After the summer ales have been finished off and the Oktoberfest beers disappear, another beer rules the shelves: pumpkin ale. In recent years, pumpkin ale has become a treat as loved as the season’s other favorite pumpkin staple, pumpkin pie.
While the discovery of pumpkin ales may seem like a newer trend, pumpkin ales have a deep-rooted history in America’s breweries. Back during Colonial times, pumpkin brews had a different purpose than just tasting delicious and giving drinkers a slight buzz: they were used more as a health tonic. In fact, pumpkin was actually substituted for malt when brewing, because it was it available on the ready and it was an easy sugar to ferment. The earliest recipe for a pumpkin brew appeared in a 1771 text by the American Philosophical Society (because it’s totally understandable for philosophers to be brewing). The recipe:
"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."
But soon, the traditional beer ingredients you’d find today began to wipe out the need for pumpkin in brewing. Pumpkins made a brief comeback in the 1840s, but were used more for flavoring than for brewing. But then, the pumpkin beer made its full return in the 1980s. Serious Drinks credits Buffalo Bill's Brewery for using a George Washington recipe for America’s Original Pumpkin Beer; now, a traditional pumpkin ale includes what are known as pumpkin pie spices — cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Of course, brewing a pumpkin ale comes with a range of problems. If a pumpkin beer is out on shelves too early — say, August or September — it might be made with an older batch of pumpkins. Our friends at The Drink Nation pointed out a tweet earlier this fall from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Any pumpkin beer on shelves now is clearly not made with this year's pumpkin. Pumpkins are not harvested until October or November." In fact, most breweries aren’t using this year’s crop for the freshest batch of pumpkin ales, as most breweries brew it the summer before. Plus, there’s a whole to-do list to ready the pumpkin for brewing — harvesting, packaging, shipping, ordering, delivering — to add onto the two- to three-month brewing process. If breweries used this year’s harvest, the beloved pumpkin ale wouldn’t hit shelves until December. But not all hope is lost, as many breweries use canned pumpkin instead. For example, Dogfish Head uses canned and cooked pumpkin rather than fresh pumpkin for its Punkin brew.
So we grabbed a few six-packs and decided to try them ourselves — after all, it’s really difficult to convince coworkers to start drinking a pumpkin ale on a chilly Friday afternoon. We scored them from 60 percent to 100 percent, much like a school grading system. However, we found that some of the pumpkin ales didn’t taste very pumpkin-y at all. And the office was very divided on the ales with pumpkin spice: some loved the sweet, pumpkin pie flavor, and others said it was too much for a brew. Still, it doesn’t mean we won’t be kicking back a few more pumpkin ales ourselves.
The Daily Meal's Pumpkin Ale Taste Test
|KBC Pumpkin Ale||80.2%|
|Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale||78.1%|
|Southern Tier Pumking||77.2%|
|Dogfish Head Punkin Ale||74.01%|
|Captain Lawrence Pumpkin Ale||71.6%|
|Post Road Pumpkin Ale||68.5%|
|Blue Point Pumpkin Ale||68.2%|
Check out our opinions of the pumpkin ales from our taste test.