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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pumpkin Beer: Long History, Developing Tradition

Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus,
$11.99/750
By Steve Siciliano

In view of the current popularity of pumpkin beers in this country it should come as no surprise that a non-American brewery would want a piece of this seasonal marketing pie. With the appearance last week in the store of a “pumpkin” beer from Timmermans, a Belgian brewery that produces quality lambics, inevitability has turned into reality. While Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus is the only pumpkin beer not produced in the states that I’m aware of, it’s probably safe to assume that others will follow. I’ll be giving my impression of the Timmermans’ offering after a few thoughts on the somewhat mystifying pumpkin beer phenomenon.

There are some craft beer purists who loathe these beers. Since the use of the eponymous gourd is negligible in some and is non-existent in others, they maintain that these beers should be simply called what they essentially are—spiced ales and lagers.

The use of pumpkins in the production of beer is uniquely American. Our colonial forefathers, including George Washington, occasionally added pumpkins to their beer recipes, not because they wanted to but because they had to. Good quality, inexpensive malt was hard to acquire back then and the indigenous gourd, with its requisite starches and sugars, provided a viable alternative. As malt became more readily available, the use of pumpkins in the production of beer became an historical footnote. It might have remained there if not for William (Buffalo Bill) Owens.

Back in the mid 1980’s Owens, who was at the time the owner of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Haywood, California, was researching historical beer recipes when he came across one, allegedly formulated by George Washington, which used pumpkin flesh in the mash. Owens also happened to be a gardener. He took one of his prize 500 pound pumpkins, chunked it, baked it and then threw the pieces into a mash for his standard amber ale. After he fermented and carbonated the beer, Owens was disappointed that it had no discernible pumpkin flavor. But then he had a brewing epiphany—why not use pumpkin pie spices to achieve the flavor profile that he thought would be achieved from using the baked pumpkin? He brewed another batch, this time without pumpkin, and dumped a can of pumpkin pie spices into the bright tank. The first modern “pumpkin” beer was born.

Obviously it’s these spices, used in differing proprietary amounts and combinations, which are the main reason as to why pumpkin beers today are so popular. People equate the spicy flavors and aromas of these brews to those of pumpkin pie. And who doesn’t like pumpkin pie? But maybe there are other, perhaps subliminal, factors that are contributing to pumpkin beers’ wild popularity.

I would guess that most adults have fond memories of donning costumes and traipsing through neighborhoods collecting overflowing bags of treats on Halloween. Perhaps drinking a beer that exalts the most cherished and ubiquitous symbol of Halloween helps rekindle those memories and allows for a somewhat vicarious participation in a decidedly childlike activity. Then again, maybe the popularity of these brews is due to the fact that the pumpkin is such a photogenic fruit and its image looks so appetizing when plastered on a beer label. Other fruits are used in beer and make equally delicious pies—apples, cherries peaches and blueberries for instance—but they haven’t lent their names to a craft beer phenomenon. Can this be because they don’t have the same visually appealing impact and marketing panache of the pumpkin?

I have to admit that it was in part due to the appealing image of a plump pumpkin on the label that enticed me into trying the Pumpkin Lambicus. That and the fact that a lambic made with pumpkin sounded intriguing—so intriguing that I chose to ignore the words “beer with natural flavors added” that were clearly visible on the label. I poured the beer into two chalices and admired the dark orange hue and the creamy white head. It certainly looked the way I imagined that a pumpkin beer should look. But there was none of the familiar pumpkin-pie spiciness in the nose or the flavor, the beer smelling and tasting, in fact, more apple-like than pumpkin-like. It certainly wasn’t bad and both Barb and I enjoyed it, but in the end we agreed that an appealing image of a baked apple rather than the ubiquitous plump orange gourd should have been plastered on the label.

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