The True Story of the First Pumpkin Beer!

Over the last twenty years or so the appearance of pumpkin beer, or pumpkin ale, has been so seasonally successful that this year the folks at BeerAdvocate chart over 60 nationally distributed Pumpkin brews. Who were these people brewing these beers? Why did they brew such a thing? Who was the first one to attempt such a feat?

The fact is that the pumpkin is an indigenous fruit to the North American continent. Native Americans from sea to sea found it useful to cultivate and consume the fruit in all of its various forms. The sugar content of the pumpkin caught the attention of George Washington. Being intrigued, frugal and politically correct (not buying English malt) he kept notes on the effect of pumpkin as a sugar/malt substitute in his home-brewed beer.

These notes came to the attention of a brewer by the name of William (“Buffalo Bill”) Owens as he researched colonial brewing practices. Bill’s garden produced a pumpkin and George’s notes rendered a “recipe” for pumpkin ale… I’ll let Bill tell the story.

Bill Owens: “It was in 1985 or 86, I was researching old-fashioned recipes brewing recipes and came across a book of recipes used by our colonial fathers, including George Washington. George Washington used gourds, and pumpkins, in his mash because of the starches they had.”

“So I decided to do pumpkin ale. I’m a gardener, so I sent away to Atlantic Seed Company; that’s where you go to get those giant pumpkin seeds when you want to grow the 500 pounders. So I grew my pumpkin. Somewhere I have a movie of it, putting it on a little wagon and hauling it down to the brewery.” 

The Pumpkin that started it all… 

“There I cut it up on the day before brew day, popped it in the oven and baked it to get the starches to start to convert. On brewing day I popped it in the oven a second time to warm it up again. When I got ready to mash, I chopped up into the chunks, about 3″ x 3″ square chunks. Then I tossed them into the mash and mashed it in with the grains. I sparged around 170° and made my regular Amber ale. It was a standard mash boil but I didn’t use too much hops because I didn’t want the hops to take over. Then I fermented it, carbonated and tasted it. There was no “punkin” in the flavor!”

“Suddenly it dawned on me that the taste. One of America’s classic taste is pumpkin pie and when you pick up a can of pumpkin pie (mix) there it is on the label. It tells you that it has ginger and cloves and all those other spices in it. So I walked into the supermarket and found a can of what was called pumpkin pie spices. I bought a whole can of pumpkin pie spices and went back to the brewery, put it in a coffee maker and percolated it, ending up with 2 quarts of what I called “pumpkin pie juice”. This is what I was going to do to “dose” the beer with.”

“So, my next brew I went through the same routine as my usual ale, but light on the hops. When I finished the fermentation and the yeast had settled out, because I didn’t want to put in with the yeast, I pumped it into the bright-beer tanks and just prior to carbonation I poured the “Pumpkin pie juice” in. When I served it, it was absolutely beautiful. The nose and mouth feel was perfectly balanced, perfectly.” Bill, I think it’s interesting that pumpkin ale is huge and the original “Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale” didn’t have any pumpkin in it.

Bill Owens: “There’s no way the pumpkin can add any flavor to a beer in the process. The starches in the sugars are just there and they make alcohol and that’s the end of that. That’s the end of the flavor profile.  People can talk about adding all kinds of pumpkin to their beers but they’re just jerking you around. The worst thing that you can do is put it in the boil, because then you would break down all of the starches and that crap would just go right into the heat exchanger and clog the heat exchanger. And then it would cause bacterial infections in the heat exchanger and it would be a major hassle. Then it could get into the fermentation vessels, and contaminate your yeast.”

“You can’t really use pumpkin all by itself and make a beer or ale because it doesn’t give you any flavor. You might as well chew on the bark of a tree. There is no flavor in the pumpkin.  There’s no way you could get any of the flavors in the mashing or fermenting. Any flavoring has to be added after the fermentation.”

And that is the story of the first pumpkin beer.