Brewing the Great Pumpkin Ale, Charlie Brown

Originally from CraftPittsburgh Magazine Issue #4

About mid-September every year, like clockwork, they start appearing on shelves and draft lists in annually increasing abundance. Like the cool evening air or the ubiquitous changing leaves, pumpkin ale ushers in the autumn dance to beer folk and brewers around the ‘Burgh. And like Linus waiting in the most sincere of pumpkin patches, we anticipate their arrival with feverish intensity.

Once they’ve arrived, we gluttonously gobble them up and, if we’re lucky, manage to stow away a bottle or two to enjoy post-Thanksgiving dinner. We all have our preferred and overtly celebrated commercial brands, but as is evident by the most recent Northern Brewer sales numbers—ranking their Smashing Pumpkin Ale ingredient kit as the number one seller—the great unwashed homebrewing masses are turning inward for their fall beer fix. The following are but a few humble suggestions for those considering brewing this beloved style at home.

As is the case when brewing any number of fruit or vegetable beers, we must first decide what type of base beer we’re aiming for; our canvas, so to speak, on which we will be painting our pumpkin-y portrait. Personally I’ve tasted excellent renditions based upon recipes for brown ales, Irish red ales, and even cream ales just to name a few. However, I would venture to say that well-balanced, medium bodied American Ambers or mild English ales are the most widely used styles. Something that provides a moderately sweet and substantial malt backbone with fairly clean yeast character—in order to let the adjuncts shine through—and just barely enough hops for balance. Now on to the stars of the show: pumpkin and spice. Let’s be frank, the reason we love pumpkin beers is the same reason we love pumpkin flavored everything…pie spice. Very few “pumpkin” flavored products actually taste a damn thing like pumpkin; they taste like nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and/or possibly allspice, ginger, and cardamom. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, a considerable number of your favorite commercial pumpkin ales, as well as homebrew recipes, contain no pumpkin at all. Most of these brews still bare some sort of pumpkin-themed name or label but are generally categorized as “spiced ale.” Let’s face it, the flesh of a pumpkin—without the aid of spices—is a pretty bland enterprise, even when roasted.

Historically, locally produced agricultural ingredients like pumpkin were basically used only to stretch a brewer’s supply of expensive and imported malted barley. Nowadays barley is relatively cheap and we certainly aren’t depending on our results for sustenance (at least most aren’t), so no worries there. That being said, I still tend to lean toward favoring a bit of actual pumpkin in my pumpkin ale, if not at least for some diluted sense of historic brewing integrity, as well as a bit of body and a certain underlying depth of flavor it can provide if executed well. Picking the veggie variety is where many a mistake can be made. If you insist on using fresh, then aim for a sweeter, smaller variety of baking pumpkin as opposed to the large carving pumpkins you find most often. A few varieties to look for are the Baby Pam or Sugar Pie Pumpkin, Lumina, or any number of smaller European heirloom varieties. Generally speaking, larger “carving” varieties—even when roasted—result in undesirable cooked vegetal flavor when used for brewing.

Many folks also turn to other squash varieties such as butternut and acorn when the appropriate pumpkins can’t be found or are out of season. I tend to prefer the simplicity and consistency of canned pumpkin puree. Canned is less work and has less variability; good enough reasons for me. One issue to point out is that when using canned pumpkin, be sure to use significantly less volume than you would with fresh as it’s obviously more concentrated. As for when to add the pumpkin, most pros agree on adding it straight to the mash as opposed to in the boil or at some point during fermentation. However if you prescribe to this same philosophy, I would strongly suggest employing the use of rice hulls in your mash as the puree tends to create a somewhat gelatinous consistency that can create flow problems during lautering.

A few additional tips: First and foremost, brew to your liking. Pumpkin Ale is about as loose and undefined a style as they come, so by no means should you feel restricted by specific
guidelines (or my suggestions for that matter). Secondly, when considering the amount of pumpkin to add, it’s better to error on the side of less (at least at first). When considering spices, it’s better to error on the side of more. Too much pumpkin—even the right variety—can potentially result in those cooked vegetal flavors. The flavors gained from spices tend to mellow significantly over time. And if you’re considering holding on to some of your concoction through the holiday season, a little extra spice addition may buy you some time.

Even if you won’t admit it, you love pumpkin ales, everyone does, so if you’ve never tried your hand at brewing one—or maybe you’ve never brewed anything at all—take this opportunity to try your hand a crafting your very own version of this inviting and festive crowd-pleaser. The best-case scenario is you’ll be keeping in historical autumn tradition and ultimately enjoying the fruits of your labor, and if worst comes to worst, you’ll have something interesting to hand out to the neighborhood grown-ups for trick-or-treat.

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