When asked to pick the beer that truly represents America, few would likely select the pumpkin beer.
Budweiser and Coors’ mass-market pale lagers probably would be the unanimous choice, but that style was brought over by German immigrants in the 19th century.
Long before the Germans gave us the lager, colonial brewers with little supplies were harvesting pumpkins for their mashes, creating a proletariat brew that now divides the craft brewing crowd.
Love it or hate it, pumpkin beer is probably the most American beer you can drink. And it is arguably the most popular for this time of year. Shelves are filled with pumpkin ales — that ubiquitous autumnal beverage that seems to disappear as soon as Thanksgiving ends.
Every year, more and more Colorado brewers try to figure out a new way to brew the gourd and be the first out of the blocks with something unusual.
One brewery even got a local farmer to grow pumpkins out of season to make the brew even earlier.
Boulder’s Upslope Brewing Co. — the only Colorado brewery to win a Great American Beer Festival medal for a pumpkin beer — got Munson Farms to plant baby bear pumpkins in March and use protective measures to allow the gourds to grow off-season. The sweet pumpkins are baked and are the key to the brew, said Matt Cutter, Upslope’s founder.
Getting a head start allowed the brewery to submit the ale for this year’s GABF for the first time since it won the gold in 2011.
“We have people who are asking when our pumpkin ale is going to be released starting in early summer,” Cutter said. “It is a very ritualistic beer. (Pumpkin beers) are a very big part of that time of year. It’s like the first time you put on a sweatshirt in the fall. It is a rite of passage.”
The style is the Christmas fruitcake of beer — emblematic of the season, traditional and almost completely ignored the rest of the year. To some, pumpkin beer is a tasty hint of the autumn to come. To others, it is a seasonal gimmick — a concoction that can taste like a pumpkin-spiced latte or pulp.
Many breweries try to make the version with beers that taste like pumpkin pie replicas. There are porters, stouts, boozy ales with names like New Belgium’s Pumpkick, Bull & Bush’s Ghoul Fuel, Wynkoop’s Drunkin’ Pumpkin, Odell’s Oh My Gourd, 4 Noses’ Pumpkin Booty or Denver Beer Co.’s Ichabod’s Revenge Pumpkin’d Ale.
Some use puree, some roast their pumpkins and throw it in the mash and some just do it with the spices.
The style was reborn in the modern era in the mid-1980s when Bill Owens, founder of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, cooked up the first modern-day pumpkin ale, according to Jeff Alworth in his book, “The Beer Bible.”
“He grew the pumpkin himself and added it to an amber ale, but alas, ‘There was no pumpkin in the flavor,'” Alworth writes. “It occurred to him that he might evoke a squashy flavor if he added pumpkin pie spice to the conditioning tank just prior to carbonation. The beer was a hit and in the three decades since, Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale has had many, many imitators.”
Now pumpkin beers make up an estimated three percent of the overall craft volume — impressive for a beer around for only about 13 weeks, according to Bart Watson of the Brewers Association. In fact, Watson said, seasonal beers are the second-most popular craft beers behind Indian pale ales. In the 13 weeks before Nov. 30 in 2014, seasonals accounted for nearly 21 percent of the total craft volume share, according to the IRI Group. Pumpkin beers are clearly the most popular in the seasonal group, Watson said.
Brewers have tried to both placate the pumpkin crowd and draw in skeptics with creativity.
Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs offers Emma’s Pumpkin Saison brewed with Garam masala, brown sugar and torch roasted and caramelized sugar pumpkins that makes it taste “just like pumpkin pie … in Belgium,” according to its website.
Avery’s big, boozy Rumpkin, at 18 percent alcohol by volume, is notable among the Colorado versions. The beer was the brewery’s first in its annual barrel-aged series — aged in rum barrels and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. And it is difficult to forget.
Upslope’s Pumpkin Ale, which will be released in cans in mid-September, is one of the brewery’s most popular beers. This year the brewery will produce 540 barrels, an increase over last year, said Cutter, Upslope’s founder.
“The demand has grown in Colorado,” Cutter said. “We always try to shoot for a beer-forward pumpkin ale. A balanced beer in terms of sweetness of sugars from the pumpkins but not overspiced.”
Upslope works with Savory Spice of Boulder to find the right blend. The pumpkin ale contains, among other things, blade mace, the outer shell of the nutmeg that has a light, sweet flavor.
Epic Brewing’s distributor encouraged the brewer to produce a more accessible pumpkin beer beyond its “Fermentation without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter” — which is a collaboration with the Washington, D.C., Brau Brewing Co. That dark beer uses fresh Madagascar vanilla beans with other spices to produce a pumpkin beer with chocolatey tones.
Epic brewer Kevin Crompton said he worked for almost a year to find the perfect recipe for Epic’s new pumpkin ale, Gourdian, which was released only in Colorado. The canned beer is, in effect, the anti-pumpkin pumpkin beer.
“I just don’t like pumpkin beers that are like pumpkin pies in a glass,” he said. “It is gimmicky and those brewers are not trying hard.”
Crompton said he wanted the new brew to replicate a good loaf of pumpkin bread with bitter chocolate chips and was inspired by a nearby bakery.
“We tested it four times before we landed on the flavor profile,” he said, using pumpkin puree, star anise, cacao nibs, orange zest and Saigon cinnamon.
Whether you like the style or not, there is probably a pumpkin beer out there that may be the perfect fit. After all, it is about as American as a beer as you will find.