjunct. Though the newest rendition of the style may be far different, it still harkens back to a time when pumpkins were the only crop to be used in a variety of dishes.
If you’ve somehow managed to miss this phenomena, here’s a few pumpkin ales worth a try:
Jacque au Lantern – Evolution
Imperial Pumpkin Ale – Long Trail
Wilhelm Scream – Magic Hat
Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter – Redhook
Pumpkin Patch Ale – Rogue Ales
Pumpkin Wheat – Shock Top
Boxcarr Pumpkin Porter – Starr Hill
Master of Pumpkins – Troegs
Punk’n – Uinta
Pumpkin Ale – Susquehanna Brewing
Baked Pumpkin – Lancaster Brewing
Country Pumpkin – Ithaca Beer
Pumpkick – New Belgium