Trick or treat

Pumpkin beers, the first holiday brews of the year

Photo By kart family (via flickr)

Amid the barrels full of grain, the rubber tubes, the buckets and the brushes, it is obvious that autumn has arrived at the Chico Home Brew Shop (1570 Nord Ave.). Here, co-owner Dawn Letner has been sending home one customer after another with the supplies and instructions for making pumpkin beer. But Letner sometimes gives these customers a warning:

Go easy on the spices.

For pumpkin beers are often made with copious quantities of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, mace and cloves. While most people expect a pumpkin beer to taste like pumpkin pie, Letner feels most of these beers go a few cinnamon sticks too far.

“I’m not crazy about all these spices in beer,” she said. “They tend to override other flavors and become the main event. With pumpkin beers, I’m always warning my customers that once those spices are in there, you can’t get them out again.”

The first pumpkin brew of the modern craft-beer surge was made in Hayward by Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in 1984.

“People were skeptical, like, ‘What?! A squash in a beer?’” Letner recalled.

But the style caught on and spread rapidly. Today, there are hundreds of seasonal pumpkin beers around the country. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has just joined the circus with its first rendition of the style—called an “audition” Pumpkin Ale, the idea being that the beer will become an annual repeat if it proves a winner among customers. The beer, made with pumpkin meat and butternut squash, and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, will be available only in the taproom as well as the brewery’s soon-to-open Berkeley tasting room, the Torpedo Room.

Abe Kabakoff, a brewer with the company, says that Sierra Nevada’s pumpkin beer will be liberally spiced to create a pumpkin-pie essence. “Because when people think of a pumpkin beer, that’s what they want to taste,” he said.

Only trouble is, spicing a beer like pumpkin pie marks it once and for all as a seasonal beer—and when the season ends, so do sales of the beer.

“Pumpkin beers sell really well starting on Oct. 1, and after Thanksgiving, it just dies,” Kabakoff said.

Brewer James Costa of Half Moon Bay Brewing Company says he has seen brewers get overzealous while making pumpkin beers only to find themselves, post-Thanksgiving, with an extra tank of the brew and not a customer interested in having another pint of it. He says he has made just enough of the brewery’s Mavericks Pumpkin Harvest Ale this year to last through November.

Pumpkins are a tricky ingredient for brew-ers to work with. That’s because, although they make a powerful seasonal symbol and a great marketing lever, they are relatively flavorless. Spicing these beers not only bolsters the almost nonexistent pumpkin flavor but also creates the pumpkin-pie taste that Americans tend to expect of anything pumpkin.

Some brewers go to further lengths to pump up their pumpkin beers, not only adding spices but also aging them in liquor barrels.

“It made sense to us, since rum and pumpkin go together,” says Adam Avery, founder of Avery Brewing Company in Colorado, who has just released his annual Rumpkin, a pumpkin-pie-flavored beer aged in rum barrels. This beer is a beast, containing almost 19 percent alcohol by volume—and in terms of brute girth and strength, it surely takes the cake.

Much tamer—and usually available in Chico—is the 7 percent alcohol Punkin Ale, from Dogfish Head in Delaware, brewed with chunks of pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg.

While the pumpkin beer trend is a modern phenomenon, there was, it seems, a tradition in early America of brewing with pumpkins. William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, is currently writing a history of beer under the working title The Brewer’s Tale. Bostwick says pumpkins were frequently used in fermentation projects in colonial America.

But what did these pumpkin-based brews taste like?

One account “in the historical record,” Bostwick said, describes the making of something like pumpkin cider: The pumpkin was roasted, then mashed, and its juices contained in a vessel. Then, it was fermented. There was no mention, he said, of spices in these old-school pumpkin beverages.

Of modern pumpkin beers, Bostwick believes many “are way over the top, like you’re drinking nutmeg soup.”

But Richard Doyle, co-founder of Harpoon Brewery in Boston, which has just released the mildly spiced UFO (“unfiltered offering”) Pumpkin ale, believes there would be no point in such a beer without spices.

“It would kind of be like making pumpkin pie without spices,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the same.”