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The Pros and Cons of Pumpkin Beer

If you were looking to start a craft beer bar brawl and could only ask one question, you could do a lot worse than, “So, how about those pumpkin beers?”

Pumpkin beers are an unexpected hot-button topic, pitting beer lover against beer lover. This controversy is even more strange when we consider that, when it comes to pumpkin beers, there isn’t even a “standard” beer that we’re all fighting over: their vital stats, flavors and ingredients vary wildly from beer to beer. In the hope of bringing some level-headed rationality to this emotional debate, our goals today are to first (briefly) discuss the origins and evolution of the pumpkin beer, and then evaluate some of the pros and cons of this controversial, gourd-inspired (if not always gourd-infused) beer. ‘Tis the season, after all!

A Brief History of Pumpkin Beer

Where did pumpkin beer come from, anyway? The short answer is that it originated as a colonial American beverage, mashed, brewed and fermented more or less like the barley ales of the era. Its genesis had less to do with the quality of the product than its ubiquity: pumpkins grew everywhere, whereas good grains were harder to cultivate and also costlier. Once agriculture in the New World really took off, pumpkins took a back seat to better candidates for fermentation, but nostalgia and history converted the humble pumpkin into something of a folk hero, reminiscent of both a simpler time and our pioneer spirit.

Still, modern breweries didn’t start producing pumpkin beers until the 1980s, when Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in California produced one spiked with pumpkin pie spices (since, after all, pumpkins don’t really taste like much of anything). Other craft breweries followed suit, and today stalwarts like Dogfish Head Punkin Ale and Southern Tier Pumking are joined by examples from dozens of other breweries, both small and large. These pumpkin beers are more accurately described as pumpkin pie spice beers, however. Few resemble the colonial versions and many (most?) don’t actually use pumpkin, either because there’s little obvious flavor benefit or the rush to get them onto the shelves means that they need to be brewed before pumpkins are actually in-season.

Photo Courtesy Flickr/Rudi Riet

The Good

Pumpkin beers are good. Not all of them, of course, because you’ll never get universally good quality in any product, but they’re not intrinsically challenging or an acquired taste like, for example, a Kimchi California Common (true story – I’ve had one). And breweries tend to make them well: an audit of reviews on beer rating websites (including right here at The Beer Connoisseur) shows not only a number of highly-recommended examples but robust average scores by beer drinkers, despite the pumpkin beer pushback that we’ll discuss in a moment. I defy anyone to drink Pinchy Jeek Barl by Anderson Valley or The Greater Pumpkin by Heavy Seas or Warlock from Southern Tier and tell me that these aren’t interesting, flavorful, high-quality beers.

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