'Tis the Season for Pumpkin Beer!
References to pumpkin beer date back to the 1600s, but as it grew more popular – particularly in the new world – heading into the 1800s, it wasn’t thought of as the seasonal treat beer drinkers know today. Instead, pumpkin beer came about for two key reasons: A shortage of malts, and because pumpkin beer was believed to be a healthful beverage.
While European malts weren’t always easy to obtain in the Americas, pumpkins were native and plentiful. And brewers found the meat of a pumpkin would ferment and take the place of malts. Voila! Beer.
Meantime, since the pumpkin is a healthy fruit to begin with, physicians considered pumpkin beer to be a health tonic of sorts. And let’s face it, if someone says, “Drink this beer, it’s good for you,” well, who’s going to refuse? It’s beer.
As one would imagine, the increased accessibility to malts helped fuel the demise of the pumpkin for beer-making purposes, but a small brewery known as Buffalo Bill’s Brewery is credited with reviving pumpkin beer in the late 1980s, giving way to that aforementioned seasonal, pie-in-a-glass treat that we find in relative abundance every October.
I tracked down some random pumpkin beers from around the Midwest and eastern U.S., and here’s what I found:
Southern Tier Pumking (8.6 percent ABV): Some consider Pumking to be the king of pumpkin beers – thus the name? Or perhaps the name gave way to the legend. Either way, this is among the best I tasted. I don’t really even like pumpkin beers because of their tendency to be sweet; this one, however, is more tart than sweet, with a nice bite at the back that grows sharper with each sip. This one tastes more like a pumpkin bread than the pumpkin pie flavor many of its peers puts forth, with just nominal spice. (And be careful – at 8.6 ABV, this one sneaks up on you.)
Schlafly Pumpkin Ale (8.0 percent ABV, 16 IBU): St. Louis’ Schlafly rarely disappoints, and yet I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this beer. It starts from the first sniff, coming on like apple pie baked with perhaps more cinnamon than is necessary. On the palate, the first quality that hits you is the spiciness – there are big flavors here, led by a familiar cinnamon heat. And while it smells pie-level sweet on the nose, it isn’t nearly so sweet in flavor, instead reaching across the palate with complexity thanks to a variety of grains and even some chocolate to go with the pumpkin squash.
Blackstone Pumpkin Ale (5.1 percent ABV): When in Nashville, drink like the Nashvillians do. And if you’re around those parts in the fall, you can’t go wrong with Blackstone Brewing Company’s Pumpkin Ale. A bright, orange-y pumpkin color, this ale has a light nose but big flavor. Interestingly, the cinnamon on the nose gives way to a burst of refreshing pumpkin flavor when it glides over your palate, revealing hints of allspice and even sweet potatoes.
Buffalo Bill’s Brewery America’s Original Pumpkin Ale (6.0 percent ABV): This is the original, and one wonders if this is what pumpkin beer tasted like in the 1800s. It’s slightly sour, with just a hint of spice – nutmeg seems to be the one that is most prevalent. To the eye, it’s cloudy orange, while the body is lighter than it would appear on the surface – it’s very refreshing and easy to drink. Whereas most of the modern pumpkin beers go for the pumpkin pie experience, this one seems to hold true to the flavor of actual pumpkin, without the gratuitous sweetness. What a concept! Cinnamon does not even really enter the equation. This is probably what Jack-o-Lantern vomit tastes like; but in a good way.
Blue Moon Brewing Company Harvest Pumpkin Ale (5.7 percent ABV): This one leans on nutmeg and allspice, packing a nice pumpkin nose and bigger flavor. I’m not a fan of Blue Moon Belgian White, but this is pretty impressive, and Blue Moon brags that it was the first nationally available pumpkin beer, beginning its run in 1995. It has a malty quality, plenty of spices without a lot of bite and drinks very smoothly. It has a crispness at first drink, but the malts quickly coat your mouth. I’d gauge this as one of those comfort beers you drink while you’re hanging out in your pajamas, watching your favorite movie. Something like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”
Brooklyn Brewery Post Road Pumpkin Ale (5.0 percent ABV): OK, forget the gimmicks – much like the Buffalo Bill’s version, this is an ale, not just a pumpkin beer. Nice hop bite and only a hint of the fruitiness of most pumpkin beers. Plus, the signature spices that threaten to make pumpkin beers taste the same take a decided back seat here. The mouthfeel is slightly malty, and yet there’s a pleasant dry finish that sends you back in for another drink. Recommended.
Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat (5.2 Percent ABV): This one certainly looks the part, sporting a deep orange hue common to pumpkin beer (or pumpkin anything, really), but the nose is thin and the flavor is perhaps even thinner. This one pulls way back, not offering up much in the way of spice or complexity and letting the mild pumpkin flavor do most of the talking. As such, it ends up being a refreshing, casual drink best suited to an unadventurous palate. I’m no fan of Shock Top beers, but this one is, well, serviceable if unremarkable.