Infused with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and other spices more suitable for a cake than a pint, pumpkin beers have been setting the taste of autumn for beer lovers in recent years (even if they’re already showing up in bars and liquor stores as of August). While these pumpkin-infused beers are now part of the estimated $ 600 million pumpkin spice industry, they actually have roots in a colonial drink that was prepared for necessity rather than taste.
The uncomplicated origins of pumpkin beer
Famine was a looming threat to the colonists of New England in the 17th century. The lack of favorites like wheat and barley meant that many families, especially the poor, had to find hardy, varied crops that were easy to grow and that could weather the bitter winters of the northeast. It turns out that pumpkins fit the bill perfectly.
“When [the first colonists in New England] Come here, you want your European cuisine, your European food, but you can̵
Families could fry and eat pumpkin meat, eat a handful of seeds, or mash it with butter and spices. For some, the fact that pumpkins made up the vast majority of their diets was enough to undo poetry with derisive lines like, “We have pumpkins in the morning and pumpkins at noon, if there weren’t any pumpkins we’d undoon.” “
But there was another European staple that pumpkins would knack for in North America: beer.
Without the grains available to make a proper beer, the colonists found they could use pumpkins as a cheap, fermentable filler along with molasses, bran, corn, and other ingredients that the average family could scavenge. Those early pumpkin beers did the job – but they became known as a drink only to the farmers who couldn’t get their hands on the real stuff.
“[Colonists] Rely on the pumpkin as a cheap replacement and it will get you through difficult times, ”says Ott. “But nobody wants it. It really is like the beer of last resort. “In her book Ott writes that the taste was described as“ slightly chirping ”compared to the more serious beers of the time.
A handful of pumpkin beer recipes have survived over the years, including these 1771 instructions for “Pompion Ale” from the American Philosophical Society:
Let the pompion be beaten in a trough as apples. The pressed juice should be boiled in copper for a long time and carefully skimmed over so that no remains of the fibrous part of the pulp are left behind. With that intention answered, hop, cool, ferment & c. as malt beer.
Over time, as agricultural practices improved and better ingredients and brewing techniques emerged, the colonies’ pumpkin beers all but disappeared. That is, until the harvest took on a whole new meaning centuries later.
The forgotten ale gets a manual overhaul
In 1985, Bill Owens, owner of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California, allegedly came across details of a pumpkin beer that George Washington was known to be brewing. Owens – a craft beer pioneer known for his agricultural acumen and particular selection of ingredients (e.g. sourcing specific hops from Tasmania) – wanted to try a more modern twist on the style. His version stipulated that pumpkins should be roasted in his pizza oven and thrown into the brewery’s standard amber beer.
To add a little more to the normally mild taste of pumpkin pepTo take the beer even further from the original recipes, the brewery added spices like nutmeg and cloves. Today Buffalo Bill’s Original Pumpkin Ale is considered the world’s first modern version of the style – although it didn’t immediately catch on with everyone.
“I think we’ve been kind of a joke for the longest time,” Geoff Harries, who worked on these early batches and now serves as the current CEO and Brewmaster at Buffalo Bill’s, told Mental Floss. “Even people like Anheuser-Busch came out with commercials that made fun of all of us who made pumpkin [beers] or something unique. “
Big breweries may have shied away at first, but the burgeoning craft movement has embraced the fancy flavors a pumpkin beer has to offer – at one point Owens even sold the recipe for the beer in a craft brewer’s magazine he published. Within a few years, new brewers were creating their own style, including Garrett Oliver, master brewer at Brooklyn Brewery, whose first batch of the company’s famous Post Road Pumpkin Ale called for 100 5-pound cans of pumpkin puree.
“I think one reason our beer continues to be popular is because of its subtlety,” Oliver told Mental Floss. “It’s not sweet or spicy and it still tastes like a beer … a beer with ‘seasonal pumpkin overtones’.”
By 2014, when the trend was at its height, pumpkin beer sales had increased 1,500 percent over the past 10 years. Today there are more than 1800 different pumpkin beers on BeerAdvocate.com, a digital foam encyclopedia. Many of these beers are even sourced from the world’s greatest brewers, including some from Anheuser-Busch, proving that adding a little pumpkin to your beer is no longer a fringe trend or a last resort ale.