Note: This article originally appeared in Isthmus on November 18, 2005.
Like falling leaves, pumpkins are everywhere this time of year, from the cornucopia on the dining room table to the shop windows of State Street. While I've experienced the odor of a few muddy, smelly hunting boots under the Thanksgiving table, nothing says autumn like the whiff of fresh pumpkin pie floating throughout the house.
But pumpkin ubiquity doesn't stop there, because from early October through Thanksgiving, your local beer store has pumpkins in bottles. That's right, 'tis the season for pumpkin beer.
Pumpkin beer actually has roots -- or vines -- in early colonial America, perhaps as far back as the first Thanksgiving meal. When brewing staples like barley or corn were in short supply, the Pilgrims were known to substitute a variety of ingredients, including pumpkins, for the fermentable sugars needed to produce beer.
Those early results were likely more sour or tangy than the spicy accents of today's pumpkin beers. In these, the sweetness of pumpkin dominates, but the range of spices can include cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and even hints of dry black pepper. Recipes vary, but many small breweries add fresh pumpkin to the brew kettle.
A confession: If not for the holiday season I would not seek out pumpkin beer, because I generally avoid spicy brews. But the prospect of looking for something new and distinctive so captured my attention that I tried every pumpkin beer I could find. Some notes:
Most pumpkin beers are ales, but Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery produces pumpkin lager. It is well recognized and sought after for its distinctive fruitiness, which is clean and light, and its emphasis more on spices than pumpkin.
If you know the hoppy bitterness of Delaware's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery line of beers, you know to expect aggressive flavor when you crack open a 'Fish. Dogfish's Punkin Ale won't let you down, especially with the semi-sweet tones of nutmeg and pumpkin. These build on the palate and eventually give way to a firm, hoppy, dry finish.
Not all pumpkin beers make their way to the top shelf, or at least into my refrigerator. The pumpkin ale of Missouri's O'Fallon Brewery has an overly vegetal background, and excessively assertive spicy notes from nose to finish. Likewise, the reddish-copper pumpkin ale from Hayward, Calif.'s Buffalo Bill's Brewery will challenge you to find pumpkin in all the cinnamon.
Michigan's New Holland Brewing, meanwhile, makes a pumpkin beer you could lose your head for: Even if you don't live in Sleepy Hollow, you'll appreciate their Ichabod pumpkin ale. And yes, it does have a head, a soft-white one coupled with a hazy, pale-golden body. This beer's firm yet light pumpkin flavor intermingles with a surprisingly warm finish.
A pumpkin beer that's easy to find is Blue Moon's pumpkin ale, a Coors product from Colorado. Its pumpkin taste is firm, with a mild, dry aftertaste. The initial pumpkin aroma stands out as strong as Grandma's Thanksgiving pie. And it's hard to believe, but macrobrewer Anheuser-Busch is producing a pumpkin-flavored beer called Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale. This is the company's initial offering in seasonal beers. It has yet to appear by itself on local store shelves, but look for it in Michelob sampler packs. Still, specialty beers are best left to microbrewers, who have the option to add in a little extra pumpkin for more flavor (or simply because they feel like it).
So why not keep it local? Madison's brewpubs are making excellent pumpkin beers that will surpass anything you'll find in bottles. The best local pumpkin beer is at Madison and Fitchburg's Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. Sold in glass growlers, which hold half a gallon, the Dane's spiced pumpkin ale is clear and copper-colored, with a soft-tan head that gives way to sweet, smooth pumpkin tones and hints of ginger and nutmeg. The pumpkin flavor is not aggressive, but it is nicely balanced with the maltiness of the beer.
Sad news but worth mentioning: The pumpkin ale at JT Whitney's Pub & Brewery didn't last long this season and has already disappeared from the brewpub's tap. This year's version had exceptionally smooth pumpkin flavor, with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Too bad we'll have to wait a year for brewmaster Richard Becker to make the next batch.
In case you hadn't guessed, pumpkin beer is difficult to make well, because the spices can overwhelm the beer flavor. Beer flavor is what must come first; everything in the glass is second. Wait a minute: beer is always first, last, and everything in between.