Our hipster forefathers brewed pumpkin beers before they were cool.
Now granted, they weren’t rifling through their cabinets in search of a dash of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, a handful of cloves. Instead, they were pulling gourd from ground because pumpkins were more prevalent than the malted barley to which they were accustomed in England. Pumpkins yielded fermentable sugars (not nearly as much as proper barley, mind you, but desperate times call for desperate measures).
Today’s brewers rely on pumpkin less for its fermentables and more for its flavor, which is actually quite subtle. So instead they do reach for the aforementioned spices that we typically find in pumpkin pies. These are usually used in maltier styles of beer, such as amber or brown ales.
In North Carolina, two of the longest-standing examples of this approach would be Foothills Brewing’s Cottonwood Pumpkin Spiced Ale and Catawba Brewing Co.’s King Don’s Pumpkin Ale. Both were originally developed by Don Richardson, now the head brewer and co-owner of Quest Brewing Co. in Greenville, S.C. Others would include Big Boss Brewing Co.’s Harvest Time Pumpkin Ale, NoDa Brewing Co.’s Gordgeous Pumpkin Ale and Aviator Brewing Co.’s Pumpkin Beast (though that one’s actually a lager, not an ale).
Increasingly, though, more brewers are turning to darker styles like porters and stouts. These richer, sweeter or roastier beers provide a sturdy base for those spices, especially if you are the type to find the pumpkin pie flavors overwhelming in beer. Think less Pumpkin Spice Latte, more dark roast coffee with just a hint of pumpkin syrup or creamer. If you’re looking for local examples in this camp, consider Double Barley Brewing’s Gourd Rocker Imperial Porter or Deep River Brewing Co.’s Pumpkin Pie Porter.
There are lighter, more refreshing examples as well, like Lynnwood Brewing Concern’s Shut Your Pumpkin Pie Hole Wheat, which is brewed with cloves, banana, nutmeg and cinnamon. Or if you want to take a departure from most pumpkin beers, consider the two Wicked Weed Brewing recently bottled. There’s Xibalba (pronounced she-BAHL-bah, according to the label), which is brewed with “fall spices” plus cacao nibs and three different types of peppers: ancho, serrano and habanero. And then there’s Pompoen, a sour ale brewed with pumpkin and charred ginger before being aged in barrels that once held rum.
While pumpkin beers are far and away the most popular seasonal beer, they aren’t for everyone. Every year, their arrival (usually in the dead of summer) elicits cries of joy or moans of disgust. They’re as love-it-or-hate-it as a beer style gets. But if North Carolina’s diverse examples show anything, it’s that we’ve never had a greater variety of the seasonal style. Our forefathers would be proud.
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.