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Fall Drinks: Pumpkin Beers Enjoy Comeback Thanks to Founding Fathers and Micro Breweries

Proclamation: “it’s the most wonderful time of the year."

No, not Christmas, you fools. It’s pumpkin beer time!

Like most calendar-respecting Americans, I get distraught and outraged when I see Halloween candy in stores in August, Turkeys in September, and Christmas lights in July. It is illogical then that when I see a pumpkin beer on tap I get giddy, start spastically clapping, and want to rush home to make applesauce and beef stew. Winter is coming; what would Ned Stark do? Drink pumpkin beer. It’s Halloween for big kids, only better.

Props to the recent surge in craft, micro, and nano-brewing for contributing positively to the diversity of the beer geek’s selection when choosing an appropriately flavored autumnal libation. In fact, there are more breweries in the U.S. now than at any time in the past 125 years, and every self-respecting brewery (and some that shouldn’t) has a pumpkin beer. No one really cares if it’s all that good or not, as long as it is orange-ish and tastes like pie. Don’t get me wrong, some are seriously phenomenal. Then there are those that are affordably drinkable (why I have a twelver of Blue Moon’s in the fridge). Others, just a little too sweet and altogether underwhelming.

Beer Advocate lists 363 pumpkin beers available in the U.S. currently (though some tallies count higher than 400), and Buffalo Bill’s in Hayward, CA, claims to have been the first in the modern era to brew such a dastardly delicious treat.

According to common epicurean history of the delicacy, the brewing of pumpkins originated with the Pilgrims, those crazy kids, because they had a relatively high sugar content and were easily accessible. Colonial Americans even had clever rhymes about pumpkin beer: “For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.” Even the founding fathers brewed pumpkins. Ben Franklin (attributed) loved beer: “it is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Back in those days, pumpkin was brewed without barley; simply boiled down then hopped and fermented. Frankly this does not sound terribly delicious, though better than the walnut chips. At the beginning of the 19th century, the availability of conventional ingredients meant pumpkin and malted barley were fermented together, along with other flavor-enhancing additives. Around the same time, pumpkin beer was also considered a health tonic. It’s still a tonic for chilly fall evenings, but that might just be me.

The later 19th-century demise of pumpkin beer has been attributed to progress, perhaps a result of the industrial revolution or something, and the perception of the pumpkin as a rustic, plebeian crop. It wasn’t commercially brewed again until Buffalo Bill’s Brewery did so in the early 1980s. Of course, the beers today are completely different: pumpkin and its culturally associated spices (like nutmeg) are only flavor additives to regular old beer. Not all breweries even use real pumpkin in the beers. 

Still, the concept has enjoyed a mind-boggling resurgence; I’m sure the fact that “autumn” is a marketable thing doesn’t hurt. Though the math is somewhat contrived since we’re starting at 0 (or 1), production of pumpkin beers has increased by, like, 40,000% in three decades. And I’m glad it has: what would a cold October night be without my pumpkin pie in a glass? Anyway, I just finished a bottle of Dogfish Head’s $10/4-pack Punkin Ale, so I’m going to go cry myself to sleep now. Join me next time for an ode to winter’s favorites (it’s still coming). Mmmm.

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