If Charlie Brown brewed beer, I imagine that he would brew a beer called "The Great Pumpkin Ale." Regardless of how farfetched this may sound, at least I have your attention. Pumpkin or pompion beers, as recent an innovation as they may seem, actually have a history dating back to the colonial American period. Pumpkins are indigenous to North America and have been used, at least parts of them, by Native Americans since 6000BC. When settling the original colonies, keeping a steady supply of beer was a top priority for colonists. The creation of ale helped colonists feel more at home. Legend has it that, the Pilgrims only made landfall in Plymouth because their beer supply was running low. Since malt was extremely hard to come by, it was expensive to import and hard to grow in New England, colonists learned to use a broad range of fruits and vegetables in order to make an alcoholic beverage. Some of the more popular vegetables were squash or more specifically, pumpkins. Pumpkins were used in brewing extensively up until the 1800’s when grain production in North America offset the need for pumpkins to be used in beer anymore. As a result, pumpkins died off as a common ingredient in brewing. Fast-forward to modern American beer culture and there are pumpkin beers galore! Reinstated by the demand of innovation from craft beer seekers, pumpkin beers have become all the rage in recent years with new variations being produced each year.
So, how do you craft a pumpkin beer at home? (Warning you should have previous homebrewing experience to attempt this style). Pumpkin beers really come down to three levels of complexity when crafting: the base beer, the pumpkin and the spicing.
The base beer is the foundation and can come in many different forms. I have seen pumpkin beers that originated from pale lagers and scotch ales all the way to sour blends and hefeweizens. If you’re not into creating anything too crazy, most pumpkin ales begin with a malt bill that is more aligned with an amber ale or Marzen. A smooth malty beer with limited hops and caramelly toasted flavors – think pumpkin pie! Yeast is the other part of the equation and is really up to your preference. Some use a more forward English yeast to develop complex flavor profiles, while others use a neutral clean fermenting yeast to allow the malts and spices to shine through. Most keep the hops subtle and low key to prevent weird combinations of hop and spice flavors and aromas. The hops are really only used for bittering to balance out the sweetness of the malt, and most skip the flavor and aroma hop additions.
Pumpkins are no friend to mashing and brewing, in fact they make it much more complicated. They are high in sticky glucans, water and proteins, which makes it tough when using them in the mash. It’s quite a challenge to obtain any sugar contributions to your wort without using an extensive amount of pumpkin pulp and they can add a slightly sour and astringent note to your beer. That being said, this is a pumpkin beer so you must be up for the challenge! You can roast the pumpkin in an oven with brown sugar to help add character to your finished beer or you can boil them to make the pumpkin meat softer and easier to use. Most large scale breweries use an already prepared pumpkin puree. If using whole pumpkins, look for ones that are high in fiber since they contain more sugar than other varietals.
When to add them you might ask? This area is a little bit hazy and totally up to the brewer. Some breweries add pumpkin directly to the mash (be careful when adding pumpkin to the mash as their sticky glucans can create a stuck mash which is no fun). Others will add pumpkin to the boil, some add during fermentation and some add pumpkin during all three steps. The consensus is that it doesn’t really alter the flavor of the finished product drastically when adding pumpkins to the brewing process so experiment and find out what you like best.
Finally, we get to the most controversial part of brewing a proper pumpkin beer, what spices and in what quantities do you add them to your beer? There is no golden answer to this question, and even the pros have different theories on spice additions. The most common spices include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice, and vanilla. You can also add honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, and molasses to make the flavor combinations infinite. However, balancing the beer without overwhelming any singular aspect of the beer is your main goal. If you decide to go higher on the spiced side then make sure you balance the beer with sweetness, bitterness, pumpkin, and alcohol; it’s a delicate dance to make sure the base beer doesn’t get lost. Most spices are added to the end of the boil so that their aromas are not boiled off and carry over into the finished beer.
In closing, pumpkin beers have come a long way from early colonial renditions. Try to make your pumpkin beer as unique as possible without forgetting these simple guidelines that I outlined for you. Happy brewing!
Beer fanatic is quite the understatement when describing Nate Reynolds. From brands to home brews, Nate knows it all (or at least wants to). Obsessed since early college years, Nate dreamed to make a career for himself in the beer industry. Posts written by Nate will be packed full of information (seriously, gauntlets of information) because frankly… that’s what he’s all about; educating people about beer. When he’s not working, Nate can be found brewing up something funky in the Adirondacks with his beautiful wife and Aussies, or at an EQX concert!