Bob Brewer shares his thoughts on pumpkin beers, fall seasonals, and the traditions of Halloween.
Around this time of year we often get asked if we had ever thought about brewing a pumpkin beer. Well, actually we hadn’t, but plenty of other breweries have. Pumpkin beers are all the rage lately, and sell very well in some cases. Since we were asked, I thought that I’d share a little history along with some unvarnished personal insights on the subject.
We’re well past Labor Day, autumn is in full swing in many places, and we’re creeping into the holiday season. It’s time for the next round of seasonal beers and everyone is thinking something Autumnal like harvest beer, Oktoberfest and, oh the horror of it all, Pumpkin Beer, which might be the scariest thing about Halloween.
When we think about Halloween we think of pumpkins. The humble pumpkin. It belongs to the squash or gourd family, is of North American origin, and no matter what anybody says, is not and never has been of any particular culinary value – in my not-so-humble opinion, that is. Nutritionists will tell us that the pumpkin is close to a perfect food with all sorts of good vitamins, minerals, and fiber but has little flavor on its own, especially after being cooked.
Since pumpkins grow easily just about anywhere, people have been trying to find some use for them for at least the past two hundred years. I realize that the indigenous peoples of the Americas included pumpkins in their diet (along with just about anything else they could get their hands on), and there are some surviving examples of pumpkin in regional Mexican cooking, but for the rest of us, there has only been pumpkin soup and pumpkin pie, for the most part. Both are heavily spiced in the absence of natural flavor, and in the case of pumpkin pie, heavily laden with sugar as well. We’ve seen an avalanche of all things pumpkin (pie) flavored in recent years, mostly confectionary and all heavily sweetened. I only mention soup because there was a recipe for it in my mother’s old cookbook, but I’ve never seen nor tasted it.
Of course, there’s the ubiquitous Jack-O-Lantern, which has its own history. Though not culinary, they’re good for one’s artistic expressions, are used for a week or two (mostly for one single night), then are left to rot on the front porch or get thrown at someone’s car or house as a Halloween prank. Better yet, they’re left to rot and then thrown, which might be the best use for a pumpkin that anyone has come up with.
As a “holiday,” Halloween hasn’t really been around all that long – especially here in America. The name seems to be mashup/contraction of the term “All Hallows’ Eve,” which precedes All Saints Day on a lot of Christian calendars. Many historians point to the Scottish/Celtic traditions dating back to the late 17th century with some reference to a Robert Burns poem for talking about running around in costumes and pranking and the like. What is known of the origins is that the observance got onto the Christian calendar as a co-opted pagan celebration, much like Easter. The spookiness evolved from the practice of visiting the graves of relatives on the eve of All Saints Day.
All Saints Day in Poland. Photo courtesy wikipedia.org.
Halloween, as we knew it as kids, didn’t appear on the scene until around 100 years ago. The tradition evolved since it had been observed by much of the European immigrant population, and there was also some help from Mexican immigrants with their stronger and more established “Day of the Dead.” Both of these contributing cultures had beer as a part of their many celebratory observances, which by the way, did not include pumpkins.
The costume thing goes way back with lots of differing cultural aspects. Spooky costumes really caught on in America with the first horror films, which gave us Frankenstein and his pals. By the 1920’s, costuming had come to include just about anything imaginable. Witches, which had been around all along, got stereotyped into the mix largely because of the Wizard of Oz and the unforgettable performance by Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Margaret Hamilton as the “Wicked Witch of the West” in The Wizard of Oz. Photo
courtesy of wikipedia.org.
And then there are those darn pumpkins again. They represent the harvest season, they’re plentiful and cheap, and they give the Christmas tree lots a bit of a starter. But they’re still only good for pies and carving. Back in Europe, where there were no pumpkins, the practice of carving vegetables into scary lanterns goes back a ways, with the turnip being the preferred canvas. It should be noted here that turnips over there are much larger than their American cousins (almost the size of soccer balls), but share some of the same inedibility, even though the Scotts try really hard to put them on the menu. They call them “neaps” and put them in haggis as a regional treat. I’m not kidding. It’s a horror, just like here in the States where marginal vegetables are constantly being insinuated into our diet just because they’re cheap. Stuff like rutabagas, okra, and zucchini… scary stuff, although a zucchini can carve up nicely if you get a big one. But I digress.
I set out to try to find a tie-in with Halloween and brewing traditions, but all I could come up with that put it all together was how scary it is to brew with a largely flavorless squash. When I think of it, although I try not to, I hear the suspense downbeat followed by the sonorous voice of Vincent Price intoning “Pumpkin Beer”. Then comes the scream of the Bride of Frankenstein accompanied by the fright theme from Psycho and I see the witches from Macbeth standing around the bubbling cauldron cackling while throwing in pumpkins along with the eye of newt and toe of frog. That’s scary stuff, too.
By now you’ve probably discerned that I’m not a fan of pumpkin beer. Why? Well, it’s because most of these beers have very little to do with pumpkins at all. Pumpkins, by themselves have very little – if any – real flavor that will survive brewing and fermentation. It’s sort of the “tofu” of the squash world in that it tastes like what you put on or into it. The flavor that everyone associates with pumpkins is pumpkin pie. What we are tasting in a pumpkin pie is actually the huge load of sugar dumped into it along with the allspice, cinnamon, clove, vanilla, ginger and other spices. I’ve read where some brewers talk about how much pumpkin puree they use per batch, but they get coy when you ask about the sugar and spice. It’s essentially “pumpkin pie beer.”
Enter the big, scary secret: artificial pumpkin (pie) flavoring. Long used as a staple in the candy industry and in commercial baking, pumpkin flavoring has crept into brewing. These flavors can be added to the beer post fermentation, much like the syrup used to flavor raspberry and other fruit beers of the past. Some pumpkin beers are being mass produced by large breweries that cannot employ the use of whole ingredients and therefore must use extracts, flavoring agents, and sweeteners to approximate the pumpkin (pie) character. More scary stuff.
I can already hear the comments headed my way, and I do understand that pumpkin beers are big sellers for many brewers and are an important part of their bottom line. There are also some well-intentioned brewers who do try to honestly create a true pumpkin beer. Yet, even some of the biggest apologists in the industry are tiring of the endless parade of these beers and have said so. I am not alone. I can’t argue with success, though, because part of the world likes pumpkin beer and pie along with everything else pumpkin pie flavored. We have pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin bagels, pumpkin latte, and even pumpkin Oreo cookies, among a host of others. And just like the beer, few of which contain any pumpkin but all of which contain the massive sugar and spice. Yep, scary stuff.
Over the Past twenty years or so, Halloween has evolved into one of those excuses for adults to party. Like St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, or Cinco de Mayo, only with costumes. St. Paddy’s has Guinness and green beer. New Year’s has champagne. Cinco de Mayo has tequila. I suppose we could let pumpkin beer out for Halloween, if for no other reason than to add to the scariness of the party.
The Season for Autumn Brews
But on a more serious note, we have a cornucopia of seasonal beers that have real autumn traditions and long histories of style. As far back as one goes in the history of brewing there has been always been some mention of the harvest. Our own western brewing traditions have given us many examples of these beers, not the least of which is the venerable Oktoberfest, the Godfather of all autumn beers. This is a fine beer style that has been reinterpreted by American craft brewers in many forms and for many years.
Serving Oktoberfest brews in Munich. Photo courtesy of ABC News.
Oktoberfest’s descendants have numerous names and some rather distinct variations, but most share the basic characteristics of the original in that they are usually darker, more full bodied, have somewhat higher ABV’s, and are traditionally released as fall seasonals. They may be lagers or ales. Some are wheat beers. Some have a Belgian slant (Harvest Fest Dark Saison?) to them. And some are rather faithful renditions of the classic.
My point being that there are literally hundreds, maybe more, of top-quality autumn seasonals hitting the shelves at this time of year, including our own Anchor Dry-Hopped Steam Beer. They can be an interesting and satisfying bridge from the lighter beers of summer to the stronger beers of winter. Autumn beers have a long tradition and come in many variations and continue to evolve along with the rest of our vibrant, world-class craft brewing industry.
And that’s not scary at all.