From the Pumpkin Patch
Pumpkin ale has a quaint ring to the name, as though it ought to be quaffed from leather tankards at Renaissance fairs by village rogues and saucy wenches.
But this quirky style is threatening to replace Oktoberfest lager as America's favorite fall seasonal. Even the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 breweries have entries in the category: Anheuser-Busch's Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale and Coors's Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale.
"It's something we've brewed in this country for a long time," notes Florian Kuplent, Anheuser-Busch brewmaster.
Indeed, Stanley Baron, in his book "Brewed in America" (Little, Brown, 1962), cites a 1771 recipe for "Pompion Ale" that appeared in the papers of the American Philosophical Society. It calls for the pumpkins to be beaten in a trough and pressed like apples, then hopped and fermented like beer. The recipe's author warns, however, that the pumpkins impart a "twang" that some might find unpleasant.
These days, you're not likely to encounter an unpleasant twang in the half-dozen or so pumpkin ales on the market. But you won't find much pumpkin, either. Most of the flavor in these beers comes from a heavy dose of spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are the most common components. Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale also contains ginger. Imperial Pumpkin Ale from Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton, Pa., leans heavily on cardamom.
That doesn't bother the style's die-hard fans. "Beginning in August, we start getting phone calls asking, 'When is it coming out?' " says Mike McCarthy, head brewer for the Capitol City Brewing Co. in Arlington. He's talking about his Pumpkinator Ale, set for an Oct. 24 release. McCarthy is brewing a double batch (about 26 barrels), which he expects to disappear in two weeks -- a consumption rate more than twice that of other seasonals.
McCarthy buys his pumpkins at a church sale or farmers market. He quarters them, removes the stems and seeds (but not the skin) and roasts them before adding them to the base beer, a medium-bodied, copper-colored ale. He also adds a prepackaged blend of pumpkin pie spices. He estimates he uses 100 pounds of pumpkin per 750 pounds of barley malt.
McCarthy says he has tried that recipe with and without the pumpkin and can't tell the difference. The Pumpkinator is a little too sweet and filling for his taste, he admits, "but it sells, and so I make it."
Why has pumpkin ale attained a popularity that has eluded fruit beers made with raspberries, blueberries or peaches? "It's a seasonal thing," suggests McCarthy. "People get giddy like they do with Christmas carols."
Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale has a sweet, rounded, slightly caramelized flavor, which might be attributable to the pureed pumpkin that goes into the brew. The brewers also add brown sugar, shaved nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice (but no cloves). At 7 percent alcohol by volume, it's a little heftier than most versions on the market.
Sam Calagione, the brewery's president, says Punkin Ale was "the first commercial recipe I ever brewed." It won a recipe contest at the 1994 Punkin Chunkin championship in Millsboro, Del., an annual event in which contestants erect mechanical devices to see who can hurl a pumpkin the farthest. (Calagione says that Dogfish Head's maintenance manager, Frank Payton, is a three-time member of the championship team, having achieved a distance of three-quarters of a mile with an air-powered cannon called "Old Glory.")
Both Kuplent and Calagione say pumpkin ale is a very food-friendly style. "I just made a great sweet-potato bisque" with pumpkin beer, says Kuplent, who also recommends Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale with chicken teriyaki.
You can sample Punkin Ale on tap at the Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg and at a branch scheduled to open today in Falls Church.
Though Dogfish Head's Web site recommends Punkin Ale with turkey, Calagione says the 28,000 cases (about 2,000 barrels) he brewed should last at least through Halloween -- but he's not making any promises for Thanksgiving.
Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Memorial Toast
A Web site formed as a memorial to renowned beer writer Michael Jackson, who died Aug. 30, is urging beer lovers across the nation to hoist a glass in his honor at 9 p.m. Sunday. As part of the toast, Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg will offer half-price pints and free appetizers and will collect donations for the National Parkinson Foundation. For more information, go to michaeljacksonthebeerhunter.blogspot.com.