Legend has it that on certain gloomy nights in New England, the pumpkin was once employed as a replacement head for horsemen in need. But other than that, it seems like the orange gourd—or squash—had only two primary uses: as a jack-o'-lantern for Halloween, and in pie for Thanksgiving.
Now pumpkin is everywhere during the season, disposed of in all manner of foodstuffs as if it were a civic duty. Even Big Beer has staked a claim in the pumpkin patch, with craft-spoofing spinoffs Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat and Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale. But is anyone really demanding that it also be brewed into our beer?
"Yes, they are," replies Fal Allen, brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing Company. The key to making a pumpkin ale like Anderson Valley's Fall Hornin' palatable is the traditional blend of pumpkin pie spice.
"In reality, pumpkin has very little flavor on its own," says Allen, "so if you want pumpkin flavor, there'd better be a lot of pumpkin in the beer—or you'd better have some spices."
Anderson Valley's Pinchy Jeek Barl amps up the caramelized, roasted pumpkin and spice flavors with six months aging in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels. The spice is low-key and earthy, integrated in the deep amber ale's rich malt flavor, while the kiss of whiskey only provides a sweet sensation, leaving the finish reasonably dry.
In its fourth year of making ACE Pumpkin, the Sebastopol cidermaker is already distributing 40,000 cases, according to Jeffrey House, president of ACE Cider. Don't expect an orange cider—ACE is cagey on any actual pumpkin content. This is more about the pumpkin pie spice. Paired with apple, however, it's a ringer for the mulled, spiced ciders of a later season. Easy drinking.
Fogbelt Brewing's double-duty Scarecrow Pumpkin Oktoberfest leans more on the squash than the spice. "Pumpkin beers can be a polarizing style," says co-owner Paul Hawley, "but this Oktoberfest is subtle on the spice and has been popular in the taproom." The small amount of spice added to the baked pumpkin and grain mash is scarcely detectable above the fresh, Ukiah-grown Nugget hops. As a creamy, earthy take on the Oktoberfest style, it's delicious.
Early American colonists made a sort of beer from pumpkin—probably more out of desperation than trendsetting in the malt beverage category—but the first modern craft pumpkin ale rolled onto the scene 30 years ago, according to Buffalo Bill's Brewery of Hayward. Thus their name of America's Original Pumpkin Ale, an amber ale that offers big hits of cinnamon, clove and brown sugar. Like the beers I tasted above, this was all treat.