The beginning of fall finds a new crop of students joining Head Brewer Hutch Kugeman in the Brooklyn Brewery at the CIA Brewhouse. It also unveils a flood of pumpkin beers on shelves and taps around the country. While not nearly as reviled as pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin beers have still been forced into the guilty pleasure category in recent years. But the roots of the beer go much deeper than the ironic #hashtag crowd.
Pumpkin beers first appeared with some of the earliest settlements in the United States. Thirsty colonists stuck far from the maltsters and stable crops of home had to turn to the local flora to find sources of fermentable sugars for beer. The sugar-rich pumpkins littering the landscape fit the bill.
The earliest recorded mention of pumpkin beer is a satirical folk song that dates to approximately 1643, crediting the pumpkin and parsnip alike as adequate substitute ingredients for pies, custards, and the all-important beer and liquor. With lines including, “We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon/If it was not for pumpkin we would be undone,” we see that market fatigue afflicted even the earliest settlers.
Pumpkin beer recipes were refined and spread through the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmhouses, breweries, and public figures like George Washington were noted for their takes on the traditional brew. These newer blends moved away from the purely pumpkin-based models of the past and began to combine pumpkins with standard barley malt. This blend allowed for a fuller flavor, as it turns out the first pumpkin beers had very little going for them aside from being fermentable. Like something out of Harry Potter, the first recipes were brewed with pumpkin juice:
Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After that Intention is answered let the liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer. (American Philosophical Society recipe, c. 1771, cited in the Oxford Companion to Beer.)
Such a thin liquid would ferment easily but produce little flavor. This changed by the mid-1800s, as seen in Sylvester Judd’s 1863 History of Hadley:
In Hadley, around 1800, beer was generally brewed once a week; malt, hops, dried pumpkin, dried apple parings and sometime rye bran, birch twigs and other things were put into the brewing kettle and the liquor was strained through a sieve. This beer was used at home and was carried into the fields by the farmers.
Despite recipes that sounded like compost, the pumpkin continued its reign until the late 1800s. From there the trail goes cold until the 1980s, when craft brewing revived the custom.
(What, you thought we’d get through this history without the gleeful dancing of Pumpkin Headed Guy? Think again.)
“Buffalo Bill” Owens (not the creepy and/or Old West Buffalo Bill) is credited with brewing the first modern pumpkin beer and creating pumpkin spice beer in 1985. Inspired by stories of George Washington brewing with pumpkins, Bill grew, roasted, and brewed with pumpkins at his Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub. The resulting beer was good, but Bill was disappointed by the lack of pumpkin flavor. He picked up a can of pumpkin spice from his local market, percolated it into a quart of water, and presto: pumpkin spice beer was born. American beer and Instagram have never been the same since.
Today, pumpkin beers could be entering another period of obscurity. After years of blazing popularity, recent Google trends indicate a flagging interest in the newly polarizing style. Pumpkin philistines have crowed about this as the death knell of the style. On the other hand, beer shelves across the country are still groaning with pumpkin beers. The #pumpkinbeer hashtag shows no signs of slowing, and there’s surprisingly little snark within the tag.
What does all of this mean for you, the common beer drinker? The same thing all the rest of these history-and-trend articles do: glean your key facts for bar trivia, and keep drinking what you like without being a self-inflated jackanapes about it.
Breweries large and small are still brewing pumpkin ales, from our own Post Road Pumpkin Ale to Sand City Jax’s Patch Over Pumpkin Ale. Give them a shot if you’re interested. Rim the glass with brown sugar and cinnamon if you really want to. Pour it directly into a pie crust for all I care. Or, drink one of the thousands of other fall beers available. Drink deep, and celebrate the fact that there’s a beer for everyone out there, and everyone should get to enjoy their choice.Back to all blog posts