The Strange Life Cycle of Pumpkin Beer
The Starbucks pumpkin spiced latte is back, so it’s basically fall now. Beer stores across the country have begun stocking their shelves with their own PSL: pumpkin beers. Every brewery nowadays seemingly has a pumpkin option. From being aged in rum barrels to being souped up with espresso beans, pumpkin ales have evolved over the years. But how exactly do brewers get all that pumpkin from the farm and into your pint glass?
Pumpkin ales have been around since the PSL was just a twinkle in Howard Schultz’s eye. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California, made the first modern pumpkin ale back in 1986. According to master brewer and current Buffalo Bill’s Brewery CEO Geoff Harries, “Bill came across an article telling how George Washington brewed homebrew on the Mount Vernon estate. Washington would also brew batches experimenting with squash. Bill loved the idea and began the tradition of adding pumpkin to the mash.”
Pumpkins, like other gourds, can’t be harvested until fall, so I’ve always wondered about sourcing them for pumpkin beer. Harries was happy to shed some light on the topic. “In order to brew pumpkin ale in larger quantities in time for fall, there’s no way to use fresh pumpkin, as pumpkins have not ripened. So we use roasted fresh pumpkin or a pre-packaged organic pumpkin.”
Acquiring the sheer volume of pumpkins is a Herculean feat in itself. Droughts, too much rain, and other unforeseeable things can wreak havoc for brewers and farmers. “Three years ago we had a horrible pumpkin crop, which meant that pumpkin was in short supply the following year. Knowing of the [impending] shortage from my produce supplier, I sourced about 4,000 pounds at the end of the season from a variety of suppliers. Sure enough the next season there was very little pumpkin available.”
Harries and Buffalo Bill’s Brewery acquire organic pumpkins from a number of sources around the country. Pumpkins with a thick rind have a long shelf life and Harries and the brewery find that pumpkin flesh is the truest ingredient to the age-old recipe they have. The other two breweries I spoke with, Elysian and Avery, both use pumpkin purees and/or juices. While all three brewers have different ideas on pumpkins or purees, quality control and consistency was at the root of their choices and that shows in the beers they all produce.
Andy Parker, who as Avery Brewing’s Chief Barrel Herder has one of the best job titles in the world, explains why they went with a puree over actual pumpkins for Avery’s Rumpkin beer: “We're making this beer on a pretty large scale, so it's not feasible to buy hundreds of pounds of pumpkins, chop them in half, and throw them into the mash tun. We did that many years ago when Rumpkin was a small experimental beer, but we're getting far better flavor now by using pumpkin puree from suppliers that we trust. All we ever wanted from the pumpkin was the insides, so why throw the rinds in there if it's not necessary?”
Ensuring uniformity and consistent taste in a lager is tough enough (just ask Budweiser), but when you have to account for an ingredient like pumpkin, whose taste can vary based on whether t it was a drought season, well, quality control inevitably comes up. Elysian’s head brewer, Josh Waldman, says, “Consistency starts with our suppliers. We get the same variety, grown in the same region, from the same supplier each year… As always, crop years still vary from agronomic factors.”
Buffalo Bill’s Harries sees things similarly. “With so many ingredients like vegetables, spices, grain, yeast, hops, water there is always some degree of variance,” he says. “Mother Nature is sort of that way. Those subtle (likely indistinguishable) variations are part of making things by hand.”
Buffalo Bill’s has their legendary “America’s Original Pumpkin Ale” and its heftier cousin the Black Pumpkin Oatmeal Stout. Elysian’s “Punkuccino,” as the name implies, is a coffee-infused pumpkin ale. “We add cold-brewed coffee from Stumptown into the tank right before we package the beer,” Waldman says. “Punkuccino was a beer we had to test a bit to get the amount of coffee flavor where we wanted it.”
But no brewery has gone as far as Avery has with their Rumpkin. Heady hardly begins to describe this beer, which has an ABV of 17.5 percent.
“We could have started out with a 'normal' 5 percent ABV beer, but that's been done,” Avery’s Parker tells me. “None of us had ever heard of a giant pumpkin beer aged in rum barrels, so it seemed logical to run with it and see how it went.” Not surprisingly, there was a learning curve for Parker and everyone else involved with bringing this ambitious imperial ale to life. “Rum barrels can add a wee bit of caramelly sweetness. We guessed that it would just be one step closer to tasting like a liquid pumpkin pie based on our experience.” Impressively, Parker leads a team that samples each barrel of Rumpkin—sounds like a terrible job—to weed out the duds and find the ones that will go to market. “Rumpkin tasting days might be the most difficult ones, Parker says. “Cold and carbonated Rumpkin is great. But tasting a hundred warm and flat Rumpkin barrels in a day gets old pretty quickly.”