Pumpkin Beer: Can it be Good?

When California passed a law in 1983 finally making it legal for a brewery to have its own attached pub, Bill Owens moved quickly to open Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Hayward, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. It's still there, one of the pioneers of the microbrew/brewpub boom of the last few decades.

A few years later, Owens—a restless, enthusiastic type—came across a reference to George Washington having made ale flavored by a distinctly American ingredient: pumpkin.

"I bought those big, giant seeds," Owens says in a phone interview, "and I grew about a 200-pound pumpkin and took it down to the brewery, popped it in an oven, and baked it. And then when we mashed in for beer, I mashed in the pumpkin with the grain."

But there was a problem: Pumpkins have a distinct smell but, it turns out, don't really have much taste. "It's a squash, it doesn't have any flavor, it's neutral," says Owens, who is now president of the American Distilling Institute (distilling.com). He realized that the taste people associate with "pumpkin" mostly come from the things it is cooked with. So he bought some cinnamon, cloves, and other autumnal spices, percolated them in a coffeepot, and added the resulting mix to his beer. Voilà, pumpkin ale.

As other breweries and pubs opened across the country, many of them looking to Buffalo Bill's for inspiration, some began trying their own pumpkin experiments. And what started as a larkish novelty has now become an established seasonal offering. The brew-review website BeerAdvocate.com lists 222 different varieties of pumpkin beer, most of them ales but also including lagers, porters, and stouts. Many have names that nod to the season in general or Halloween in particular, like New Holland's Imperial Ichabod Ale and the Mishawaka Brewing Company's Jack O'Lager.

In my own occasional sampling, I've had both good and bad pumpkin brews. Unlike some of my purist friends, I'm not offended by the mere idea of adding fruit, vegetable, or spices to beer. It's all in the subtlety of the flavoring. I'm not a big fan of anything too sweet, , which pumpkin beers can certainly be. But a dry, nuanced offering—like the hoppy Pumpkin Ale made by New Hampshire's Smuttynose brewery—is a nice October diversion.

You can't get Smuttynose anywhere in Knoxville, but a quick survey of local stores did turn up a pretty good gourdy grog: Pumpkinfest, an Oktoberfest-style Märzen made by the young but impressive Terrapin Beer Company of Athens, Ga. They've been around only since 2002, but I was already a devotee of their Rye Pale Ale, and the Pumpkinfest persuades me that they're one of the most promising microbreweries in this part of the country. It takes the traditional dark German lager and gives it enough of a pumpkin-spice kick that you notice the flavor, but not so much that you can't also appreciate the underlying Märzen maltiness.

I was less impressed with the Harvest Pumpkin Ale from Samuel Adams. Available commercially for the first time this year, it is sold only as part of the brewery's Harvest Collection, a 12-pack that also includes the company's Boston Lager, Octoberfest, Irish Red, Black Lager, and Dunkelweizen. The pumpkin feels more like an afterthought than something intrinsic to the ale.

Still, I liked that better than Pumpkinhead Ale, from the Shipyard Brewing Company of Portland, Maine. Lighter in both color and flavor than most pumpkin beers, in a blind taste test I'm not sure it could even be identified as a pumpkin beer at all. And what little flavor there is is sort of cloying and almost a little butterscotchy. It is apparently popular, but that may be more for its stylish headless-horseman packaging than what's in the bottle.

In any case, it's clear that what started with a pumpkin from Bill Owens' garden will be with us for some time to come. "I can be proud of that one," Owens says. "Today, with everything being homogenized by big corporations, when somebody comes along and does something fun and interesting, it sells. You've just got to have a little bit of imagination."