Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale Interview 11 July 2019

Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale Interview 11 July 2019

Peter: I am here interviewing America’s original Pumpkin Ale brewed by Buffalo Bills brewery in Chico CA in 1983. As you can see this a bottle of beer because caning wasn’t available to small breweries in the 1980’s. And so I searched and found a bottle of America’s Original Pumpkin Ale to ask it what it could tell me about what it was like to be the first of its kind.

Pumpkin Ale: Thank you for having me here.

Peter: First of all, give me a little bit of background of what it was like to be brewed in 1983.

Pumpkin Ale: Well it was a very interesting year actually. I guess the biggest headline was that Korean airlines flight that got shot down over Russia. I hear tell that it turned The American vodka business on its head. Also, some of the folks got all excited when the Baltimore Orioles managed to win the World Series board games to one over the Philadelphia Phillies. Out here in California though that didn’t make much of a difference. What was exciting was a great little movie called “A Christmas Story”, I have a feeling that one is going to be around for a long time.

Peter: Well enough of background. Tell me a little bit about yourself. I understand you were the very first Pumpkin Beer ever brewed in America.

Pumpkin Beer: Well no not exactly. Back in Colonial America beer was brewed from almost anything that had sugar in it, particularly Sugar Pumpkins.

The fellow that brewed me, bill Owens did a bit of reading, especially early American brewing recipes. What caught his eye was a recipe by George Washington using pumpkins to brew beer. So, he decided to try and brew a pumpkin beer. First, he needed a pumpkin so, he went out and grew a humongous one. That’s pretty much how I came to be.

Peter: What about the rest of the information on your label it says and spices what sort of spices were used in your brewing?

Pumpkin Beer: I guess you could say they were pumpkin pie spices it’s a little embarrassing that bill couldn’t come up with anything original but I guess that’s what makes me all American. Some things of course a good beard just doesn’t ask questions about. I let the Brewer worry all about that I just hope that enough customers enjoy me so that I stay in production.

Peter: I can assure you that as long as Buffalo Bills brewing company was in operation you were one of the stars. Of course, you were right up there in popularity with Alimony Ale, the bitterest ale in the world.

Pumpkin Beer: Come on now! I’m thankful for Thanksgiving or else I suppose I would just be a plain Brown Ale. You see, that’s actually how I started out. Then Bill got the bright idea of adding pumpkin to the mash. But that was way before my time so I guess you would have to ask him the real story behind things.

Peter: Thanks very much for chatting with me. and thanks for the suggestion to get in touch with bill Owens. I will give him your regards.

The Rest of the Story:

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 it in all its various forms. The sugar 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. His garden produced a pumpkin and his notes rendered a “recipe” for pumpkin ale… I’ll let him 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 was one of America’s classic taste is pumpkin pie and when you pick up a can of pumpkin pie there it is on the label.  It tells you that it has ginger and cloves and all those other spices and it. So, I walked into the supermarket and found a box of what was called pumpkin pie spices. I bought a whole case 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 beautiful. The nose and mouth feel were perfectly balanced, perfectly.”

No Pumpkin in Pumpkin Beer?!

Peter: 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 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 its self 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.”