Saturday, November 26, 2016

What's in a Name: Pumpkin Beer

Ok, so nobody actually uses these giant pumpkins for anything
but Jack-o-lanterns. Look for the softball sized pumpkins to eat.
On this most American of holidays today, where we all gather together to feast, drink, and have heated arguments about politics and conspiracy theories with our relatives, I thought it appropriate to delve into our own most contentious of issues in the craft beer world: Pumpkin Beer. Possibly the most divisive beer I know of, most people either love these beers or detest them.

First, we have to clear one thing up. There is not one "pumpkin beer" style. There are actually two somewhat distinct, somewhat overlapping styles. There is "pumpkin beer" actually brewed with pumpkin, and there is "pumpkin spice beer" that is brewed to mimic pumpkin pie. I feel that pumpkin pie is actually the second greatest gift the pilgrims gave America after beer, so I find this just perfect.


Pumpkin is a hard starchy winter squash. Squash, especially hard winter squashes, aren't really known for their explosion of flavor. I would put the flavor level of pumpkin somewhere between a potato and a cucumber. It really only has a slight kind of an odd tinge of compost pile and barnyard animal. This faint earthy flavor is all that you get in the final beer if you brew with it.

So adding only pumpkin to a beer recipe is a big like adding honey--it boosts alcohol, gives a lighter body to the beer, but imparts a very slight flavor similar to rye malt. Most brewers of pumpkin beers still put at least a hint of spices in their recipe to boost the flavor of these beers because otherwise it's kind of pointless. However, if you want to taste some pumpkin, I suggest Mother's Mr. Pumpkin. This beer has that earthy pumpkin flavor up front with a little spice behind it to back it up.

Mother's Mr Pumpkin--the most pumpkin flavor you're likely to find in the beer isle.
Pumpkin pie is based primarily on pumpkin (duh) with a bunch of exotic spices. These are mainly nutmeg, clove, and allspice. We typically think of these spices as fall or winter "holiday" spices. But why these exotic spices that grow mostly in southeast Asia and Indonesia and have nothing to do with America or harvest season? The reason is they used to be exorbitantly expensive. Oftentimes, people only got to taste these spices once a year because it was such an expensive treat. If you need any proof that these spices aren't specially suited to cold weather, go eat some Indian food and taste the nutmeg, allspice, and clove in the curry that is eaten all year round in the hottest and most humid climate you can imagine.

If liquid pumpkin pie is your goal, Schlafly
Pumpkin Ale is your beer.
Pumpkin spice beer is typically brewed strong, sweet, fully bodied and full of spices to be analogous pumpkin pie. The strength also helps the base beer to stand up to the bold spices. These pumpkin spice beers may or may not have any pumpkin in them at all. If you love pumpkin pie, and want to go down this road, I suggest the fantastically over-the-top Schlafly Pumpkin Ale. This beer is an unapologetic pumpkin spice beer. Big, alcoholic, sweet, and super spicy. Basically it's liquid pumpkin pie and it's glorious.

Pumpkin beers get a bad rap and I'm not totally sure why. I have two theories. One is that of seasonal creep. The first pumpkin beer I saw out this year was in August. Pumpkins don't become ripe until October. Also, when it's 100 degrees outside, the last thing I want to reach for is a 8% alcohol, full bodied, sweet beer. So when these beers are released in August, consumers feel the need to buy up their favorite pumpkin beer for fear of it being gone when they actually want to drink it. Then by the time they want to drink it, it's already losing it's flavor after sitting in their fridge for 2 or 3 months. I have a feeling this really turns off beer consumers from the style.

The other reason is the pumpkin spice madness we're currently subjected too. Up until about 5 years ago, pumpkin pie spiced things were pretty much relegated to pumpkin pie and some obscure pumpkin beers. Now, there's pumpkin spiced fucking everything and practically every brewery is making a pumpkin beer--some more than one. If people could get past the trend and taste the beer for the beer, I think they might enjoy it more. But I know that's hard when your racist uncle shows up to Thanksgiving dinner with a 6-pack of this awesome new "craft beer" (that is, some macro brew with pumpkin in it) and wants to discuss the election with you over some brewskies, I realize this can be hard.

So on this Thanksgiving, let's just be thankful that we can even have a silly debate over pumpkin beer and raise a glass of whatever you're drinking. Cheers everyone and have a great Thanksgiving!

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