Featured Food

HOP LINE: The Politics of Pumpkin Beer

by Evan Crouch
In my day job as a beer peddler, I’m frequently asked one question in particular this time of year: What’s your favorite pumpkin beer? Knowing that this can be a potentially polarizing topic, I have my diplomatic responses at the ready. I also know that, like many things in life, beer preferences – especially pumpkin beer preferences – are a matter of subjective taste. I proceed with caution.

“How do you like your pumpkin beer? Spicy? Sweet? Pumpkin-y? Not-so pumpkin-y?” There are no right or wrong answers to be gleaned from this line of questioning, just information. A common reply: “I’m not sure – just as long as it tastes like fall.” I think to myself, “Well, that leaves it pretty wide open,” but offer an honest injection of personal opinion. “I tend to like the less-sweet-and-spicy renditions – ones that have a solid malt backbone and taste slightly more like beer than pumpkin pie.”

I find that this gives a point from which to triangulate, often resulting in the customer grabbing the stylistic opposite of the personal preference I described. “I think I’ll take the sweeter one, but thanks for your help.”

It’s not to be taken personally – the customer leaving with a product he or she will enjoy outweighs all other considerations by a long shot – but the situation does illustrate one of the endearing quirks of a quintessentially American beer style: pumpkin ale.

Pumpkin ale is a beer style firmly rooted in early-American history. At the same time the Founding Fathers were penning documents that would shape the country for centuries to come, they maintained pumpkin patches on their family farms. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were all believed to have made pumpkin beers from their crop.

A gourd from the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes squash and zucchini, the pumpkin was a New World staple that grew especially well in New England. Malted barley was hard to come by in the colonies; thus the starches and sugars in pumpkins made them valuable ingredients for brewing. One of the first American colonial folk songs from the mid-17th century praised the pumpkin’s utility:

Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon;
If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone
… Hey down, down, hey down derry down …
If barley be wanting to make into malt
We must be contented and think it no fault
For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips.

While modern-day interpretations of pumpkin beers may lack the parsnips and walnut-tree chips of yore, they have certainly established themselves as one of the most sought-after and beloved seasonal beer styles. From humble beginnings as a potable invention of necessity, pumpkin beer as a style has flourished into a cornucopia of different iterations from myriad breweries across the country.

If you’re inclined to try one this fall, below are a few exceptional examples to keep an eye out for. But remember: Much like politics, there are as many opinions on pumpkin beers as there are pumpkin beers themselves. Only your taste buds can navigate you faithfully through the tug-of-war of pumpkin-beer preferences. The best way to find out where you stand is to start trying as many “pumpkins” as you can!

Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale
Buffalo Bill’s Brewery,
Hayward, Calif., 5.2 percent ABV
This is the pumpkin beer that started it all. In the mid-1980s, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery revived the pumpkin ale and served as a harbinger of the craft-beer movement toward making the style a fall standard. This one set the template for pumpkin-to-spice ratio; it’s medium to low on both.

New Holland Ichabod Ale
New Holland Brewing Company,
Holland, Mich., 5.5 percent ABV
Ichabod is a pumpkin beer with a great caramel malt backbone. It has the base of a sturdy amber ale with pumpkin and spice flavors playing on the periphery.

Thirsty Dog Spiced Pumpkin Ale
Thirsty Dog Brewing Company,
Akron, Ohio, 5 percent ABV
A personal favorite, this one strikes a perfect balance between beer flavor and pumpkin and spice flavor. Out late in the season (after pumpkins are actually harvested), it always tastes super fresh. It evokes the image of brewers scooping copious amounts of pulp from newly opened gourds into steaming brew kettles.

Cottonwood Pumpkin Spiced Ale
Foothills Brewing Company,
|Winston-Salem, N.C., 5.3 percent ABV
A perennial local favorite, this pumpkin ale is light on body and above average on spice. Formerly brewed out of Boone, Foothills has taken up the brewing of this brand and it’s much improved.

Punkin Ale
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery,
Milton, Del., 7 percent ABV
More of a pumpkin brown ale, the Dogfish Head interpretation has a nice brown-sugar undertone and a little extra kick at 7 percent. It’s versatile and complex enough to serve as an aperitif, with the main course or with dessert.

Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Weyerbacher Brewing Company,
Easton, Pa., 8 percent ABV
“Imperial” connotes that this beer is stronger in alcohol, and boy is it ever. Weyerbacher redefined the style with their pumpkin ale, which is more robust in every possible way – stronger, spicier and thicker than your average pumpkin.

Southern Tier Brewing Company,
Lakewood, N.Y., 8.6 percent ABV
The king stays the king. Perhaps the most popular pumpkin beer around, this one oozes pumpkin-pie flavor. Trying this might totally change your view of pumpkin beers. Pumking is best served with dessert in mind. If you’re feeling adventurous, try blending it black-and-tan style with an imperial stout for a truly unique experience.