Pumpkin Beer History: Colonial Necessity to Seasonal Treat

Far from being a modern invention of the craft beer scene, pumpkin beers have a long history in the US. Samuel Stearns' The American Herbal; or, Materia Medica [see bottom of page for link] (published in 1801), name-checked pumpkin beer just after porter and ale. Stearns considered pumpkin beer especially healthful, noting:

"Different kinds of beer, ale, &c. are often prepared according to the prescriptions of the physicians, all of which, as well as pumpkin and bran beer, partake of the virtues of the ingredients put into such liquors."

And before it was deemed a health tonic, pumpkin beer was a popular component in cups of flip - something akin to a cocktail that typically mixed rum, beer, and sugar. Pumpkin beer and brown sugar were more easily found in early America than their all-malt and refined counterparts, so they became part of the go-to recipe.

But the main reason pumpkin was adopted as a beer ingredient during the early colonial period was simple availability - pumpkins were a native plant (one completely unknown to most Europeans before the 16th century), while good malt was not so readily accessible - fermentable sugars had to be found where they could, and in the first pumpkin beers, the meat of the pumpkin took the place of malt entirely.

Indeed, the role of the pumpkin in brewing and as a means of general sustenance was a key subject of a satirical song that has become known as "America's first folk song" - first written in 1643, but rediscovered by folksong collectors of the 18th and 19th centuries:

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.

Others found the pumpkin's versatility a wonderful thing; in a history of Connecticut, first published in 1791 and aimed at a British audience that still had little knowledge of Things Pumpkin, noted that the pumpkin, (or pompion) could be used to make '...beer, bread, custards, sauce, molasses, vinegar, and, on thanksgiving day, pies, as a substitute for what the Blue Laws brand as antichristian minced pies.' And not just any beer, but 'good beer' at that.

Pumpkin beer continued to be a staple throughout the 18th century?one of the most oft-quoted recipes for pumpkin beer dates to 1771 - but its popularity began to wane by the early 19th century as the pumpkin itself began to be viewed as something quaint and rustic, and as access to quality malts became commonplace. It re-appeared as a beer ingredient in the colonial revival of the 1840s (this time as a flavoring agent, as opposed to a full-blown pumpkin beer), but never regained its previous ubiquity.

Modern pumpkin beers tend to aim for more of a 'pumpkin pie in a glass' as opposed to 'pumpkin in a glass' aesthetic; spices such as nutmeg and cloves are very common ingredients?but where did the notion of reviving pumpkin beer originate? The honor goes to Buffalo Bill's Brewery, which has been making their America's Original Pumpkin Beer since the late 1980s, using one of George Washington's recipes as an inspiration. Although the experimental batches used pumpkin as an ingredient, the commercial version stuck with pumpkin pie spices instead (though there is now an Imperial Pumpkin Ale with actual pumpkin).

Other modern pumpkin beers do use pumpkins? Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale evokes the 18th century in its name (using the name of the colonial road between Boston and New York) and includes pumpkin in the recipe, while Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale also adds pumpkin to the mix.

With more than 400 pumpkin beers to choose from today, modern drinkers may not be tasting anything like their beer's colonial ancestors, but it's still a nice (and now, a tasty) nod to brewing history.

Samuel Stearns' The American Herbal; or, Materia Medica

By Lisa Grimm of SeriousEats.com

Reference: 

Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale

Product - Brooklyn Post Road
Brewed By: 
Brooklyn
Self-Defined Style: 
Pumpkin Ale
Strength (ABV): 
5.0% ABV

Blended with barley malt, pumpkins became a commonly used beer ingredient by Early American Colonialists seeking natural ingredients for brewing ales. Post Road Pumpkin Ale is orange amber in color, with a warm pumpkin aroma, a biscuity malt center, and a crisp finish.

Best With: 
Post Road Pumpkin Ale is the perfect beer for holiday dining.

Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale

Product - Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin btl
Brewed By: 
Buffalo Bill's
Self-Defined Style: 
Pumpkin Ale
Strength (ABV): 
5.2% ABV
Bitterness (IBU): 
12 IBU

A true original microbrew that uses baked and roasted pumpkins. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are added to create what has been described as, “pumpkin pie in a bottle”.
 

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

Product - Dogfish Head Punkin btl
Brewed By: 
Dogfish Head
Self-Defined Style: 
Pumpkin Ale
Strength (ABV): 
7.0% ABV
Bitterness (IBU): 
28 IBU

A full-bodied brown ale with smooth hints of pumpkin and brown sugar. Brewed with pumpkin meat, organic brown sugar and spices. As the season cools, this is the perfect beer to warm up with.

Best With: 
Turkey, roasted duck, lamb, stuffing, dessert dumplings.

Harpoon UFO Pumpkin

Product - Harpoon UFO Pumpkin btl gls
Brewed By: 
Harpoon
Self-Defined Style: 
Pumpkin Ale
Strength (ABV): 
5.9% ABV
Bitterness (IBU): 
20 IBU

Imagine that a pumpkin vine wound its way into a field of barley, and a brewer harvested it all to make beer. Add Northwest hops and a blend of spices, and you've got UFO Pumpkin. The malt combination provides a smooth body and slightly sweet flavor which balances perfectly with earthly notes derived from the pure pumpkin. And, like all of out UFO beers, UFO Pumpkin is unfiltered so all the wonderful flavors are right there in your glass. Cheers!

Available late summer / fall 2011

Best With: 
turkey, lamb, pie and other desserts