It’s that time of year again—and yes, for the day after Halloween, I believe it truly is that time of year again—pumpkin beer time! If you’ve been reading this blog long enough—or if you know me in person—then you know I am an unapologetic pumpkin beer fan. I’ve been drinking them for a long time, brewing them nearly as long, and try to convince brewers to brew them. If there’s one on tap, I will try it.
That being said, I know they are the beer world’s version of fruitcake (which I also happen to like). I’m not immune to that, and there are some aspects of how pumpkin beers are treated, both in brewing and in marketing, that bug me. To that end I had some fun writing up this “manifesto.”
Item 1. Pumpkin Beer Is Not Only For Halloween. Look, I know Halloween and pumpkins (in the form of jack-o’lanterns) have a long association, and that as a marketing ploy, selling pumpkin beer as a Halloween seasonal style is an extension of that. The numbers reflect this: sales of pumpkin beer drop dramatically immediately after the holiday, so brewers release their beers as early as possible to capture as much of the pre-holiday market as possible.
But in reality, pumpkins have a longer historical association with Thanksgiving, and I can’t be the only one who’s always associated the squash with that holiday more than All Hallow’s Eve! I’ve been drinking and brewing pumpkin beers since the ’90s, and to me these were always Thanksgiving beers. Pumpkin beer season should actually start right around Halloween (brewed with the used jack-o’lanterns) and reach its peak by late November. (Christmas is acceptable, too.) Plus, with so many pumpkin beers tasting like pumpkin pie, it’s always baffled me that the sales departments never really tried to market them as such for the holidays.
So I would love to see pumpkin beer considered as a proper Thanksgiving/harvest/fall seasonal, and marketed accordingly. And yes, while I would like them to stick around longer (or later), that does not mean we should be seeing the inevitable early releases hitting the shelves and lingering around all that time, which takes me to a corollary…
Item 1a. Pumpkins Have A Season. Like any other agricultural product, pumpkins have a growing season and a harvest period. That harvest time is the autumn. It’s not July, it’s not August, and for many it’s not even September. I understand the allure of the year-round availability of canned and frozen pumpkin—I’ve brewed with canned pumpkin myself because it’s convenient and it works—but if nobody wants to eat pumpkin pie or drink Pumpkin Spiced Lattes in May and June, why should they want to drink pumpkin beer then? Brewers should approach pumpkins in the same way they approach fresh hops: as a harvest season with a relatively narrow window.
Item 2. Pumpkin Beers Must Contain Real Pumpkin. This seems like it should be so obvious as to not need to be said—but unfortunately, there are some breweries out there who brew “pumpkin ales” without actually using pumpkin (or any other kind of squash), only pumpkin spices. This actually started with Buffalo Bill’s Brewery and William Owens, credited with creating the modern American pumpkin beer. (Fairly ironic, that.)
Despite what Buffalo Bill believed, pumpkin does have a flavor which it contributes to a beer along with mouthfeel. Sometimes it’s subtle. Not sure what pumpkin by itself tastes like? Why not? You have eaten plain pumpkin, haven’t you?
And there’s no reason brewers have to confine themselves to just the flesh of the pumpkin either. Why not use the seeds? (They have been used by some brewers.) And if you want to get really creative, what about the blossoms?
Item 3. Pumpkin Beers Shall Not Be Overspiced. You’d think this shouldn’t have to be said, but this is one of the biggest sins that can be made with these beers, and I believe the main source of derision many people have for them. But all too often you come across that overspiced cinnamon or clove bomb, spicing so harsh and heavy-handed that the beer just finished astringent, woody, and medicinal. What I have to ask is: do these brewers not taste their beers? Are they unaware of this problem? And do they really think everything “pumpkin” has to have a dirtclod of so-called “pumpkin spice” dropped into it?
Less is more, and in all things “spice” and “beer” moderation and balance needs to be strived for. Thus:
Item 4. Spices Can Be Used, And They Must Be Balanced. I am actually just fine with using spices in a pumpkin beer. (Also in other styles if it can be made to work.) Used properly, spices can enhance and add complexity to a beer, just as they can when used in cooking. The key of course is balance. Think about what aspect of the beer would benefit with a balance or a complement of spices—the malt (too sweet, too roasty)? The hops (spicy notes that would counter, say, ginger well)? Now dial it back and start even smaller. It’s like adding salt to food: you can always add more, but you can never take it back once you’ve gone too far.
And don’t be afraid to be creative. Not every pumpkin beer has to have cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves. What about cardamom? Peppercorns? Chiles? Caraway? Juniper berries? Grains of paradise? Star anise? Rosemary? Try this exercise: grab a cookbook, or fire up Google, and find some savory pumpkin dish recipes, and think about how the flavors in those complement the pumpkin. Even better, try cooking one or more of those recipes—see, it’s not just pumpkin pie!
Item 5. Pumpkin Beers Are Not The Most Disgusting Beers You Can Drink. I always scratch my head at the assertion by pumpkin beer haters that they don’t like them because they are “disgusting,” when really there are much weirder and more disgusting beers out there (some or many of which the pumpkin haters would drink!). For instance:
- Remember Wynkoop Brewing’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout? That racked up decent scores on the ratings sites. Unfamiliar with Rocky Mountain oysters? Google will help you…
- Rogue Ales brews a beer with yeast harvest from brewmaster John Maier’s beard.
- But also don’t forget Rogue’s Voodoo Doughnut series of beers!
- Hvalur 2 from Iceland’s Brugghús Steðja is an ale brewed with whale testicles smoked in sheep dung. Yes, you read that right. This one doesn’t have scores as high as Wynkoop’s beer however. Shockingly.
- Some of the weird collaboration beers that come from Stone Brewing. That carrot cake ale they released? I’m sorry, but no, it was undrinkable to me.
- And this beer from Omnipollo:
I mean… just… what?
Look, just like any other style of beer, there will be bad examples of pumpkin beer. But a blanket condemnation of them based on a few examples of overspiced bombs would be like saying all IPAs are bad because some have fruit (or flour) added.
And I’d rather drink a mediocre pumpkin ale than a hazy IPA made with actual hamburgers and fries any day.