Pumpkin Ale: America’s Oktoberfestbier

Style Profile by | Oct 2008 | Issue #21
Cambridge Brewing Company's Great Pumpkin Ale.

Every autumn they roll out the Pumpkin Ale, a testament to mankind’s genetic impulse to take anything that grows and turn it into booze. Sugar, rice, barley, corn, whatever—let’s cook it, ferment it and see what happens. But pumpkins?

We’re talking jack-o’-lanterns, Charlie Brown and Linus, over the river and through the woods to your grandmother’s Thanksgiving pie. What kind of sick puppy came up with the idea of defiling an innocent melon with demon alcohol?

Would you believe George Washington? That’s the story from Bill Owens, the former brewer who gets credit for reviving Pumpkin Ale more than 20 years ago. “I was reading in a brewing book that [George] Washington used squash in his mash,” Owens told me. “I thought it was a great idea.”

It was 1986, the early days of the American microbrew revolution. Adventurous young brewers, throwing off the shackles of industrial lager monotony, were boldly experimenting with all kinds of ingredients. Owens, who would become an icon in the craft beer movement, was running Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, Calif.

He tried out a batch of ale with roasted pumpkins, and it tasted, well, like crap. “There was no flavor,” Owens said. “If you think about it, pumpkin is basically a neutral starch that converts to sugar. Even if you cook it, there’s no real flavor there.”

What it was missing, he said, was all the good stuff your mom adds to her pumpkin pie recipe: cinnamon, ginger, cloves. “So I walked to the grocery store across the street, picked up a can of pumpkin pie spices, brought it back and put it in a coffee pot and percolated a gallon of pumpkin pie juice. Voilà, real pumpkin flavor!”

Even with a full-bodied taste, it might’ve been a one-time curiosity, disappearing into history with the likes of Vanilla Porter. After all, George Washington notwithstanding, America hasn’t exactly experienced a long-standing Pumpkin Ale tradition.

Somehow, though, beer drinkers have gotten hooked on the gourd. For many, it’s a nice transition from light summer lagers, putting them in the spirit of the harvest season. For others, it’s a twist on October’s malty Märzens.

“People just can’t wait for the beer every year,” said David Buhler, whose Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company has made no fewer than a dozen different styles. Over the years, it’s turned out everything from Pumpkin Weizen to Scottish pumpkin aged in a Jack Daniel’s barrel. It even does a secondary fermentation inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, pouring the spiced ale through a firkin tap directly into waiting pints.

Yes, Buhler conceded, it’s mainly the spices that give pumpkin beer its character. But all that pulp, whether from fresh pumpkins or puree, provides “a depth that spiced beers just don’t have on their own … It should remind you of pumpkin pie—not just the taste, but the mouthfeel, the weight, the depth.”

Back when Owens brewed his first batch, you might have chalked it up to a passing fad. But no longer. Even Anheuser-Busch brews one. Pumpkin beer, said Buhler, “just might be the new American Oktoberfest.”

: Roasted malt with an assertive spice character; very low hops
Flavor: Maltiness accented with cinnamon, ginger and clove; low bitterness
ABV: 4–7 percent
Examples: Southern Tier Pumking, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin, Dogfish Head Punkin, Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin, Post Road Pumpkin, Harvest Moon Pumpkin, Shipyard Pumpkinhead, New Holland Ichabod, Cambridge Brewing Company Great Pumpkin Ale (pictured)