The History and Home brew of Pumpkin Ale

Love it or hate it, pumpkin ale is the “Marmite” of the beer world. I really enjoy a pumpkin beer, the light spices evoke memories of crisp autumnal walks through the fallen leaves and cosying up to an open fire in the evenings. I remember that the first pumpkin beer I tried was Brewdog’s Pumpkin King and I fell in love with the style. Since then, each October, I am on the hunt for a pumpkin beer but they are quite rare. It’s not a style that many British breweries adopt, though I did manage to get my hand on Elusive’s Carve n’ Yams Pumpkin Coffee Porter at Independent Spirit this year which was delicious! I was also very excited to find Flying Dog’s The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale whilst placing an order with Beer Hop so of course that went into my basket. In the UK pumpkin is not an ingredient that is widely used in our cooking and each year on the 1st November I see people on social media trying to find creative ways to recycle their Halloween carving pumpkins. Unlike the United States where pumpkin really is King and is the birthplace of the original pumpkin ale.

The history of the pumpkin ale goes back to 17th and 18th centuries in New England when colonists had limited access to wheat or barley, particularly as they moved into the winter months. Pumpkins grew like weeds here and with large patches popping up everywhere these gourds became a staple ingredient to the colonial diet. Even today in America there are still many dishes that champion this ingredient such as pumpkin pie, bread as well as beer. The European colonists yearned for the traditional ales of home but as grains were scarce and reserved for making bread or feeding livestock it was discovered that pumpkin would be perfect for making beer. Rather than used for its flavour pumpkin is a great source of starch which can be converted in fermentable sugars. Adjuncts would then be added such as corn, molasses, spruce or any other ingredients that could foraged nearby. As more English, Czech and German migrants sailed over to the United States and agriculture developed they opted to use grains they were more familiar to working with the pumpkin ale slowly started to disappear from historic brewing recipes.

Pumpkin ale did make a comeback during the American Craft Beer Movement in the 1980s and it was Bill Owens of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery who, after finding an intriguing recipe in amongst texts written by George Washington, decided to revive the style. As pumpkin is very mild in flavour, Bill and his team redesigned pumpkin ale by first seeking inspiration from the flavours of pumpkin pie and then by adding hops as well as spices to create a beer that is now considered synonymous with the harvest.

Since the American Craft Beer Movement pumpkin beer has been recognised by the BCJP as an, ‘Autumn Seasonal Beer’ and is a great style for brewers to be creative with. Something I wanted to do when I began brewing my own pumpkin ale …

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I came across a home brew recipe for pumpkin ale in Two Thirsty Gardeners’ book, Brew It Yourself. I, like Bill Owens, have always been intrigued to try brewing my own pumpkin beer, particularly as they are a relatively rare style for breweries in the UK. After much persuasion I managed to convince my partner Josh to help me brew a pumpkin ale on a small batch scale with bits of kit cobbled together that I now call the Pilot Brewery. There was no better day to start brewing this style then on Halloween itself! I already had a carving pumpkin that I had painted on rather than carved out which was promptly chopped up and popped in the oven to roast whilst we prepared the spices. Josh came up with the idea to add oak wood chips in with the roasted pumpkin at the boil as well as in with the spice mix which we also soaked in spice rum. We hoped that the result of this would give the pumpkin beer a wooden rum “barrel aged” depth of flavour.

After patiently waiting 2 weeks for the pumpkin ale to be bottle conditioned it was ready to try! With a celebratory pop I released the swing top followed by what liked a spooky autumnal mist that rose out of the bottle. As I poured the pumpkin beer it was a deliciously rich chestnut colour and was slightly translucent in appearance. I went to take my first sip and straight away I picked up the familiar smell of ginger biscuits on the nose. As I went to taste the beer the flavour of ginger nut biscuits was instant on the palate but there was also something sweet and fruity in the background which reminded Josh of one of his favourite deserts, Banoffee Pie. The banana-like flavour really complimented the spices which are balanced by the sweet toffee notes from the malt. The comforting alcohol warmth from the rum really does evoke memories of being sat next to a crackling open fire. As I was reaching the bottom of my glass my mind began to wonder, what would this beer taste like if it was warmed up like a mulled cider or wine?

One afternoon, after putting up the Christmas Tree and decorations, Josh presented me a glass of my pumpkin beer warmed through with a slice of orange and an extra splash of rum. This really gave the beer a festive twist and I realised that even though pumpkin ale is a celebration of the harvest and autumn it is also the perfect winter warmer – even without heating up!

Overall I am really pleased with the result and proud of my first attempt at brewing a pumpkin ale. It is definitely a great way to recycle an old Halloween decoration. Despite Josh not being a fan of pumpkin beers he found that he actually quite enjoyed this one. As it has gone down so well hopefully I can convince Josh into helping me brew a pumpkin ale again next Autumn!

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