It's that time of year again. Breweries all over the country have started to roll out their fall specials, the ones that most people seem to either love or hate. There is no in between.
Some beer styles are loved, some are ardently despised, but none is more divisive than pumpkin ales. Those who love them wait all year for their seasonal release; others can't even broach the subject without foaming at the mouth. "I hate pumpkin beers," wrote my friend and Washington City Paper beer writer Orr Stuhl. "Even picking a 'favorite' -- say, Dogfish Head's -- is like picking a favorite airborne illness."
And yet, every fall, dozens of breweries roll them out, often loaded up with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger -- and beer lovers drink them up. And there are more and more every year: this year Shipyard, a brewery in Portland, Maine, plans to make some 400,000 cases of their Pumpkinhead ale -- by far the largest volume of any beer it produces, even the ones made year round. Like most breweries, Shipyard will stop brewing Pumpkinhead around Halloween -- meaning that by November, the last of the pumpkin beers, like the gourds themselves, will be on sale and then gone.
Pumpkin partisans claim that their beloved beer has a long patriotic history. And it's true that, during the early colonial era, settlers had little access to Old World brewing staples like barley, so they made do with whatever was on hand: corn, apples, and, yes, pumpkins. As early as 1771, the American Philosophical Society published a recipe for a straight "pompion ale" (as cited in the new Oxford Companion to Beer):
Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After that Intention is answered let the liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer.
By the turn of the 19th century, pumpkin was still around as an ingredient, but malts and other ingredients had entered the picture. In his 1863 "History of Hadley," Sylvester Judd noted:
In Hadley, around 1800, beer was generally brewed once a week; malt, hops, dried pumpkin, dried apple parings and sometime rye bran, birch twigs and other things were put into the brewing kettle and the liquor was strained through a sieve. This beer was used at home and was carried into the fields by the farmers.
Eventually pumpkin disappeared completely, resurrected only in the 1980s during the early days of the craft beer revolution. Today's pumpkin beers are almost always just conventional brews -- barley and hops being easy to come by in 2011 -- with natural or artificial pumpkin and spice flavors added. In other words, the pumpkin beer of old is a totally different animal than its 18th-century predecessor.
Still, it's this history, and the idea of making a seasonally appropriate quaff, that inspired early craft brewers to revisit the pumpkin ale. Problem was, the new beers tended toward a literal interpretation of the pumpkin flavor, with the style quickly coming to resemble a liquid pumpkin pie or a treacly treat. Hence the nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, anything to ramp up the sweet spiciness. Some people go in for that sort of thing, but a lot don't -- which is why the beer became so divisive.
But in recent years the pumpkin beer has grown increasingly popular despite that entrenched dislike. That's partly because there are simply more craft beer drinkers than ever before. But it's also because the style itself has mellowed. There are still a lot of sugary pumpkin bombs out there -- Cigar City's Good Gourd Imperial, Southern Tier Pumpking, Iron Hill's Great Imperial Pumpkin -- but also a lot of milder, more subtle offerings: Shipyard's Smashed Pumpkin, Greenport Harbor Leaf Pile, and Sixpoint's Autumnation. (Despite its name, Jolly Pumpkin is a Belgian-leaning brewery; it has nothing to do with pumpkins.) It helps, too, that the style keeps evolving, with recent years giving us pumpkin stouts, pumpkin porters, and pumpkin lagers -- expressions that, if not liable to win over avowed pumpkin haters, will at least draw in the curious for a bottle or two.
If you're looking for a good starter pumpkin, you could do much worse than Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale. It's a common favorite because it lands somewhere in between: enough pumpkin to satisfy the sweet tooths, but not too much to scare away the gourd-averse. Dogfish Head is famous for its extreme beers, but in this case the brewery aims for the middle and gets it just right.
Image: Wolfgang Wander/Flickr.